What al-Qaeda gives as its reasons

Social movements appeal to a body of individuals by having as their ideological basis a set of formulations that are broad enough, vague enough, to allow people in various contexts to read their own interests in the movement’s definition of the extant social situation. People participate for reasons that can vary.

Many of us in this country are still asking “Why do they hate us.?,” and once in a while someone sympathetic to the violent activities of some Muslim groups explains the problem in terms that can help us understand. Always, of course they formulate the problem in terms that are meaningful to themselves, but their formulations can vary a good deal without betraying the ideals of the movement.

In his latest Op-ed piece in the NYTimes Tom Friedman cites the Associated Press as the source of an interesting statement by Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who tried to blow up an airliner on the way to Detroit on Christmas Day. He wrote his father to say that “he had found a new religion, the real Islam” and that he was never coming home again. On an Internet site attributed to him he wrote in February, 2005,

“I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win … and rule the whole world, and establish the greatest empire once again!!!”

His vision entailed looking back to a period of [imagined] Muslim dominance of the world, and forward to a recovery of that dominance by the re-institution of [I presume from the statement] the Muslim Caliphate, a theme promoted by Bin Laden. The period of Muslim dominance that Farouk Abdulmutallab looks back to — presumably the time of the Abbasid Caliphs — may not have been so glorious as he supposes, but his vision of it, in any case, informs his reading of the present need to revive the great Muslim empire of the past.

Since 2003 another animating force for Islamist insurgency seems to have gained salience: the American invasion of Iraq. Nasser al-Bahri, a Yemeni who would become a bodyguard for Bin Laden, was persuaded in in 1996 by bin Laden’s critique of U.S. actions in the Persian Gulf War, namely, that Muslims need to be unified against the West and recover the Caliphate (WashingtonPost [1/6/2010]). He has recently said of Bin Laden:

NASSER AL-BAHRI (through translator): I have often said I love Osama bin Laden more than my father. We shared many experiences, and he defends the Islamic nation. He doesn’t like killing.

Notice his use of the term Islamic Nation — singular. The implication is that “Islam” is a single “nation.” This has indeed long been an ancient ideal among Muslims but it has never actually been anything more than an concept. The concept informs the Bin Laden’s critique of the current situation in the Middle East, and the salience of the appeal to some Muslims, especially unemployed young people, indicates how eager some of them are for a meaningful world, one that makes sense in “Islamic” terms.

When Nasser Al-Bahri was asked why anyone, such as Farouk Abdulmutallab, would want to blow up an airplane in the United States his response reveals his own understanding of why Muslims are justified in attacking the United States.

NASSER AL-BAHRI (through translator): I wish the question wasn’t so naive. Britain and America are in Iraq and in Afghanistan. They intervene in the affairs of Islamic nations. There are a million people out there like the Nigerian [who are ready to attack the United States].

Al-Bahri’s explanation for attacking the United States is that the US is “intervening” in the affairs of Islamic nations, specifically in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It’s not the same as the hope of establishing a Muslim world power, but it seems to be an aspect of Bin Laden’s more general critique.

In any case, the movement needs this kind of ambiguity in its conceptual appeal — in it’s “annunciation and promise” (Weber’s term) — if it is to capture the imagination of real human beings. That this kind of critique resonates among a few Muslims, especially those who are in quest of a just and equitable moral order within their own personal horizons, suggests how hungry some of them are for a cause worth giving themselves to.
[Source of the quotations: PBS, News Hour, Jan 6, 2010.]