A Minority of a Minority of a Minority

David Blankenhorn, Chicago Tribune, 2/16/2003

The people who have declared war against civilization itself are the self-described jihadis and those who assist them. They have not only launched an external war against the United States and its allies but also are waging--at times with disturbing degrees of success, despite their minority status--internal campaigns to influence and intimidate a number of Muslim societies. Americans and others should specify this enemy clearly and act upon that understanding because, unlike Al Qaeda, we want to define this struggle accurately and in light of universal human values.

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Subjects: Islam/West, International civil society, Just war

More by: David Blankenhorn

The new audiotaped message purportedly from Osama bin Laden, first broadcast Tuesday on Al Jazeera television, is addressed to "our Muslim brothers in Iraq." It has won widespread attention, in part because of the Bush administration's desire to link bin Laden and Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq.

Much less attention was paid late last year to a longer and more densely argued "Letter to America," also purportedly from bin Laden.

At the time, the State Department told U.S. reporters that the letter's authenticity could not be verified. But many Arab journalists and experts believe the letter was written or authorized either by bin Laden, if he was alive, or another senior Al Qaeda leader.

The "Letter to America" was Al Qaeda's direct reply to a "Letter From America" that I helped organize and that was signed and released by 60 U.S. intellectuals in February 2002.

Regarding the justification for war, the "Letter to America" arguably goes even further than bin Laden's 1998 fatwa, or religious ruling, ordering Muslims to wage war against the United States and its allies and to make no distinction between military personnel and civilians. The 1998 statement can be read as justifying militant jihad, or holy war, as a means of reversing certain U.S. policies – in particular stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, imposing economic sanctions on Iraq and supporting Israel.

The "Letter to America" departs from that logic and makes the call to holy war against U.S. "unbelievers" total and unconditional: "Do not await anything from us but jihad, resistance, and revenge."

The letter also presents a broader justification for killing U.S. civilians. The letter argues that because the United States claims to be "a land of freedom," in which the people choose their leaders and participate freely in politics, "the American people cannot be innocent of the crimes" committed by their government. Of course, the idea that killing a civilian is the same as killing an enemy soldier is well outside the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence and would signal even further radicalization of Al Qaeda's message.

In addition, the "Letter to America" charges that Americans reject Islam and Islamic law and immorally "separate religion from your policies." The U.S. is dominated by Jews, who "now control all aspects of your life." Americans, including American leaders, engage in debauchery and sexual immorality. Giant American corporations "exploit women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them." Americans encourage gambling, homosexuality and usury. Americans claim to support democracy and human rights, but in fact prevent democracy and trample on human rights whenever doing so serves narrow U.S. interests.

For these reasons, "you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind," the letter says. Al Qaeda's call to jihad, then, is directed not merely against U.S. policies and leaders but against U.S. society as a whole. The essential aim of the "Letter to America" is to declare a war to the finish between the United States and Islamic civilization.

The letter also clearly aims to expand Al Qaeda's potential base of support by defining the "us" as Islamic civilization and the "them" as the United States, the source of contemporary infidelity.

Interestingly, last week's audiotaped message from bin Laden similarly seeks to cast any coming war in Iraq as between "the people of Islam" and "the infidels and unbelievers." Notwithstanding the Bush administration's public insistence last week that the new tape proves that Al Qaeda and Hussein are "partners," in fact this latest message expresses nothing but contempt for Iraq's "socialist" and "infidel" government.

The conflict that Al Qaeda urgently seeks is not a clash of governments but an armed clash of civilizations, with the Muslim world as a whole opposed to the American infidels and their allies.

As much as possible, we must seek to shrink the constituency for holy war in Muslim societies.

We can begin by describing what we oppose more precisely. There are about 1.2 billion Muslims in the world – about 1 of every 5 inhabitants. Among all Muslims, probably a minority are Islamists, meaning that they view Islam as the defining feature of politics and want to ensure that Islam is the state religion.

Among Islamists, a significant minority that itself is hardly unified can be described as salafists, or revivalists, meaning they subscribe to a past, unchanging model of Islamic law and practice based on the experiences of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors.

Al Qaeda truly fringe

Among that group, only a fraction, who typically call themselves jihadis, believe that the goal of establishing this timeless Islamic order is justifiably pursued by violence. (Their appropriation and misuse of the term "jihad" is tragic, because jihad is a classical Islamic term with multiple meanings.) And even among jihadis, only a handful also are takfiris, who believe that violence is justified against all people, even Muslims, who are not jihadis.

Osama bin Laden and his comrades, at least in practice, are takfiris – one fringe of a small fraction of a minority of a subgroup called Islamists, who probably are a minority of Muslims.

The people who have declared war against civilization itself are the self-described jihadis and those who assist them. They have not only launched an external war against the United States and its allies but also are waging – at times with disturbing degrees of success, despite their minority status – internal campaigns to influence and intimidate a number of Muslim societies. Americans and others should specify this enemy clearly and act upon that understanding because, unlike Al Qaeda, we want to define this struggle accurately and in light of universal human values.

"Them" is a specific network of radically intolerant murderers and their sponsors. "Us," at least potentially, is all people of goodwill everywhere in the world.

But some Americans speak as if they are pursuing exactly the opposite strategy. Columnist Ann Coulter wrote in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Today, Coulter regularly mocks Islam in her columns. She may imagine that she is just striking a clever pose, and it may be true that few serious Americans take her seriously, but her comments are widely reported in the Islamic world as those of a prominent U.S. opinion leader.

Franklin Graham, the son and ministerial heir of famed evangelist Billy Graham, said on national television that Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion." Jerry Vines, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, said the Prophet Muhammad was "demon-possessed." Jerry Falwell, another evangelical leader, recently called the prophet "a terrorist."

These and similar comments are tailor-made for Al Qaeda's purposes because they seem to confirm that Americans hold Islam as a religion in contempt and view it as the enemy. Falwell even seems to endorse the view, preached fervently by bin Laden and his associates for years, that the founder of Islam would look with favor upon today's jihadis. Could an Al Qaeda recruitment poster have put it better?

A second way to help thwart the Al Qaeda strategy is for intellectuals in the United States and in the Muslim world to engage with one another on what they have in common. One important purpose of the "Letter to America" was to chastise those Arab intellectuals who had organized formal responses to the original U.S. letter. For example, in May 2002, 153 Saudi scholars and religious leaders, including a number of prominent Islamists, responded to the U.S. letter with their own statement, "How We Can Coexist."

Recriminations for dialogue

The statement was highly critical but also respectful and called for further dialogue. All summer long, the signatories to this statement were furiously and publicly denounced by Saudi militants, less for what they said than for having decided to say anything at all to their U.S. correspondents.

In particular, in their Internet communications and elsewhere, Al Qaeda insisted not merely that one or another particular conversation with U.S. citizens is wrong, but instead that any conversation – any exchange at all short of a promise of war – is against the interests of Islam. For example, one Al Qaeda-linked statement attacking the Saudi signatories said that, instead of engaging in dialogue, "the signatories should have made clear to the West" that "a person has only three options: become a Muslim, live under the rule of Islam, or be killed."

Even the Saudi government seemed upset by this citizen-to-citizen exchange. When my colleagues and I wrote back to the Saudis several months ago, and our letter was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat, the pan-Arab newspaper based in London, Saudi authorities censored it, preventing that issue of Al-Hayat from entering the country. What should this tell us?

Here is what it tells me: In a time of war and discussions of war, and in a world facing the grim prospect of polarization of religions and even civilizations, few tasks are more important than reasoning together, in the hope of finding common ground on the dignity of the human person and the basic conditions for human flourishing.

This article originally appeared here.

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