WHY THEY HATE US
America and Its Enemies
The cry that comes from the heart of the believer overcomes everything, even the White House.
Before the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, crashed a plane into the Pentagon, and began their campaign to bring to America the horrors of the war-ravaged Middle East, life in the United States was placid and even a little boring. The dominant issue in politics was the Social Security lockbox, an especially curious subject of dispute since no such lockbox exists or has ever existed. For diversion and entertainment, Americans could follow the Gary Condit sex scandal or watch "reality TV" shows like Survivor. Newspapers devoted front-page reports to such issues as road rage, a man bitten by a shark, and the revelation that overage kids were playing Little League baseball. The biggest issue in the airline industry involved something called "economy class syndrome." Essentially this referred to rather obese people sitting in coach class and fretting that during long flights their legs became stiff.
All this triviality and absurdity was swept aside by the hijackers. In an act of supreme chutzpah, coordination, and technical skill, nineteen men seized control of four commercial jet planes, crashed two into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and rammed one into the shoulder of the Pentagon. The fourth plane did not find its target—possibly the White House or CampDavid—but crashed into the woods of Pennsylvania. In a single day of infamy—September 11, 2001—the terrorists had killed more than three thousand people.
Not since Pearl Harbor, which provoked American entry into World War II, had America been directly attacked in this way by a foreign power. But even that was different. Pearl Harbor is in Hawaii, not on the American mainland. Moreover, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a military operation directed against the U.S. Navy. By contrast, the terrorists struck New York City, and most of the people they killed were civilians. One would have to go back more than a century, to the Civil War, to count such large numbers of American casualties on a single day. As for civilian casualties, the citizens of the United States had never endured such mayhem. Historian David McCullough called September 11, 2001, the worst day in America's history.
Now, amidst our grief and sad memories, we find ourselves at war against the forces of terrorism. It is an overt war, such as we saw in the overthrow of the Taliban regime, as well as a covert war, with secret campaigns to identify and destroy enemy networks and cells. It is a war that has come home to America, as people cope with fears of further attacks, including those involving biological, chemical, and—God forbid—nuclear weapons. Moreover, this is a new kind of war against an enemy that refuses to identify himself. Our enemy is a terrorist regime that inhabits many countries, including the United States. It is made up of very strange people most of whose names we do not yet know and whose motives and inspiration remain unclear to us. And the enemy conducts its operations in the name of Islam, one of the world's great religions and a very old civilization that has somehow now become an incubator of fanaticism and terrorism.
Know your enemy, Clausewitz instructs us, and then you will be able to fight him. Despite our early success in Afghanistan, it is not clear that we understand our enemy very well. Indeed, America's incomprehension of the enemy became apparent in the days immediately following September 11, with the insistence of our leaders and pundits that the terrorists were "cowards" or "faceless cowards." President Bush first used this term, which was then repeated by many others. The reasoning is that the terrorists cravenly targeted women and children. But of course the terrorists did no such thing. They didn't really care who was on the hijacked planes or in the World Trade Center. As it happened, most of their victims were men. Their targets were the symbols of American capitalism and of the American government. One of them was the Pentagon, by any reckoning a military target. Usually we consider people who pick on women and children cowardly because they are trying to avoid harm to themselves. But in this case the terrorists went to their deaths with certainty and apparent equanimity. Like the Japanese kamikazes, the terrorists were certainly fanatical, but cowards they were not.
A second enduring myth about the terrorists is that they were poor, miserable souls who performed these terrible actions because they were desperate or more likely insane. Several commentators argued that the terrorists are drawn from "the wretched of the earth." In this view, they strike out against the affluent West because they have nothing to live for. Television host Bill O'Reilly carried this logic even further. He could not consider the terrorists brave, O'Reilly said, because they labored under the illusion that they were going straight to heaven, where they would be attended by countless nubile virgins. This, in O'Reilly's view, was simply "nuts."
But these theories do not square with the facts. Indeed, it is irrational and reckless to dismiss the terrorists in this way. O'Reilly's lunacy theory can be tested by releasing a bunch of mentally handicapped people from one of our asylums. Could they have pulled off what the terrorists did? Of course not. The unnerving reality is that the terrorists were educated people who knew how to fly planes. They had lived in the West and been exposed to the West. Some of them, like Muhammad Atta, were raised in secular households. Many came from well-off families. Indeed, the ringleader, Osama bin Laden, had a reported net worth of more than $100 million. Normally men with bin Laden's bank account can be found in Monaco or St. Tropez, sailing yachts with beautiful women on each arm. Bin Laden, by contrast, spent the past several years living in a cave in Afghanistan.
What motivates such men? One vital clue is the diary composed by Muhammad Atta and circulated to the other terrorists prior to the attack. The FBI found it in Atta's apartment. Out of respect for Allah, it says, clean your body, shave off excess hair, wear cologne, and "tighten your shoes." Read the Koran and "pray through the night" in order to "purify your soul from all unclean things." Try and detach yourself from this world because "the time for play is over." Keep a steadfast mind because "anything that happens to you could never be avoided, and what did not happen to you could never have happened to you." On the morning of the attack, "pray the morning prayer" and "do not leave your apartment unless you have performed ablution." Pray as you enter the plane and recite verses from the Koran. Ask God to forgive your sins and to give you the victory. Clench your teeth as you prepare for the attack. Shout "Allahu Akbar." Strike your enemy above the neck, as the Koran instructs. Moreover, "if you slaughter, do not cause the discomfort of those you are killing, because this is one of the practices of the prophet, peace be upon him." Finally, "You should feel complete tranquility, because the time between you and your marriage in heaven is very short."
These are not the instructions of cowards or lunatics, but of deeply religious Muslims. They were armed with an idea, and their colleagues have the weapons, the strategy, and the ruthlessness that are required to take on the United States and the West. It is a mistake to regard them as "suicides" in the traditional sense. A suicidal person is one who does not want to live. These men wanted to live, but they were prepared to give their life for something they deemed higher. This in itself is not contemptible or ridiculous; indeed, it raises the question of what we in America would be willing to give our lives for. No serious patriotism is possible that does not attempt to answer that question.
It is difficult for those of us who live in a largely secular society to understand that people would willingly—even happily—give their lives for their faith. When a few people show such tendencies, we deem them extremists; when large numbers of people do, we convince ourselves that they have been brainwashed. They say they are acting in the name of Allah, but we insist that this is not their real motive; they are being manipulated by elites. They believe they are martyrs, but we pronounce that they are not really Muslims. President Bush even suggested that they were betraying their faith. British prime minister Tony Blair has said he regrets the term "Islamic terrorists" because the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists.
True Islam, many pundits noted, is a religion of peace. As Nada El Sawy, an Arab-American, wrote in Newsweek, "Muslims who kill in the name of their beliefs are not true Muslims." Advocates of this position point out that the term jihad does not mean "holy war": it refers to a moral struggle to conquer the evil in oneself. So if Islam wasn't the driving force behind the attacks, what was? The New Yorker comfortingly concluded, "This is a conflict that pits all of civilized society against a comparatively small, essentially stateless band of murderous outlaws."
These statements may have been made for the political purpose of isolating the terrorists and keeping together an alliance against terrorism that includes several Muslim countries. But they are profoundly misleading. Political unity is important, but so is mental clarity and honesty. If we misunderstand what is driving our enemy, then our strategy in fighting him is likely to be inadequate. Despite the early success of the U.S. military campaign, it is not clear that America has a well-conceived long-term strategy for getting rid of terrorism. Moreover, honesty, together with an informed sense of history, obliges us to admit that the things that we have been saying about Islam are half-truths, and dangerous half-truths at that.
Tony Blair is right that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, but it is equally a fact that the vast majority of terrorists are Muslims. Indeed, most of the states that the U.S. government classifies as "terrorist" or "rogue" states, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and the Sudan, fall within the Muslim world. While Americans insist that the terrorists are fringe figures—similar perhaps to our Ku Klux Klan—the evidence is that they enjoy considerable support in their part of the globe. Immediately following the attack, bin Laden became a folk hero in the Islamic world. The actions of the terrorists were cheered in Iraq, Libya, and among many supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In Gaza, for example, a poll showed that 78 percent of Palestinians supported the attacks. Another poll showed that 83 percent of Pakistanis sympathize with bin Laden's al Qaeda group and oppose the United States' military response. Even the governments of Muslim countries that are allied with the U.S. in the war against terrorism have proved very reluctant to involve themselves in the fighting. Nor have the leading authorities of any Muslim country condemned the terrorists as acting in violation of the principles of Islam.
The reason for such waffling is that our allies know that terrorism and anti-Americanism have substantial support among the population in the Islamic world, even in so-called moderate Arab countries. Virtually the entire Muslim world has, over the past few decades, experienced a religious resurgence—what we may term the revival of Islamic fundamentalism. The authority of the fundamentalists is not confined to a few countries, such as Iran and the Sudan. Of the twenty-two nations of the Muslim world, none is exempt from fundamentalist influence. This movement is powerful enough, in numbers and in political intensity, to threaten the stability of countries allied with the United States, like Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the leadership of those countries is constantly on the defensive against the militants; it is they—not the terrorists or the militants—who are under suspicion for betraying Islam.
The terrorists and their supporters don't have to prove their bona fides. They do what they do in the name of jihad, a term that literally means "striving." Some Muslims, especially in the modern era, understand jihad as a form of internal warfare in the soul against sin. But the Koran itself urges Muslims to "slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them." In his classic work, The Muqaddimah, the influential Muslim writer Ibn Khaldun asserts, "In the Muslim community, holy war is a religious duty, because of the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force." These passages convey how Muslims themselves have usually understood their religious mission. Historian Bernard Lewis writes that the traditional Islamic view, upheld by the vast majority of jurists and commentators, is that jihad usually refers to an armed struggle against infidels and apostates. Lewis writes:
In the Muslim worldview the basic division of mankind is into the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar al-Harb). Ideally the House of Islam is conceived as a single community. The logic of Islamic law, however, does not recognize the permanent existence of any other polity outside Islam. In time, in the Muslim view, all mankind will accept Islam or submit to Islamic rule. A treaty of peace between the Muslim state and a non-Muslim state was thus in theory impossible. Such a truce, according to the jurists, could only be provisional. The name given by the Muslim jurists to this struggle is jihad.
The clear implication of Lewis's remarks is that the terrorists who profess the name of Allah and proclaim jihad are operating squarely within the Islamic tradition. Indeed, they are performing what Islam has typically held to be a religious duty. Of course it could be pointed out that there are millions of Muslims who do not agree with this view of Islam. They prefer what may be termed the "jihad of the heart" or perhaps the "jihad of the pen" to the "jihad of the sword." But traditionally Islam has embraced all these forms of jihad as legitimate, so that the only reasonable conclusion is that many Muslims today, both in the West and in the Islamic world, no longer profess Islam in its traditional sense. In a word, they are liberals, not in the Michael Dukakis connotation, but in the classic meaning of the term. From the point of view of the bin Ladens of the world, these people are apostates for diluting the faith and refusing to do battle against the infidels.
I realize that terms like "apostate" and "infidel" sound harshly unfamiliar to the Western ear. There is something strange and antique about them, as if they belong to the world of our ancestors. And of course they do. A thousand years ago, during the time of the Crusades, the ancestors of the West understood their Islamic foe very well. Nobody spoke of "the West" at that time; they spoke of "Christendom." It was a time, one may say, when the Christians, too, had their jihad, and it was aimed at the reconquest of the Holy Land. For Christians, the crusades combined two traditional practices, pilgrimage and holy war. Kings and popes alike proclaimed that those who died in battle were martyrs for the faith and would go straight to heaven.