Osama bin Laden said in March 2004 that we are experiencing
a religious-economic war . . . Therefore, religious terms should be used when describing the ruler who does not follow God’s revelations and path and champions the infidels by extending military facilities to them or implementing the UN resolutions against Islam and Muslims. Those should be called infidels and renegades . . . The confrontation and conflict between us and them started centuries ago. The confrontation and conflict will continue because the conflict between right and falsehood will continue until Judgment Day.
For more than a decade, much of the Muslim world along with the democratic world (including India, the Philippines and Thailand, and Muslim majority democracies such as Indonesia and Bangladesh) have been under attack by a violent, apocalyptic, religious network. This network’s attacks have been accompanied by a plethora of videotapes, audiotapes, declarations, books, letters, fatwas, magazines, and websites giving an articulate theology and view of history to justify its actions in terms of Islamic practice and law. Consistently, it expounds its programme to unite Muslims worldwide into one people, the ummah, with one divinely sanctioned leader, a caliph, governed by a reactionary version of Islamic law, shari’a, organized to wage jihad on the rest of the world.
Throughout the world, the network’s members methodically kill those opposed to its version of the Caliphate, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, left or right, American, British, Israeli, Australian, French, Indian, Algerian, Sudanese, Thai, or Filipino, and whether or not supported by the United Nations. Its manual begins by recalling not the birth of Israel nor the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but “the fall of our orthodox Caliphates on March 3, 1924.” Osama bin Laden’s November 3, 2001 videotape similarly proclaims, “Following World War I, which ended more than 83 years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the Crusader banner.” For this network, a key turning point of history is the abolition of the Caliphate and the fragmentation of the ummah by Mustapha Kamal Ataturk with his creation of modern Turkey. The network’s central grievance, continually expressed, is the collapse of the Islamic world in the face of “Christendom”—a collapse explained by Muslims’ apostasy from Islam, and which can be reversed only by returning to their version of Islam.
On August 23, 1996, bin Laden issued a “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” (Since there may be differences between various Islamist terrorists, I have focused on the utterances of bin Laden and his reputed deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri). Its focus was, as the title implies, the Arabian peninsula, but it also described Muslims whose
blood was spilled in Palestine and Iraq. The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon, are still fresh in our memory. Massacres in Tajakestan, Burma, Cashmere, Assam, Philippine, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Erithria, Chechnia and in Bosnia Herzegovina took place, massacres that send shivers in the body and shake the conscience.
It culminated with “the latest and greatest of these aggressions, incurred by the Muslims since the death of the Prophet”: the presence of the “American Crusaders and their allies” in Islam’s holiest places. In response, remembering the defeat of the “Russians in Afghanistan, the Serbs in Bosnia, and their current fighting in Chechnya and Tajikistan,” he called for “jihad against the Kuffar (unbelievers) in every part of the world.” This declaration, among many others, can be found in Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (Verso, 2005).
Bin Laden mentioned the Palestinians, but, since he believes that nationalism is anti-Islamic, even apostasy, his concern was not a people’s fighting for a homeland but that infidels controlled the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Furthest Mosque, the destination of the Prophet’s Night Journey, Islam’s third holiest shrine. (In a December 2001 interview, Zawahiri acknowledged that he and his confreres had been “the least active in championing the Palestinian cause”). He described Israel as part of Arabia, and so accused the Israelis of “annexing” the “northerly part” of the land of the two Holy Places, so that all three of Islam’s holiest places lie under the feet of infidels.
While the three shrines remain central to bin Laden’s worldview, he also insisted that all lands that have ever been ruled by Muslims must now be returned to their control. The year following his “Declaration of War” he reiterated that
Jihad will remain an individual obligation until all other lands that were Muslim are returned to us so that Islam will reign again: before us lie Palestine, Bokhara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, Southern Yemen, Tashkent and Andalusia (Spain).
On February 23, 1998, bin-Ladin and Zawahiri, along with “Abu-Yasir Rifa’i Ahmad Taha, Egyptian Islamic Group, Shaykh Mir Hamzah, secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan, and Fazlul Rahman, amir of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh,” released the manifesto of their “World Islamic Front for Holy War Against Jews and Crusaders.” It echoed previous statements, indicting the Saudis for “Suspension of the Islamic Shari’ah law and exchanging it with man made civil law,” and allowing “crusaders” into “the land of the two Holy Places.” Meanwhile, it expounded on the worldwide war against Islam waged by Indian Hindus, Burmese Buddhists, Russian, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians, and, above all, Zionist Jews and, the leader of the whole kuffar cabal, the Crusader Americans. Similarly, in December 1998,”the World Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” announced “There are two parties to the conflict: World Christianity, which is allied with Jews and Zionism, led by the United States, Britain and Israel. The second part is the Islamic world.” It also demanded the return of “Andalusia,” Spain, to Islam.
Enmity based on creed
Following September 11, 2001, bin Laden reemphasized the religious nature of his side of the war:
This war is fundamentally religious . . . Those who try to cover this crystal clear fact, which the entire world has admitted, are deceiving the Islamic nation. This war is fundamentally religious . . . This fact is proven in the book of God Almighty and in the teachings of our messenger, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him. This war is fundamentally religious. Under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us and the infidels. For, the enmity is based on creed . . . The unequivocal truth is that Bush has carried the cross and raised its banner high.
He went on: “Following World War I, which ended more than 83 years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the crusader banner—under the British, French, and Italian governments. They divided the whole world, and Palestine was occupied by the British.” In response, he called for
revenge for those innocent children in Palestine, Iraq, southern Sudan, Somalia, Kashmir and the Philippines . . . Take for example the Chechens. They are a Muslim people who have been attacked by the Russian bear which embraces the Christian Orthodox faith . . . A year ago, Putin demanded that the cross and the Jews should stand by him.
He then castigated the United Nations for its purported attempt
to divide the largest country in the Islamic world . . . This criminal, Kofi Annan, was . . . putting pressure on the Indonesian government, telling it: You have 24 hours to divide and separate East Timor from Indonesia by force. The crusader Australian forces were on Indonesian shores, and in fact they landed to separate East Timor, which is part of the Islamic world.
The consistent themes are the occupation of the three Muslim holy places and the purported worldwide war waged by infidels against Muslims, both of which are part of a cosmic battle of belief that will continue to judgment day.
One exception to this trend has been some of his addresses since late 2002 aimed at English speakers—not at Muslims—wherein he has tried to submerge his explicitly religious agenda and, instead, harp on peculiarly western grievances such as environmentalism or campaign finance reform. These pronouncements sometimes show a marked change in tone, as if he had taken PR advice that his previous statements had played well in Peshawar, but not in Peoria. His November 2002 “Letter to America” mentioned the Kyoto accord on global warming, environmental problems, election campaign finances, and the use of nuclear weapons on Japan—matters ignored in previous decades. He also added President Clinton’s “immoral acts” in the Oval office, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, charging interest, and using women in advertising. Above all, he condemned the American constitution for not enshrining Islamic shari’ah law, and instead letting its people make their own laws, and concluded with an appeal to America to repent and become Muslim: “The first thing we are calling you to is Islam.”
Meanwhile, his addresses to his primary, Muslim audience reiterated his longstanding concerns. In his January 2004 message “to the Muslim nation,” he emphasized that, since the West “invaded our countries more than 2,500 years ago” (sic):
It is a religious-economic war . . . Therefore, religious terms should be used when describing the ruler who does not follow God’s revelations and path and champions the infidels by extending military facilities to them or implementing the UN resolutions against Islam and Muslims. Those should be called infidels and renegades . . . the confrontation and conflict between us and them started centuries ago. The confrontation and conflict will continue because the conflict between right and falsehood will continue until Judgment Day.
At the end of 2004, bin Laden lamented the “control exerted by the Zionists and the Cross worshippers” on Muslims, and he described the world conflict as “a struggle between two camps. One camp is headed by America, and it represents the global Kufr (infidelity), accompanied by all apostates. The other camp represents the Islamic Ummah (nation) headed by its Mujahideen Brigades.” Similarly, his December 27, 2004 “Letter to the Iraqi People” referred to the war “between the army Of Mohammed, the army of belief, and the people of the cross.” He warned Iraqis not to participate in the January 30, 2005 elections since the Iraqi constitution is “a Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) constitution that is made by man,” and Muslims may elect only a leader for whom “Islam is the only source of the rulings and laws.” Voting in Afghanistan was likewise forbidden since the Karzai government is “apostate.” Finally, he forbade voting in upcoming Palestinian Authority elections since “the constitution of the land is a Jahili made by man . . . and the candidate Mahmoud Abbas is a Baha’i.”
Bin Laden and his confreres are, indeed, concerned about America, Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But they are especially concerned about Saudi Arabia and the Al-Aqsa mosque, and continually point to attacks by infidels in Lebanon, Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, ‘Fatani,’ ‘Ogadin,’ Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, Bosnia, ‘Bokhara,’ Bangladesh, Turkey, Chad, Mauritania, south Sudan, Darfur, Algeria, the Philippines, Yemen, ‘Tashkent,’ Indonesia, and East Timor. They are in a global war until judgment day.
Study, pray, proclaim, and resist
How should we respond to this radical, worldwide movement with millions of adherents whose programme it is to unite Muslims worldwide into one people, with one divinely sanctioned leader, governed by a reactionary version of Islamic law, and organized to wage a permanent war on the rest of the world—a war that from its perspective can only end in the annihilation, conquest or conversion of all non-Muslims?
I have four suggestions to the present generation of college students, for whom this religious-economic war is likely to be a life-long reality: study, pray, proclaim, and resist.
Despite the simple way in which the programme of contemporary Islamism can be summarized—the ummah, the caliph, shari’a, and jihad—it consists of a complex set of movements in both Sunni and Shiite Islam. To understand Islamism and respond to it appropriately demands that we learn something about Islam and its diversity in general, and also that we engage in a thoroughgoing study of statements by its proponents, of its historical sources, and of its organized social and military expressions. Such study demands the attention of many scholars and public intellectuals in the present and in the next generations.
Knowing how to respond to Islamism requires more than study. The challenge represented by Islamism is of a kind familiar to Christianity through its long ages. The Apostle Paul wrote to the first-century Christians in the city of Ephesus that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The kind of struggle that is involved requires prayer, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is futile to trust solely in the political authorities of our day to deal with the challenge of Islamism. Christians must prayerfully place their trust—also within history—in a higher authority.
As the late Lesslie Newbigin insisted, Christianity is public truth. Islamism makes public claims for the truth of Islam. Christians must counter with public claims for the truth of the teachings of the Bible. The gospel is not proclaimed in vain, and the present and next generations must proclaim it in every sphere of human life and every geographical area of the earth with both humility and courage.
Christians, finally, have the obligation as citizens to support appropriate government resistance to terrorism—against the use of armed violence to inspire fear in civilian populations for political purposes—also when terrorism is practiced by Islamists. This support cannot be unthinking: now, as ever, we Christian citizens must educate ourselves in the just war doctrines that have guided Christian public service in situations of armed conflict, and we must critically evaluate the actions of the governments established in authority over us in terms of those doctrines. But this support must be resolute. Military action is not the ultimate answer to the challenge of Islamist terror, but it is a political responsibility that we must acknowledge and bear, even as its consequences for affected civilians must break our hearts.