Right or Left: The Incomplete Portraits of Al Qaeda

Every year around this time—the time near the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks—numerous articles and TV segments sprout up professing to explain the true motivations of “those who hate us,” or, in other words, of the broadly-based Al Qaeda movement. And every year, I find that most of these assessments come up a little short.

So I guess it’s time to throw my thoughts into the arena and attempt to tackle the “why do they hate us question,” specifically regarding the decentralized Al Qaeda movement’s core personnel and progenitors.

Al Qaeda’s ideology stems from much more than a “blowback” reaction to U.S. foreign policy. It is also motivated by a visceral hatred of Western and/or secularized societies and principles. Pictured above is Sayyid Qutb, whose views on secularism and the West inspired aspects of Al Qaeda’s ideology.

If you were to ask certain conservatives this question, you’d get a simple answer—they attack us because of our values. The Islamists hate our way of life, democracy, liberty, secularism and pretty much anything having to do with Western Enlightement era values.

“But wait,” chirps in your average liberal college professor. “It’s our political foreign policy that draws these men to arms, not our freedoms or values.” This wing of the argument believes that the Islamist violence and cause is a direct result of “blowback” from numerous unpopular and sometimes unjust actions taken by the United States and the West in general—overwhelming support for the state of Israel; the prior stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia; neo-liberal economic policies; economic, military and political support for authoritarian regimes in countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan; and, most recently, full-scale invasions of “Muslim” countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The true answer to this question lies in neither of these aforementioned camps. It lies in the words and actions of the people whom we’re trying to analyze. And after investigating these words and deeds, one quickly comes to the conclusion that both sides present an incomplete picture.

The mistake the average liberal camp makes when analyzing groups like Al Qaeda is limiting their readings to the sanitized, propagandist literature without examining the available internal writings and writings aimed at a broader Muslim audience (as opposed to a Western one). The mistake many conservatives make, on the other hand, is not reading any of this material.

Most important to the Al Qaeda ideology are the writings of the movement’s current leader and intellectual icon, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri. In his treatises–such as “Loyalty and Enmity,” “Sharia and Democracy,” and “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents”–Al-Zawahiri gives us a clear picture of militant Wahabist thought—its beliefs and aims.

Now, complaints against Western foreign policy are rampant in these writings, and some of these criticisms are valid; yet, most are not. Al-Zawahiri, and his cohorts wish to restore the former glory of the original Muslim caliphate–a supranational religio-political entity. They despise democracy, secularism, human rights (those not explicitly enumerated in their interpretation of the Q’uran or Hadith), and pretty much anything that’s fun (music, movies, sex):

“Know that democracy, that is, ‘rule of the people,’  is a new religion that defies the masses by giving them the right to legislate without being shackled down to any other authority.”

“Thus, democracies raise up gods, establish masters, and assign partners to Allah Most High…The bottom line regarding democracies is that the right to make laws is given to someone other than Allah Most High. Such, then is democracy. So whoever is agreed to this is an infidel–for he has taken gods in place of Allah.”
-Sharia and Democracy

They do not believe that peace can be achieved with infidels (any non-muslim) or apostates (any muslim who doesn’t believe exactly what they believe). Instead, the infidel has three choices–death, conversion to Islam, or relegation to second-class citizenship under the new caliphate:

“Allah Exalted has forbidden us from taking infidels as friends and allies, and aiding them against the believers, by either word or deed. Whoever does this is an infidel like them.”


“The Lord Almighty has commanded us to hate the infidels and reject their love. For they hate us and begrudge us our religious [way of life], wishing that we abandon it.”
-Loyalty and Enmity

So what does this all mean? It means that, unlike what many on the left and isolationist right suggest, by simply pulling its presence out of the “Muslim World” (whatever that is), the scourge of militant religious whackos would not be placated, and would not result in a pleasant situation for the West or the rest of the world. Al-Shabab would still retain motivation for its movement in Somalia—the same goes for Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQAP in Yemen, AQI in Iraq, the Haqqani network in Afghanistan or Lashkar-e Taiba in Pakistan. Sorry Ron Paul.

Al Qaeda and other religious thugs, however, are not an existential threat like many on the right would like you to believe. Their goal of a worldwide, or even regional, caliphate is a pipe dream. Therefore, reacting with a frantic, disproportional militarism is a poor response.

So what does this entail for U.S. foreign policy? The short answer is that simplistic militarism must be replaced by pragmatic engagement. The Obama administration has done a decent job of readjusting U.S. policy in the wake of the disastrous Bush years; however, there is still much to be changed and achieved.

At this point in history, with the Arab Spring, the region and perhaps the world may be the ripest it’s been in years for positive engagement and the promotion of liberalism and democracy. We should not let our fears of terrorism outweigh our opportunity to promote and assist democratic, liberal change in nations like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, etc.

Now of course the ideology and history of Islamist militant groups is more diverse and complicated than the views and background of the ever-weakening Al Qaeda Central. But that does not change the fact that our era presents a golden opportunity for encouraging greater democracy and liberalism throughout the world.