Abbas Amanat


To this author, a historian of the Middle East who grew up in that part of the world, bin Laden's message of violence come, as a sobering reminder of what has become of the Middle East. This is not only because au outrage of unprecedented magnitude has been committed by some Middle Easterners against the U.S., which is both demonized in that region and seductive to many who live there. Nor is it because such au act confirmed the worst stereotypes of violence and fanaticism long associated with Islam and the Middle East. It was also because the outrage revealed much about the undeniable and alarming growth of religious extremism in the Muslim world, a trend that has been deeply intertwined with the tortured historical experience of becoming modern….


The emergence of the construct we call Islamic extremism, with its penchant for defiance, resentment, and violence, has its roots in the history of the Muslim sense of decline and its unhappy encounter with the dominant West. It is sobering to remind ourselves how frequently the Middle East, as one part of the Muslim world, has been visited by waves of violence in its recent history. Since the end of the Second World War, the area extending from Egypt and Turkey in the west to Afghanistan in the northwest and Yemen in the south has suffered at least ten major wars-and that's not counting the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan after September 11. Casualties have run into millions. Populations have been uprooted, societies torn up by their roots, political structures demolished-all on a massive scale. Three of the region's wars were fought with Western powers (Britain's and France's attacks on Egypt during the Suez crisis in 1956; the Soviet Union's long, losing effort to subjugate Afghanistan in the 1980s; the American-led campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraq in 1990-91); Israel and its Arab neighbors waged five wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982); Yemen and Lebanon have suffered prolonged civil wars; and Iraq and Iran fought for eight years. The transforming effects of these crises haunted the last several generations in the Middle East. Throughout the region people have become ever more disillusioned with the deeply-entrenched dictatorships in their own countries, with the collapse of democratic institutions, hollow nationalistic rhetoric, and with their failing economies.

In the minds of many, Western powers shared the blame both directly and indirectly. Whether based on historical reality or faulty perception, holding the Western powers responsible made special sense against the backdrop of a powerful West and a powerless Middle East. From the days of the European colonial powers in the 19th century to the more recent interventions of the superpowers, there has been a pattern of diplomatic, military and economic presence tying the fate of the Middle East and its resources to the West. Whether motivated by oil, grand strategy or support for Israel, the Western powers were either involved in, or perceived to be behind, most of the region's political crises.

As a result, for new generations of Middle Easterners perceptions of the West, and particularly of the US., dramatically changed for the worse. Long gone were the images of well-wishing Yankees who established schools, universities and hospitals, distributed food, and supported nationalist

endeavors. Instead, fascination with a luster of American popular culture was only heightened thanks to Hollywood and American high tech---computers, video games and satellite dishes.  Yet in a paradoxical turn, as the lines of visa seekers in front of U.S. consulates grew longer, a cloud of mistrust and resentment against the US also settled over the region. The people in the Middle East began to view American society through the lenses of sitcoms and softwares. To many unaccustomed eyes, the U.S. seemed like the center of a greedy, materialistic and uncaring world obsessed with violence and promiscuity. The US.'s unreserved support for Israel, its backing of unpopular regimes, and its fighter jets over Middle Eastern skies only added to anti-American feelings.


Mistrust toward the West deepened as a result of the problematic way the Middle East improvised its own version of modernity. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Westernization has transformed lifestyles and expectations. Yet, despite an undeniable measure of growth and material improvement, today's Middle East by most economic indicators is still one of the least developed regions in the world. It is grappling endlessly with failed centralized planning, high birthrates, lopsided distribution of wealth, high unemployment, widespread corruption, inefficient bureaucracies, and environmental and health problems. The frustration endemic among the young urban classes--often the children of rural migrants who came to the cities in search of a better life and a higher income--is a response to these conundrums.

For the population of the Middle East. Progressively younger because of high birthrates, uprooted from their traditional setting, and deprived of illusive privileges that they can see around them and on television screens but cannot have, the familiar and comforting space of Islam offers a welcoming alternative. Daily prayers, Friday sermons, Koranic study groups, Islamic charities-these are all part of that space. But so are the street demonstrations and the clandestine pamphlets, with their fiery anti-establishment. anti-secular, and anti-Zionist message.

In dealing with these restive multitudes, the governments of the Middle East and their associated ruling elites have little to offer. They are themselves part of the problem as they contribute to the public perception of powerlessness. In the period right after World War II, nationalist ideologies were highly effective in mobilizing the public against the European colonial presence. But over time they often hindered the growth of democratic institutions and the emergence of an enduring civil society. The army officers who came to power in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere through military coups, and pro longed their leadership through repressive means, invested heavily in anti-Western rhetoric. Yet facing the erosion of their own legitimacy, they learned to pay a lip service to the rising Islamic sentiments in their societies, exploiting them as a cushion between the elite and the masses and to suppress individual freedoms.

The predictable victims of this appeasement were the modernizing urban middle classes of the Middle East. Though small and vulnerable, these middle classes were crucial conduits for modernizing even as they preserved a sense of national culture. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, in their rush for an illusive economic growth, and greater equity, purposely undermined the economic bases of their middle classes. They did so through heavy-handed state planning and the mindless nationalization programs. The middle classes in the Middle East today, besieged and intimidated, are no longer willing or able to take up the cause of democratic reforms. They have instead given rise to a spoiled crust of the politically silenced and submissive class whose voice of protest is heard, increasingly, through extremist causes.

Out of this milieu came Mohamed Atta, a failed son of an affluent Egyptian lawyer. Another example is bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayrnan al-Zawahiri, a physician from a celebrated Egyptian family.

This staggering reorientation toward radical Islam needs to be understood in light of a deeper crisis of identity in the Arab world. In the post-colonial period, most nation-states in that region had to improvise their own ideologies of territorial nationalism in order to hold together what were often disjointed local and ethnic identities. At the same time they had to remain loyal to the ideology of pan-Arabism-the notion, or dream, that all Arab peoples make up one supernation--a project that was destined to fail dismally. Egypt came out of the colonial experience with what might have been the basis for its own Egyptian nationalism, but under Gamal Abdel Nasser, it traded that away for leadership of the pan-Arab cause. Yet the experiences of secular pan-Arabism, whether that of the Nasser era in the 1950s and 60s or the Ba'thist regimes of Iraq and Syria in the 1960s and 1970s, proved illusory to the intellectuals who championed it. It was even more unrewarding to the Arab masses who for decades were exposed to the state-run propaganda machines and to the often demagogic street politics. The harsh realities of the military and paramilitary regimes of the Arab world sobered even the most ardent supporters of Arab nationalism.

It was in this environment of despair that the disempowered Arab masses came to share the common cause of confronting Zionism. Resistance to the establishment of the Jewish homeland since the end of World War I and to the creation of the state of Israel in 1947 offered the Arab world a rallying point of great symbolic power. The subsequent experiences of multiple defeats in wars against Israel revived in the Arab psyche memories of prolonged colonial domination. From the Arab nationalist perspective, Zionism was not merely another form of imagined nationalism rooted in the 19th century, but a project designed by the West to perpetuate its imperial presence and protect its vested interests in the region-the latest manifestation of centuries of enmity against the Muslim peoples. For many in the Arab world it was comforting to believe that the reason why hundreds of millions of Arabs could not defeat Israel was because Western powers were protecting it. And more often than not there was ample evidence to convince them of the validity of their claim.


Not surprisingly, the sense of despair toward repressive regimes at home and helplessness against the consolidation of the neighboring Zionist state engendered a new spirit of Islamic solidarity. It was radical in its politics, monolithic in its approach, and defiant toward the West.

The decisive shift came not inside the Arab world but with the 1979 revolution in Iran. The establishment of an Islamic republic under the leadership of the uncompromising Ayatollah Khomeini evoked throughout the Muslim world the long-cherished desire for creating a genuine Islamic regime. Even though it was preached by a radical Shi'a clergy who committed enormous atrocities against his own people, the Iranian model of revolutionary Islam was viewed as pointing the way to an "authentic" and universalist Islam. Through cassette tapes and demonstrations, Iranian revolutionaries managed to topple the Shah and the mighty Pahlavi regime despite its vast military arsenal, secularizing program, and Western backing. Even more empowering was the revolution's anti-imperialist rhetoric.

After his followers besieged the American embassy and held its staff hostage in 1980-81, Khomeini labeled the u.s. as the Great Satan for backing the "Pharaonic" powers-a label for the shah and conservative rulers elsewhere in the region-and for repressing the "disinherited" of the earth.

The Iraq-Iran War of 1980-88 further established the appeal of the paradigm of martyrdom that had long been deeply rooted in Shi' a Islam. That conflict was portrayed as an apocalyptic jihad between the forces of truth and falsehood. In addition to defending their own nation, the Iranians believed they were exporting their revolution. As the slogan on the banners declared and as the battle cries of many teenage volunteers confirmed, the path of Islamic liberation stretched across the battlefields to the Shi'a holy cities of Karbala' and Najaf in Iraq all the way to Jerusalem.

Even if the Iranian revolution failed to take root elsewhere, the celebration of martyrdom found resonance far and wide. The revolutionary Shiites of Lebanon's Hezbollah, and later the young Palestinians who eagerly volunteered for suicide bombings on behalf of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad, saw martyrdom as a way of empowerment. It is not difficult to see the same traits among the hijackers of September 11.

The accelerated pace of Islamic radicalism in the early 1980s, whether inspired by the Iranian revolution or reacting to it, helped shape the outlook of a generation from which came the extremism of Osama bin Laden himself. In his twenties, he was a pious, though uninspiring, student in Jidda University in Saudi Arabia. He came from a superrich family with close connections to the Saudi royalty. In November 1979, he must have witnessed the siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca and the revolt under the leadership of a messianic figure who claimed to have received direct authority from the Prophet to render justice. The quick suppression of this revolt by the Saudi authorities came only a month after the signing of the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The treaty was received by the Islamic activists throughout the Arab world as a betrayal to the Arab and Islamic causes. Only a year later, in October 1980, the Egyptian president. Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated by a splinter group of the Muslim Brothers with Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's future lieutenant, was associated.

The Mecca uprising and Sadat's assassination were both inspired by a tradition of religious radicalism going back to the Society of the Muslim Brothers in the 1920s and 30s and before that to the Wahhabi movement that began in the late 18th century. The central doctrine of Wahhabism was a return to the way of "virtuous ancestors;' a highly regressive, monolithic interpretation of Islam known as Salafiyya, a doctrinal propensity that for centuries encouraged strict adherence to puritanical principles.

In the early 20th century, the Salafiyya played a central part in the shaping of Saudi Arabia as an Islamic state. It also served as the guiding doctrine for the Muslim Brother’s goal of moral and political reconstruction. Inspired by the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Muslim Brothers-who was executed in 1966 by the Nasser regime--this ideology received a new lease on life. A true believer was required to "renounce" the dark sacrilege of his secular surroundings. The primary targets were the regimes of the Arab world, whose secularism was labeled a return to the "paganism" of pre-Islamic times….

The doctrine of Salafiyya and its articulation by Sayyid Qutb gained an overwhelming currency among Islamic radicals in the early 1980s. Bur the wilderness that might serve as a refuge for them could not be recreated in the oil-rich Saudi Arabia of bin Laden or in the tourist-infested Egypt of a1-Zawahiri. Instead, Afghanistan beckoned. The burgeoning resistance movement against the occupying Soviet forces there was highly appealing to radical and moderate sentiments alike. It could unite activists of all Islamic persuasions for a common cause of fighting the spread of the godless communism.


… Bin Laden's persona! odyssey further affirmed his anti-American resolve. In 1994, under American pressure, the Saudi authorities revoked his passport and froze his assets. Two years later Washington succeeded in pressuring Sudan to deny him the safe haven he had enjoyed there. As a last resort he sought refuge with the Taliban, who had taken control of Kabul in 1996, in exchange for his financial and logistic support.

The Taliban was the other side of the al Qaeda coin. The Wahhabi propaganda campaign, which went on under Saudi auspices for at least two decades, was the chief factor behind the emergence of this militant student movement that eventually took over Afghanistan. In the 1980s and 90s through patronage and missionary work, financing the construction of new communal mosques from Indonesia and the Philippines to sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, training young students of many nationalities in pro-Wahhabi subsidized seminaries, making available to the public the Wahhabi literature, establishing interest-free charity and scholarships for the poor, facilitating the transfer of the Hajj pilgrims, and backing conservative clerical elements with Wahhabi proclivities, the Saudi establishment built a strong and growing network that is now changing the face of Islam throughout the towns and villages of the Muslim world. Inadvertently, this network proved to be a fertile ground for garnering support for bin Laden from Pakistan and southern Afghanistan to Central Asia, Africa and Southeast Asia.

The Taliban movement took root among the dislocated and deprived children of the Afghan refugees trained in the religious schools of Pakistan financed by private Saudi funding. Armed with Wahhabi fervor for jihad and little else, under the auspices of the Pakistani army intelligence these seminarians were organized into a fighting force. The political lacuna that came about as a result of the devastating Afghan civil war opened the way for the Taliban's gradual advance and eventual takeover. The regime they established embodied all the neo-Wahhabi zeal that was preached in the Peshawar schools. It revived and imposed a strict patriarchal order deeply hostile to women and their education and public presence. It allowed battering, even killing, of women by their male relatives, enforced facial veiling, and closed most girl's schools. It displayed extraordinary intolerance toward Shiites and other minorities, obliterated even the most primitive symbols of a modern culture, and undermined all human and individual rights. In the name of purging Afghanistan of factionalism and ending the civil war, the Taliban turned it into a miserable fortress whose people suffered from starvation and isolation.

In the year that bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, he issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, that called upon all Muslims to kill Americans as a religious duty. The 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam was, as far as we know, his first attempt to put his own ruling into practice. This came at the time when al Qaeda's merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad-led by Ayman alZawahiri, who had recently masterminded the killing of fifty-eight tourists in Luxor, Egypt-and other terrorist organizations drastically increased bin Laden's capacity to wreak havoc. The U.S. tried to punish him for the embassy bombings by firing missiles into his camps. His emerging unscathed gave him greater confidence and enhanced his reputation for invincibility in the eyes of his followers.

For bin Laden and his al Qaeda associates, the terrorist war against the U.S. was a struggle rooted in Islam's noble past and ensured of victory by God. In this context, the attack on giant structures representing American economic and military might was a largely symbolic act that would, they hoped, miraculously subdue their enemies, just as the infidels of early Islam eventually succumbed to the Prophet's attacks on their caravans. This theory of terror, violent and indiscriminate, though utterly against the mainstream interpretation of Islam, attracted a small but committed group of devotees who also saw self-sacrifice as a permissible avenue toward symbolic achievement of their goals.

In several respects, however, bin Laden's apocalyptic vision was grounded in reality and geared to the possible. He and his associates were men of worldly capabilities who could employ business administration models to generate revenue, invest capital in the market, create a disciplined leadership, recruit volunteers, incorporate other extremist groups, organize and maintain new cells, issue orders and communicate through a franchised network of semi-autonomous units on a global scale. This mix of the messianic and the pragmatic allowed al Qaeda to tailor its rhetoric to the grievances of its growing audience and to carry out recruitment and indoctrination on a wider scale.

The vast majority of Muslims do not approve of bin Laden's terrorism, nor do they share his ambition to build a monolithic community based on a pan-Islamic order. Yet there is an undeniable sympathy for the way he has manipulated grievances and symbols. The contrasting images of the "pagan" America and the "authentic" Islam find currency in wide and diverse quarters. One example is the young boys among Afghan and Pakistani refugees who were brainwashed in the Saudi-funded Wahhabi seminaries of Peshawar-and from whose ranks rose the Taliban (the word itself means "students"). Another is the new generation of Western-educated Arab middle classes who were recruited to the al Qaeda's suicide cells in Europe.

We can read in the testament of Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of the September 11 attacks, the typical obsessive enthusiasm of a born-again Muslim. As a reward for his resort to massive terror and destruction. which he carried out with resolve and precision. Atta seeks the Koranic promise of heavenly recompense especially reserved for martyrs. His literal reading of the sacred text is imbued with sexual references. "Know," he promises his accomplices, "that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty. And the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friends of God.’ They are dressed in their most beautiful clothing." This is all the more glaring, and perversely pathetic, when contrasted with Atta's final encounters in a Florida strip club. One can only imagine that he was gazing at the barely-clad strippers of this world in anticipation of the houris--beautiful maidens awaiting the brave and virtuous--in paradise. This was the reward he expected for his martyrdom in the "battle for the sake of God," which he was waging, as he himself reminded us, in the "way of the pious forefathers." This surreal mix of the pious and the profane, backed by a litany of Koranic verses, reveals a discomfiting pseudomodern crust over the hard core of extremism.

As for bin Laden himself, he came into the spotlight after September 11 having shrouded himself and his cause in an apocalyptic aura. His October 7 statement broadcast on television, both in tone and content, alluded to a seminal narrative of Islam. Above all, he said, he placed his total trust in God as he waged the struggle of true believers against infidels, confident of the ultimate reward of martyrdom. His references to the impending fall of the "hypocrites"—those Muslim individuals and governments who were not supportive of his cause--and to the sure victory of the righteous on horseback and armed with swords--presumably in contrast to the sophisticated weaponry of his enemies-all have resonance in the encoded story of early Islam. In a statement at the same time, bin Laden's chief lieutenant, al-Zawahiri, referred to the catastrophic loss of Muslim Spain at the end of the 15th century. This, too, was meant to remind Muslims of the greater days of Islam before its defeat by Christianity, hence complementing bin Laden's vision of the glorious past.


That al Qaeda effectively communicates to a \vide audience far beyond its own extremist circle there can be no doubt. In doing so, it has found abundant opportunities, thanks to the global media, and thanks to complacency and ignorance of Western intelligence services and law enforcement agencies. The dilemmas and inconsistencies of U.S. foreign policy in the region also provided al Qaeda with its weapons of choice to appeal to the frustration and anger of the mainstream Muslims worldwide.

At the core of the resentment so widespread in the Arab and Islamic world is Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Hundreds of millions of Arabs, and increasingly other Muslims as well, are now more than ever informed through media about the Palestinians' unending confrontations with the Israeli security forces….

Broadcast through the Arab networks, and more recently on the global al-Jazeerah television network based in Qatar--the outlet of choice for bin Laden himself-these tragic depictions are increasingly intermingled with symbols of Islamic defiance: the suicidal missions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israeli targets, the fiery anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans and sermons in Friday congregations. Added to this is the enormous level of Islamic radical pamphleteering with anti-American and anti-Zionist content, not infrequently laced in the Arabic textbooks with flagrant anti-Jewish racial references.

The politically repressive regimes of most Arab countries permit anti-Zionist (and even anti-Jewish) expressions as a safety valve. This, further adds to the symbolic value of ,he Palestinian cause as a powerful expression of Arab unity with growing Islamic coloring. Since the Intifada of 1986 and the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord. The thrust of Arab public opinion has been directed toward the fate of the Palestinians in the occupied territories rather than against the very existence of Israel. Yet the oppressive Arab regimes still use the hypocritical rhetoric of national security as an impediment to the growth of democracy in their own" countries. In such a repressive environment the mosque often functions as a political forum. There the differentiation between Israeli conduct and American foreign policy fades. Arab public opinion Widely believes that the Jewish lobby in the U.S. is the sole determinant of American policy in the region and therefore makes little distinction between U.S. foreign policy and Israeli abuse of the Palestinians.

Proponents of Muslim piety also hold American "corrupting influences" responsible for the erosion of the assumed “authentic” mores of Islamic austerity and devotion. These influences are widely associated with the worst clichés of American popular culture and lifestyle. In this world of misperceptions, the globally permeating images of promiscuity, ostentatious wealth, organized crime, random violence, drug use, gluttony and wastefulness contrast sharply with the idealized Islamic virtues of moral outrage, self-sacrifice, otherworldliness, brotherhood, and piety. The extremists eagerly and skillfully sell these contrasts to the ill-informed Muslim masses, who more than ever now rely on visual images thanks to the power of the electronic media.

To Muslim viewers around the world these exaggerated contrasts offer an elusive comfort, since they seem to explain the root cause of the perceived malfunction of their own governments and societies. They are all the more suggestive because they are shrewdly tied up with the story of sufferings of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israelis and those of the Iraqi people under U.S.-upheld sanctions. On top of that, they are constantly reminded of the "defiling" of the Islamic holy lands by the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden is a master at exploiting these symbolic references. The U.S. and its Western allies have tried to convince the world, and especially the Muslim world, that the campaign against bin Laden and al Qaeda is not directed at Islam but at terrorism. However, that differentiation won't carry much weight in the minds of many Muslims so long as bin Laden. "dead or alive;' has at his disposal such potent propaganda weapons. The issue is not only the danger that he or people like him will turn their extremist dream into a religious war between Islam and the West. Equally important is that they will provoke an escalating conflict between militant neo-Wahhabi Islam and the retreating forces and quavering voices of moderation and tolerance in the Muslim world. Bin Laden presents ·to much of his audience the image of a messianic prophet. Even if he is killed for his cause, he will, in their eyes, have died a martyr’s death.