A number of people, including some who can justifiably claim to be better-informed than I, have suggested recently that there is a serious misapprehension in the West, especially among governments prominent in the so-called “war on terror", as to the motivation of organisations such as al-Qaida.
This is important, because if such misapprehension truly exists it will distort key aspects of counter terrorist strategy, at least with respect to terrorist groups claiming a close affiliation with the Islamic religion. (That they have actually hijacked the name of a great world religion to their own purposes is true, but irrelevant in this context.)
This point was forcibly made a while back on the ABC’s Lateline program by Michael Scheuer, who for several years in the 1990s headed up the US Central Intelligence Agency’s task force on Osama bin Laden. His suggestion - founded, it should be noted, on years of close study of bin Laden and his associates - is that al-Qaida-type organisations are driven not by hatred of the West, its values and lifestyles, but by hatred of Western policies insofar as they impact on what bin Laden considers to be the legitimate territory and prerogatives of Islam. “A war we have and the motivation comes from [Western] policies, not from the way we live,” says Scheuer.
The idea of “Christendom” as some sort of political unit, however amorphous, was once potent in the West but has been dead for centuries. However, the analogous notion in Islam is still alive and well. In the most literal version of this conception, all believers should be united in a single polity under Islamic law as they were, briefly, in the early decades of the religion. Secular regimes in Muslim countries, like Egypt, Syria and Indonesia, or the police-state sheikhdoms of the Gulf, are not to be respected but swept away in favour of a reconstituted Islamic state. It is Western meddling in territories which should belong to this state which Scheuer believes drives al-Qaida:
If bin Laden was a Christian, it [the US invasion of Iraq] was the Christmas present he always wanted but never expected from his parents. It basically validated all of the things he had said about America over the past decade. The Americans, he said, want our oil. The Americans will destroy any Arab government that is a threat to Israel. The Americans want to destroy Islam and occupy our sanctities and of course Iraq is the second holiest place in Islam. And besides validating what he had said, the invasion of Iraq in the Islamic world is viewed as an invasion by the infidels of Islamic territory.
Such territories include all the countries where the West supports secular regimes (several of which are indeed quite nasty by anyone’s standards), and Palestine, where it supports Israel’s occupation of some of the most sacred ground in Islam. On bin Laden’s generous estimation of what constitutes Muslim ground, they even include East Timor, where Australia finally reversed years of complicity in the Indonesian occupation and helped the Timorese achieve independence. If we wish to remove al-Qaida’s motivations for attacking Western states, we must, argues Scheuer, adjust our policies.
Notwithstanding his impressive credentials, I feel bound to dispute Scheuer’s view. There are two issues: first, could the West reasonably give bin Laden what he wanted; second, would such a policy adjustment actually deliver peace with these self-proclaimed Muslim terrorists?
I think it’s pretty clear that the answer to the first question must be "No". For one thing, giving bin Laden and the radical “Islamists” what they want would be to mandate the emergence of a vicious theocracy - or, more likely, theocracies, as the Muslim world is too vast to be practically placed under any single regime - across vast areas of the globe. The Taliban’s Afghanistan gave us some notion of what a bin Laden-approved theocracy might look like. For another, it would involve abandoning support for the very existence of Israel (not just for Israeli aggressions, oppressions and occupations). But because Israel is nuclear-armed and, as I have shown in a previous On Line Opinion article, would use its weapons if mortally threatened, this means unleashing nuclear warfare in the Middle East. No, the bin Laden political agenda as described by Scheuer cannot be granted.
Likewise, the second question is to be answered in the negative. Would not bin Laden’s theocracy, if established despite the arguments made above, then demand concessions with respect to marginal areas such as southern Thailand and the southern Philippines, where there are significant Muslim populations? What about the large Muslim minority in India, and the Muslim populations in parts of China and Russia? His inclusion of East Timor, which is actually mostly Christian and animist in faith, shows that an expansionist definition of “Islamic” territory is easy to manufacture. The analogy is with Hitler and his ever-increasing demands with respect to German minorities in various European states at the time. Rather than obtaining peace, we would more likely be confronted with an aggressive and dangerous power.
Finally, I must confess to continued doubts about Scheuer’s central thesis. Bin Laden’s perversion of Islam has little room for ideas like tolerance, democratic forms and peaceful coexistence which lie at the core of the best Western values (however neglected in some cases and places). By its very existence, the West challenges the radical “Islamist” world view and is intolerable to it. The vast mainstream of Muslims, even the more puritanical sects, may be willing to peacefully coexist with a West that makes realistic and practical policy adjustments (rather than the extravagant bin Laden agenda), but those of a mind with al-Qaida and its fellow-travellers do indeed hate us and all we stand for. With such as those - again, as distinct from the sane Muslim mainstream - there can be no peace.
However, whether the present strategies of the US-led powers in their “war on terror” are altogether appropriate is yet another question. While we must of course protect ourselves against outrages like September 11, 2001, Bali and the recent London attacks, we cannot remove the extremist poison at work in some Muslim communities by such means. That is a “hearts and minds” matter, and as such must fall to Muslims themselves. It is for them, speaking the Koran’s language of tolerance and justice to their misguided fellows, to address this problem. Non-Muslim people and governments can and must support such efforts, but they cannot plan or direct them.
Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant. The Holy Qur’an, translation by Marmaduke Mohammad Pickthall, sura 7 (al-Araf - the Heights), verse 199.