Was Usama bin Ladin responsible for the attacks on New York and the Pentagon? Despite the West’s claims, we will probably never know. Certainly there are enough holes and inconsistencies in the West’s version of events, and in its account of the evidence that it says proves bin Ladin’s involvement, for that version to be dismissed as worthless.
Muslims are justifiably angry about the lynch-mob mentality that has been generated and encouraged by the American authorities since the attacks. It has caused hundreds of Muslims in America, Britain and other countries to be attacked in the streets, harrassed by the authorities, prevented from flying by airlines, and otherwise treated as though all Muslims are guilty of the crimes of September 11. One of the staple plots of American cinema has a doughty sheriff protecting a suspect from a mob to ensure that he gets a fair trial. Another has a few honest men defying popular prejudice to ensure that a man is not assumed to be guilty without proper evidence. Unfortunately no one in America has been able to live up to these standards. The fact that anger, and people’s failure to live up to the standards they profess, are part of human nature explains the problems, but does not justify them.
The same can perhaps be said of most of the few Muslims who have been foolish enough to suggest that the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were anything other than an appalling crime. In recent sections of Imam Mohammed al-Asi’s tafseer (serialised in Crescent International) he has discussed the Qur’an’s teachings on the conduct of warfare, and pointed out that Muslims cannot be unrestrained in their strategies of war, as other peoples often have been. Even if bin Ladin was not responsible for the attacks, his endorsement of them is wrong – understandable perhaps, in view of the examples he gave of America’s many crimes, but wrong nonetheless.
The proper Muslim response to the current situation was shown by Imam Khamenei, who condemned the attacks, sympathised with the American people, but also pointed out why America is hated so much, and that its response – particularly its attacks on Afghanistan – is as totally unacceptable as the attacks on America. Imam Khamenei’s balance, rational tone and conclusion are an example of how Muslims should consider such issues, rather than allowing anger and other emotions to colour their arguments. Other ulama – such as Shaikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas – took similar positions.
The fact that bin Ladin’s response is so wrong is not surprising, of course. For all his popularity, his high profile, his sacrifices for Islam, and his undoubted personal commitment and courage, it should not be forgotten that he is part of a trend in contemporary Islamic thought that is far from the mainstream, and extremely misguided in many ways. In this he is by no means unique. When we talk of unity in the Ummah, we have to accept that that sometimes means dealing with people who do not share our openmindedness in terms of Islamic understanding and practice.
In the case of Usama bin Ladin and others like him, however, the failure to agree goes beyond simple differences of understanding. Talking about unity, we have often said in Crescent that the only division in the Ummah that concerns us is the division between Muslims committed to unity and Muslims who are sectarian in their outlook. Bin Ladin and other like him unfortunately are sectarian to an extreme – even to the extent of regarding Muslims who do not share their understanding as kuffar or apostates, and liable to be killed.
It is this sort of attitude – often compared to that of the khawarij of early Islamic history – that has led to Islamic movements committing crimes against Muslims in countries such as Algeria and Egypt, and that makes groups such as the Sepahi Sahaba in Pakistan attack and kill Shi’ah Muslims. The same is true of the Taliban in Afghanistan, whose anti-Shi’ah position is well known. This is not to minimise the reality that, in Algeria for example, most anti-Muslim violence in recent years has been carried out by secret government agencies, and then deliberately blamed on ‘in-fighting’ between Islamic groups; but to recognise frankly that some Islamic groups have been guilty too. Such extreme positions emerge and prosper when communities are under pressure; but this does not justify what they do, or minimise the responsibility of other Muslims to reject them and prevent other Muslims from erring in those directions.
This raises two questions. Firstly, considering all this, might bin Ladin in fact be guilty of the September 11 attacks? Yes: considering that he and people like him have been responsible for so many Muslim deaths, it cannot be said that they would not commit such acts. But nor can we take the Americans’ word for it and simply assume Usama bin Ladin’s guilt. Simply, as has been said before, we do not know who was responsible, and probably never will. Nor is it of much consequence, compared to the clear responsibility of the West for the far greater tragedies taking place in Iraq, Palestine and now in Afghanistan.
Second, why do so many Muslims seem to support Usama bin Ladin? Simply, because he stands up to the West in the name of Islam at a time when the West is widely and correctly recognised as an arrogant and aggressive hegemonic world power determined to exploit the world for its own ends, with no moral compunction whatsoever about the crimes for which it is responsible – directly or indirectly – in the process. Muslims have become the main targets of Western crimes in recent decades, mostly because Muslims are the one people who continue to resist the West’s claims to superiority and dominance. As Muslims suffer under such conditions, it is inevitable that they will admire anyone who stands up to the West, as so many did when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait in 1990. A decade later, most Muslims who hailed Saddam Hussain then as a great Muslim leader are embarrassed by the memory now. But Muslims too are only human and liable to make such shortsighted, irrational, emotional errors.
Another reason is that the West has deliberately promoted Usama bin Ladin as the face of the Islamic movement, and as the West’s main enemy, for reasons of its own that many Muslims fail to understand. It suits the West to have a single man identified as the root of anti-Western feeling and resistance in the Muslim world, in order to be able to dismiss all such movements as marginal and irrelevant. Blaming all opposition on a network controlled and financed by one irrational rich man helps westerners to avoid awkward questions about why so many Muslims hate the West so much. They also much prefer to have the movement identified with a man that they can dismiss as “a madman in the mountains” (as the British tabloid press have called him). This is better for them than identifying the Islamic movement with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which has created a modern Islamic state, refuses to become part of the West’s world-system, and disproves the western claim that being western is the only way to be modern.
Despite the West’s efforts, however, most Muslims reject Bush’s claim that the US represents universal civilized values, and that we must be with the West or with the terrorists. This, funnily enough, is an echo of Bin Ladin’s claim that all those who do not support him are with America and the kuffar. Muslims must reject both these positions. We may not approve of what happened on September 11, but that does not blind us to the truth that the US has routinely committed crimes that dwarf that one incident, and has no principles whatsoever when it comes to promoting its own interests. And we may sympathise with the Afghan people under attack from the US, and condemn the West for its hypocrisy and its disregard for human life, but that does not mean that we share the distorted understanding of Islam of bin Ladin and others like him.
The Islamic movement can never espouse any version of Islam that would be acceptable to the West – a depoliticised Islam that leaves public and community affairs to men with no principles, that accepts their hegemony and that poses no political challenge to their dominance. The West’s war is not on terrorists, or on bin Ladin. It is on political Islam generally – the only non-western worldview that survives to offer an alternative to Western hegemony, to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But in its struggle against the West, the Islamic movement must also ensure that it does not allow its standards to fall to those of our enemies. Those who fear Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, and struggle in His cause, must maintain much higher standards than our enemies do, in the form of our struggle as in all else.
Mr. Iqbal Siddiqui is Editor of Crescent International and Research Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Contemporary Thought.