September 24, 2001

Do They Really Want to Finish the West?
Cool heads are needed soon

"They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

~ President George W. Bush's speech to congress.

Is that why they killed 7000 people, as a statement against American democracy? Was it really because of the multiplicity of churches that men sacrificed their lives in an attempt to end thousands more? It may sound good that these terrorists were simply motivated by hatred of much of what is great about America, but is it true?

I am not asking whether they hate democracy or freedom of speech, let's take this hatred for granted. I would suggest that it is irrelevant. After all, they hate atheistic Marxism, yet they have not been bombing North Korea. For that matter, they did not bomb Denmark, which has democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Why did they choose America?

The best thing to do on this is go to the source, and I am talking about the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden. On many occasions, he has declared war on the United States, and the sort of nasty total war that involves killing civilians "in any country in which it is possible to do it". Nevertheless, does he, and by extension the extreme Islamicists in general, see it as a war of annihilation?

The answer would seem to be no. There is no doubt that there is a twisted mind at work here, and one that it is hard to fathom. Let's take his second paragraph:

Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)"; and peace be upon our Prophet, Muhammad Bin-'Abdallah, who said I have been sent with the sword between my hands to ensure that no one but God is worshipped, God who put my livelihood under the shadow of my spear and who inflicts humiliation and scorn on those who disobey my orders.

This is more than standard Islamic boilerplate. This is blood curdling and somewhat meandering prose – and all in one sentence. It would be far too easy to spend the rest of the column mocking the tortured language of the statement, even allowing for the fact that it is translated out of Arabic. Easy, but unprofitable. For readers of this column, and in general, tune in because they want analysis that they will not find in the mainstream press. What we need to know is what motivates this man and those he inspires.

There are three grievances, which I will list. Firstly, there are American troops on Saudi soil:

First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighbouring Muslim peoples.

Why is Saudi Arabia the "holiest of places"? It's because it has the two cities Mecca and Medina. Foreign – in most cases infidel – troops are deeply offensive to bin Laden and his followers. They are obviously a scapegoat for much else that is endemically wrong with Saudi society – and occupation is a perverse way of describing a deployment that was invited in by the Saudi royal family – but they are nonetheless resented.

There is also a rage against the actions of America against Iraq:

Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million... despite all this, the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation.

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It may seem surprising that the Iraqis are defended, after all few people think of this regime as Islamic in any more than a nominal sense. However, what is fascinating is that in this fatwa the Iraqi people are mentioned twice, the Iraqi state is mentioned once and the Iraqi regime not at all. The Islamicists, remember, are part of the opposition in Iraq (and one wonders how much Western money goes to bin Laden's Iraqi allies). Hence, like much of the rest of the opposition they deplore the regime while hating the sanctions that they see as killing their children. Bin Laden's priorities reflect those of his allies in the Iraqi opposition.

The last reason for the fatwa is, surprise, Israel:

Third, if the Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.

Now make no mistake; bin Laden does not recognise Israel's right to exist in the way that Yasser Arafat does. He wants a free hand to destroy Israel, which he sees as occupying Jerusalem, the third "holy city" and wanting to dismember all strong Arab states. In another fatwa (Osama is fond of fatwas) he even calls for all non-Muslims to leave the Middle East. However, it is not Israel's existence that motivates the fatwa, but America's support for Israel. The fatwa is "in order that their [the West's] armies move out of all the land of Islam".

So what does this mean? Is bin Laden really a moderate? Absolutely not. The Islamic state that he envisages looks like a terrible place to live in, and the text is devoid of any humanity when he writes of those who do not share his religion. However, he is not calling for the end of Western civilisation, in fact his aims are quite limited – stop supporting Israel, withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia and stop the Iraqi blockade and bombings.

Any honest reading of the rambling and numerous fatwas emanating from Mr. bin Laden would lead one to conclude that this is essentially a war about American foreign policy rather than Western civilisation. To explain is not to excuse; bin Laden is a threat to American lives and liberties, and should be fried. However, there will be plenty of replacements. Support for Israel and the continued supply of cheap oil may be worth the terrorism and the erosion of liberties that follow, that is not a judgment I wish to make – at least not now. Apart from a punitive strike to finish off bin Laden, there is no inevitability in this course of events. Once again, foreign policy comes home.

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