The attack on the World Trade Center was intended as a blow against the United States and its Christian heritage. The results of that attack, however, were not limited to the target. The roll of those who died at Ground Zero included people from literally scores of nations and faith convictions. Usman Farman is a Pakistani Muslim who was working on the 27th floor of one of the Trade Towers on September 11. As he left the tower he fell stunned to the ground, perhaps as a result of flying debris. When a Hasidic Jew found Farman lying on the ground there was no hesitation. “He helped me stand up,” Farman reported, “And we ran for what seemed like forever without looking back. He was the last person I would ever have thought would help me. If it weren’t for him I probably would have been engulfed in shattered glass and debris.” Did the terrorist attackers realize that scores of faithful Muslims like Farman would die that day, along with many others who had nothing to do with American policy? And the suffering of the survivors cuts across many lines of faith.
Among the people who died in the World Trade Center were Michael Baksh, a Pakistani Christian, Abul Chowdhury, an Indian Muslim, and Doris Eng, a Buddhist of Chinese origin. Did the terrorists care that in taking down the World Trade towers they were killing hundreds of people from nearly half the nations in the world? Did they have no discrimination at all in their hatred? Was Osama bin Laden simply a mass murderer without a conscience? Did he somehow find joy in the slaughter of innocents?
For many the blame should be placed squarely on Osama bin Laden’s religion, Islam. Note the strong words of archconservative commentator, Ann Coulter: “Airports scrupulously apply the same laughably ineffective airport harassment to Suzy Chapstick as to Muslim hijackers. It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren=t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities: we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
This judgment, it seems to me, is blatantly unfair. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that terrorism is not limited to Muslims and to Islamic organizations. The list of terrorist organizations includes the Irish Republican Army, the Jews who blew up the King David Hotel in 1948, Puerto Rican nationalists, Basque separatists, the Shining Path of Peru, Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, the Italian Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Croatian separatists of communist Yugoslavia and the Japanese Red Army. None of the above involved any Muslims to my knowledge. And even a short visit to the Middle East makes it clear that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists either. Nevertheless, the tie between Islam and terrorism became particularly acute after September 11, and it is worth some effort to understand the reasons for it.
A Middle Eastern Perspective
Ann Coulter’s attitude strikes me as the reaction of someone viewing the Middle East from a distance. In order to understand Osama bin Laden it helps to have spent some time in the Middle East and to have some appreciation of the role of Islam in Middle Eastern life and experience. I made my first trip to the Middle East in 1995. My family and I stayed in Palestinian Jerusalem for ten weeks. We ate Arab food and became friends with many. I think of Marwan, the shopkeeper, who always took time to talk about current events and give me advice on how to behave in an Arab community. I think of Gabriel, the travel agent, who had his ear to the Palestinian underground, and was careful to send us places only when it was safe to do so. I think of the nameless falafel vendor I rescued one day when an errant vehicle knocked over his stand. His gratitude was overwhelming. To this day he immediately recognizes me and greets me with a hug and a kiss, no matter how long I have been away.
I have now been to various locations in the Middle East more than a dozen times. The Middle East has become part of me now. As a New Yorker I have deep sympathy for the sufferings of the Jews. I am glad that there is a homeland Jews can call their own. At the same time my heart goes out to the Palestinian people, who share that land with them. I saw Israeli soldiers, often looking no older than 16, carrying machine guns with an air of authority. I saw Palestinian youths and shopkeepers being challenged, hollered at, and prodded with the weapons. I sensed their helplessness. Occasionally they shared their frustration and rage with me.
The “salem” in Jerusalem means “peace,” but Jerusalem is a very angry city. There is a lot of shouting, a lot of pushing and shoving going on, and not just between Israeli and Arab, or Christian and Muslim, but among Muslims and among Christians. In the Old City, the powder is dry and the fuse is short. My falafel friend almost came to blows one day over some dispute or other. I stopped walking by and hung around, in case he needed help, but after a few minutes things quieted down. Another time I watched Orthodox Jews march through the Arab section, shoving Arabs aside if they got in the way, secure in the knowledge that soldiers up on the walls would take care of things if anyone protested. A couple of times I was mistaken for an Israeli myself. The first time a Coke bottle glanced off my shoulder and shattered at my feet. It was dropped from a bridge above me by a laughing child, no more than seven years old. Another time I was missed by small stones thrown by three boys no more than ten.
I was surprised to learn the obvious differences between Muslims and Christians in Arab Jerusalem. If you go into a grocery store and see alcohol, you know that the owner is a Christian, a Muslim grocery owner would not sell alcohol. If you see an Arab woman dressed like a European, she is a Christian, a Muslim would dress far more modestly. Since most Israelis would line up with the Christians on these two points, I began to see how Muslims could come to view Christians and Jews as holding to an inferior faith. If, on top of that, Israelis act like oppressors and the Christian West does nothing about it, Judeo-Christianity as a whole is painted with a single stroke.
It is for reasons such as this that I have sensed some reserve toward Americans in the Middle East. On my first visit to Egypt, we traveled by boat from the port of Aqaba in Jordan to the Egyptian port of Nuweiba on the Sinai coast. The Americans were all directed to the first-class lounge, an air conditioned hall in the center of the ferry which had TVs, drinks and luxurious accommodations. But as we looked out the windows at the coastline of Saudi Arabia, passing in the midday heat, it dawned on me that there were no locals anywhere in sight. So I decided to go exploring through the ship. I discovered hundreds of Arabs scattered across the top deck in the hot sun, sitting on metal bulkheads and extended “park benches.” Some were trying to sleep right on the metal floor of topside. Many were wearing clothing that was dirty or tattered, this was clearly not the wealthy section of the ship.
A young Saudi, sitting in a bit of shade on the bench that ran along the side of the ship, noticed the American walking around and called to me in excellent English. He was very polite, but he jumped at the chance to open up some political issues. His view of the world was very different from mine, yet compelling in its own way. He shared his sense that the American government wanted to be seen as beneficent, yet its actions and demands were based on self-interest. Arab people like the freedom and openness of American society, but they don’t like the immorality and the “big stick” attitude toward other countries. He put his frustration in direct terms, “Why does everything always have to go America’s way?” This was a new way of looking at things for me. Until then, I had thought of Middle Eastern countries as the ones who were unreasonable and demanding.
A couple of years later I was getting off a plane with friends in Luxor, Egypt. A travel agent met us in baggage claim and gave us some instructions for the day. He then asked one of my friends what he did for a living. He said he worked for a Christian church. The agent’s eyes immediately brightened, “Then you are rich!” he said. This comment served as a summary of many Egyptian attitudes toward the Christian West, they see it as a different kind of world; uncaring, greedy, and rich. It is useful to have Westerners around, but their beliefs are not to be taken seriously.
The Grievances of Osama bin Laden
Terrorist groups have long called themselves things like “Islamic Jihad.” In 1998 Osama bin Laden called a “jihad against Crusaders and Jews” to justify the bombing of the US embassies in Africa. For him this jihad justified any Muslim “to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they are found.” But within Islam, jihad is not a clear-cut concept. It does not merely describe military warfare in defense of the faith. A better translation for jihad might actually be “effort” or “struggle” (there are other words in the Qur’an for “war” and “fighting”). Often it describes not warfare, but the personal struggle to be a better person, a better Muslim. However one translates it, jihad is a powerful concept in the Muslim world. When justified by the course of events, it becomes a personal obligation that stands above all others.
Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad was based on the conviction that Americans have declared war “on God, his messenger and Muslims.” In other words, America and Americans have committed “crimes against Islam.” How could he possibly have come to such a conclusion? There are several factors. The first of these is the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The history behind it looks very different to Arab eyes. While securing a homeland for Jews made a lot of sense in the West after the Holocaust, the original partition of Palestine came at the expense of Arabs whose ancestors had been in the land for centuries. Nevertheless, world-wide sympathy for the plight of the Jews during the war resulted in a UN partition which ceded over half of Palestine to the Jews, although only a third of population was Jewish and Jews owned an even smaller percentage of the land. In subsequent fighting the Israelis gained control of the entire land and are building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza despite UN resolutions requiring the return of land conquered in 1967. To Arab eyes this looks suspiciously like a revival of the Crusades, with Israel at the forefront and America guiding behind the scenes.
I do not want to be misunderstood here. I know that the story can be told very differently from the Israeli perspective. But I think it is important for our purpose to see through the eyes of the terrorist, as far as that is possible for us to do. Jewish desperation after the Holocaust was real and for many Jews the homeland in the Middle East was the only spark of hope at the time. But the desperation of the Palestinian refugee camps remains to this day. People living in perpetual poverty are dying at the expense of weapons purchased with the billions of dollars in military aid America gives Israel each year. From the Muslim perspective this is a serious injustice that is ongoing and has never been addressed. For bin Laden the injustice was criminal.
A second major grievance of bin Laden had to do with the corrupt and secular governments ruling over most Muslim countries. Governments of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were seen as unelected, oppressive, pandering to the West and soft on Islam. It is not surprising that bin Laden, himself a Saudi, was no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia, he was a greater threat to the sheiks of Saudi Arabia than he was to the United States. He believed that secular Arab leaders are mere tools of the West, using the power of the West to cement their own personal position at the expense of the Muslim masses. While the United States did not set up these governments directly, in the minds of Islamic extremists they would not stand without American support.
In a Western-dominated world, Muslims seem to be humiliated on every side. The Israelis (Palestine and the regional wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973), the Serbs (in Bosnia and Kosovo), the Russians (in Chechnya and other Muslim republics of central Asia) and the Indians (in Kashmir and various parts of India) have all found ways to marginalize Muslim interests around the world. On top of these slights the West has “imposed” Western law codes on Muslim states, enforced Western economic ideas, including the charging of interest (contrary to Islamic law), and exported alcohol, drugs, pornography and crime. It is frustrating to an Islamic zealot to believe that the Islamic culture is superior, yet to acknowledge that America has vastly superior power and wealth.
Bin Laden’s Strategy for September 11
For bin Laden the crucial question became how to restore Islam to a respected place in the world again? Could diplomacy accomplish that? Experience told bin Laden that diplomacy would not work. The West had been “negotiating” with the Middle East for more than a century, and what was the result? The establishment of Israel, for one. Another result was the colonial powers dividing the Middle East into artificial nations with no consideration of tribal territories and local interests. Meanwhile the West grew richer and more powerful and the Muslim world became increasingly irrelevant.
Should the Muslim world stand up and fight in military terms then? In its present state of weakness that would be foolish. Anyone unconvinced by the dominance of the Israeli attacks in 1967 and 1982 (in Lebanon) should have no further doubts after the Gulf War and the rapid takeover of Afghanistan in 2001. In an age of information technology both the American and Israeli military are overwhelming and incontestable in conventional terms. Any form of direct, frontal assault would be the equivalent of suicide. So for bin Laden, there was only one alternative to helplessness, and that was terrorism, strategic suicide.
This gives us some insight into the mindset of bin Laden when he gave the go-ahead for the attack of September 11, 2001. While the actions of the highjackers were gruesome and incomprehensible to Westerners, they were part of a strategic plan to change the balance of power in the world. The leaders of al Qaeda saw the Islamic world being occupied by non-Islamic forces. To change the balance of power in the world al Qaeda must find a way to end the “occupation” and re-unite Islam. Since the United States is the leading power in the world and the patron of many Islamic regimes, it has become the great enemy that motivates and controls an anti-Islamic agenda.
Defeating the United States in a conventional way is not a realistic option. But the kind of terrorism bin Laden unleashed burdens America with trillions of dollars of expenses to fight terrorism at home and abroad. It distracts Americans with the constant fear of unsuspected attacks. It makes Americans feel as insecure as Europeans and Israelis have felt for decades. It makes isolationism look more attractive. If, in the process, the United States can be caused to withdraw from the Islamic world, other anti-Islamic powers such as Russia, China and Israel would be helpless to intervene. Corrupt and secular governments in the Muslim world would then have no base of outside support and would be overthrown by the Islamic masses. We got a brief taste of this during the Arab Spring of 2011.
So Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists do not expect to destroy the United States directly. It is too powerful and too distant for that to happen. Rather, bin Laden’s strategy seems to have been to force the United States into a series of actions that destabilize the governments of those Middle Eastern countries that are dependant on Washington. If pressure from the United States forces those governments to join the US in fighting Islamic militants or to remain silent in the face of Israeli aggression, popular uprisings could easily lead to their collapse. The ultimate goal would be the establishment of an Islamic superpower, a vast Islamic state stretching from Morocco to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, governed by Islamic law.
Could a bin Laden achieve such goals? He clearly believed the United States does not have the stomach to suppress a mass, popular uprising. Unlike al Qaeda Americans as a rule do their best not to hurt innocents. The same military that is virtually invincible in battle would have a difficult time handling an army of unarmed women and children. Although the United States has important interests in the Islamic world, they are not on a scale to justify the expense and casualties involved in a long-term occupation. To the degree that further terrorist acts in the US should occur, the American populace could easily sway toward an isolationist stance. If this isolationism should lead to withdrawal from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and even the partial abandonment of Israel, the political world would have changed considerably in favor of the Islamic agenda.
So from bin Laden’s perspective war in diplomatic, economic or military terms would only result in the further humiliation of Islam. But terrorism has altered the battlefield odds. Since the targets vastly outnumber the defenders, al Qaeda has designed a war strategy in which it has significant advantages. U.S. power is weakened in that defensive action must be widely dispersed. Suicidal fervor creates a low-tech battlefield in which superior technology is neutralized as a weapon. Will all or part of bin Laden=s grand design ever succeed? The battle is far from over. September 11 continues to be a day that changed the world.