Bin Laden's Clarity
by Editorial Board
George W. Bush and Tony Blair may want to send Osama bin Laden an ironic note of thanks. In his pre-recorded videotape on Sunday, a fatigue-wearing bin Laden made clear that the current fight is about much more than the September 11 attacks he now all but takes credit for. It's really about the future of the entire Middle East, and especially the role of Islam and its adherents in the modern world.
To bin Laden, the choice now before "every Muslim" harks back to the Crusades and is between "the camp of the faithful and the camp of the infidels." His list of faithful include Saddam Hussein, the al Qaeda network, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah and other terrorists. His enemies include not just Americans and Israelis but all Muslims who refuse to join his fatwa to kill women and children and drive non-Muslims from the Middle East.
Contrast that with President Bush's careful effort to show this is not a war on all Islam but on those "barbaric criminals" who "profane" its name. Mr. Bush even risked American life to underscore the point, dispatching C-17 cargo planes with U.S. airmen to drop food and medicine for suffering Afghans. Indeed, over the past decade America and Europe have used their power to protect Muslim peoples from Kuwait to Kosovo.
What the world needs now is to hear from Muslim leaders who'll also make Mr. Bush's point. We can begin with Saudi Arabia. As a senior official in the Saudi Embassy in Washington told the Orlando Sentinel, "It's very hard to explain to our people. They read in the papers that the United States is using our air bases to kill other Muslims. They don't appreciate the difference between attacking religion and attacking terrorists."
Well, if the Saudi people don't appreciate such distinctions it may be because that the Saudi leaders won't draw them. For starters, Crown Prince Abdullah, brother of King Fahd and de facto ruler of the kingdom, might explain that the 5,000 U.S. soldiers based on Saudi soil were left behind after the Gulf War to protect the Saudi people from Iraq. Instead, as Stephen Schwartz writes alongside, the Saudi ruling classes devote part of their oil fortunes to funding the radical Wahhabi sect of Islam, the brand of fundamentalism they share with bin Laden and is now coming back to bite them. While Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar mingled with Washington's social "A list," Saudis at home stonewalled FBI agents looking into the terror attacks on the Khobar Towers.
Osama bin Laden has exposed the soft underbelly of the "moderate" Islamic world: Its uneasy relationship with the 21st century and its dominant Western civilization. Too often Islamic leaders have lived a contradiction, wishing the bin Ladens would go away but, as long as they still exist, standing aside as they direct their venom at America and Israel rather than at their own regimes.
In short, they have allowed the Islamic faith to be hijacked and politicized. And not just by Taliban zealots but equally by militant secularists like Saddam and Syria's Bashar Assad. It's no coincidence that in bin Laden's perverse universe, the Saudis, who maintain a strict Islamic state, are corrupt for having relations with the U.S. But Saddam, whose secular regime invades and brutalizes its fellow Muslim nations, is a partner. Look at bin Laden's tape again. He specifically invokes sanctions against Iraq as justification for his attack. And standing beside him is Ayman al-Zawahri, head of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, which murdered Anwar Sadat.
The good news is that Islam has the moral resources within its tradition to make the right choices. As the Quran notes: "If anyone kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity." And for much of its history Islam has arguably been far more amenable to trade and commerce than Christianity, which helps account for the great civilizations Islam once supported. But the burden now falls on today's leadership to distinguish between that great tradition and the barbarism of bin Laden.
America has its own obligations here. One of them is to conduct the kind of war Mr. Bush is conducting, trying to minimize civilian casualties and feeding the innocent. But the larger duty is to show moderate Arabs that we will be with them in the long run if they make the choice to join us. Unlike after the Gulf War, that means finishing the job this time. Part of the Saudis' ambivalence toward Saddam, for example, is due to their doubts that the U.S. will leave him standing one more time. That's why the antiterror campaign can't end with killing bin Laden and promoting "the Middle East peace process" one more time.
The brutal clarity of bin Laden's TV videotape has at least made the stakes obvious. If the American "infidels" lose to bin Laden, then moderate Muslims everywhere are going to lose too. For the sake of Islam itself, the duty before today's Islamic leaders is to tell the world and their own peoples which of the two men has it right -- George Bush or Osama bin Laden.
Related Topics: Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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