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.


  1. Bryan Davies says

    I enjoyed your take on this issue. However, your comment “Al Qaeda and other religious thugs” deserves specific attention. I live near Toronto, Ontario, Canada – in a region of almost 6 million (6th largest urban area in North America), there are over 350,000 Muslim people. I am certain, based on the vibrancy of local and regional dialogues that come our way, that the vast majority of faithful Muslims would take serious issue with the characterization of Al-qaeda as ‘Islamist’ – terrorism, wanton acts of destruction, and unjustified takings of human life are an offense to all Muslims on any reading of the Qur’an. The Prophet Mohammed preached peace (and yes, he made his bones as a warrior / leader – nobody said the messenger was without his inconsistencies). The assertion by Al-qaeda leaders that they “follow” Islam is hardly proof of it, the utlimate in self-serving statements – they are godless thugs, poseurs of the worst order. Your suggested pragmatism must be directed at the global majority of Muslims who find Al-qaeda offensive in the extreme; to do otherwise is to move from pragmatism to hypocrisy.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I’ve heard this criticism of the term “Islamism/Islamist” before. But frankly I don’t buy it.

      It’s a common term used to describe religious fundamentalists and often anti-western parties and organizations that base their ideology off of aspects of Islam. True not all Islamists are militant and I try to use that adjective where I’m talking about the violent groups.

      I’ve used the term in the past for professional and academic writings, often in group works with Muslims from around the world. I don’t recall any of them objecting to the term, honestly. I really just don’t buy the assertion that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide would take issue with the term “Islamism.” As you stated, the Muslim “world” is diverse and nuanced. And the term has come to describe political parties in Turkey or Egypt for example. (Again I try to use the adjective militant or other sentence qualifiers where I try to specify I’m talking about those of the Al Qaeda ilk.)

      In the same way I would use Christianist to refer to extremist Christians.

      Christians and Muslims can say that this group or that group is not truly Christian or Muslim, respectively. But really, we describe a group as Christian or Muslim based on whether they recognize themselves as this and whether parts of their ideology are based on the respective religious writings. Otherwise, who is to say who is Christian or Muslim and who is not? If it were up to many Sunnis in Pakistan, the Alawis would not be considered Muslims. And if it were up to many Christians, different gnostic or minority sects would not count as Christian.

      Truth is you can extrapolate whatever you want from most religious texts, ignoring some precepts and playing up and interpreting (or misinterpreting) other precepts as fits your needs.

      • Bryan Davies says

        No disrespect, but Christianist (a term with which I am not familiar, and I have never used in a longish life), if equated with extremist, is equally ill-conceived. ‘Christian’ is a perfectly sensible adjective, one that can be readily joined with fundamentalist, liberal, or other adjectives to give it fuller meaning. ‘Christian’ denotes someone that holds certain baseline beliefs – a triune God, the Resurrection, acceptance of the principles espoused in the New Testament, etc – the extremism you attach to such a term is not my faith, nor is it (I am certain) that of most Christian believers, notwithstanding different approaches to the Christian truth as its believers perceive it. Your suggestion that the term Islamist has an equally natural ‘extremist’ connotation is – I say this respectfully – utterly ill-placed, because you now politicize terms that are rooted in faith systems that are detached from the hate mongers that lead Al-qaeda. Muslims I know would be distressed beyond words that their faith is something inetxtricably equated with extremist thinking – because for the vast majority of Muslims who live peacefully, your connotation is an offensive one. I am not a Muslim, but I respect people of faith. Your terminology is too broad brush in a world where nuance is everything. B

        • Ok I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m saying at all so let me try this again.

          First of all though, let’s establish something right off the bat: can we do away with the “Muslims I know card?” Your use of it seems to imply that I’m somehow unfamiliar with Muslims, having never met the strange mythical beings and only read about them in stories. As someone who went to graduate school for international relations in Washington, DC and interned for the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, I’m well acquainted with many Muslims as friends, former coworkers and former classmates. So, yes, I know Muslims who reject the term “Islamist” to refer to extremist Muslims. I know more Muslims who do not reject the term. You state that the Muslims you know “would be distressed” by the term Islamist–and if we’re going to be super-critical of rhetoric here, the phrase “would be” implies not that you know what they think of the term but that you’re assuming what they would think of the term. Nice to know you’re doing their thinking for them.

          But the number of Muslims you or I know is irrelevant to this conversation. It’s an argument from authority which is no real argument at all. It’s no different than saying “well my black friends think x about affirmative action!” It’s beside the point.

          Anyway, on to the crux of my argument.

          I think you misunderstand the common academic difference and use of the words “Islamic” and “Islamist.” The former describes people who practice Islam in general. The latter refers to individuals who believe an extremist, fundamentalist vision of Islam, usually those who believe that politics should be closely linked with this extremist vision of their faith. Here’s a pretty good definition of what Islamism means in common academic usage: http://www.pwhce.org/islamism.html

          Now as I’ve said again, Islamism is not inherently violent. There are peaceful Islamists like many political parties in Egypt, Tunisia, or Turkey, etc. Therefore when speaking of violent Islamists I try to use language to clarify that (as I have in this piece).

          So as you can see, your claim that I’m “politiciz[ing] terms” by using “Islamist” is, as you would put it, ill-conceived. The term, by definition, refers to ideologies that politicize Islam, for better or worse. There is nothing hateful or discriminatory about the term.

          Now the term Christianist (which you say you are not familiar with despite your “longish life”…another argument from authority…irrelevant to the point) was first introduced, I believe, by the blogger and political analyst Andrew Sullivan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Sullivan). Christianist refers to extremist versions of Christianity, generally ones who politicize the faith.

          Again, there is a difference between the terms “Christian” and “Christianist.” Christians refers to ALL people of that particular faith. Christianist, as I said earlier, refers to a specific vision and use of that faith.

          To the gist of it, Christianist and Islamist are shorter ways of saying extremist Christianity or Islam, or fundamentalist Christianity or Islam. Besides, don’t both of these aforementioned adjectives present their own rhetorical problems? Wouldn’t we be equally accurate in describing a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim as pacifist as well? Again there are many ways to interpret a religion. Who is to say what equals the “extremes” of a faith? Why cannot someone be an extremist or fundamentalist in peace or asceticism?

          Now as much as you’d like to seem to deny it, Christianists are Christians and Islamists are Muslims. As I said before, it’s hard to determine who “counts” as a Muslim or Christian. We are generally left to take people’s words for what they identify themselves as.

          Even your definition of Christianity, which is an attempt at an open, general description of the faith, leaves out many Christians. You cite a triune God as a part of the faith. But what of the nontrinitarian christians, of which there are many sects, such as the Jehovah’s Witness? You cite the Resurrection. But what of certain groups of Unitarian Christians who reject the Resurrection?

          Do you see what I mean in the difficulty of proclaiming someone or group as non-Christian or non-Islamic simply because you do not agree with how they are practicing or interpreting the faith?

          Bin Laden was a Muslim. Pat Robertson is a Christian. You or I may not agree with their interpretation of the faith, but no one posses a monopoly on religious interpretation I’m afraid to say. We humans interpret religion in numerous, conflicting ways, for better or worse.

          Again, let me be clear on this: “ISLAMIST” DOES NOT EQUAL “ISLAMIC.” The same goes for “Christianist” and “Christian.” These are separate terms with well-established, separate meanings.

          Talk about nuance.


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