Reading an Enemy
Analyzing al-Qa`ida's Letter to America
By David Blankenhorn
Danish translation: Læsning af en fjende
Source: Institute for American Values
Published on May 8, 2012

The new audiotaped message purportedly from Osama bin Laden, first broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV on February 11, is addressed to ”our Muslim brothers in Iraq.” It has won widespread attention, in part due to the Bush Administration's desire to link bin Laden and al-Qa`ida to Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. By contrast, however, much less attention was paid late last year to a much longer and more densely argued ”Letter to America,” also purportedly from bin Laden. First published in Arabic on an al-Qa`ida-linked website in Saudi Arabia, the letter has been widely circulated by Islamists and was first published in English by the London Observer on November 24. At the time, the U.S. State Department properly told U.S. reporters that the letter's authenticity could not be verified. But many Arab journalists and experts believe that the ”Letter to America” was written or authorized either by bin Laden himself, if he is alive, or another senior al-Qa`ida leader. These facts make the letter worth reading carefully.

The ”Letter to America” is al-Qa`ida's direct reply to a ”Letter from America” that I helped to organize, and that was signed and publicly released by 60 U.S. intellectuals in February of last year. Ultimately, however, the al-Qa`ida letter seems more concerned with Arab responses to our letter – and even more with the ongoing intra-Arab debate that it has generated – than with our letter itself. The main intended audience is clearly Arab civil society, not the United States. The primary goal of the ”Letter to America” is to expand the constituency for holy war in Arab and Muslim societies.

Regarding the justification for war, the ”Letter to America” arguably goes even further than bin Laden's 1998 fatwa (or religious ruling) ordering Muslims to wage war against the U.S. and its allies, and to make no distinctions between military personnel and civilians. The 1998 statement can be read as justifying militant jihad, or holy war, as a means of reversing certain U.S. policies, in particular stationing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, imposing economic sanctions on Iraq, and supporting Israel. The ”Letter to America” departs from this logic and makes the call to holy war against U.S. ”unbelievers” total and unconditional: ”Do not await anything from us but jihad, resistance, and revenge.”

The letter also presents a broader justification for killing U.S. civilians. The letter argues that because the U.S. claims to be ”a land of freedom,” in which the people choose their leaders and participate freely in politics, ”the American people cannot be innocent of the crimes” committed by their government. Of course, the idea that killing a civilian is the same as killing an enemy soldier is well outside the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence and would signal the even further radicalization of al-Qa`ida's message.

In addition, the ”Letter to America” broadens and deepens al-Qa`ida's case against the United States. The letter charges that Americans reject Islam and Islamic law, and immorally ”separate religion from your policies.” The U.S. is dominated by Jews, who ”now control all aspects of your life.” Americans, including American leaders, engage in debauchery and sexual immorality. Giant American corporations ”exploit women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them.” Americans encourage gambling, homosexuality, and usury. Americans claim to support democracy and human rights, but in fact prevent democracy and trample on human rights whenever doing so serves narrow U.S. interests. For these reasons, ”you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.” Al-Qa`ida's call to jihad, then, is directed not merely against U.S. policies and leaders, but against U.S. society a whole. The essential aim of the ”Letter to America” is to declare a war to the finish between the U.S. and Islamic civilization. The letter tells Americans bluntly: ”Prepare for war with the Islamic nation.”

Shrinking the Constituency for Holy War

What can those of us who oppose this message learn from it? The letter clearly aims to expand al-Qa`ida's potential base of support by defining the ”us” as Islamic civilization and the ”them” as the United States, the source of contemporary infidelity. Interestingly, last week's audiotaped message from bin Laden similarly seeks to cast any forthcoming war in Iraq as between ”the people of Islam” and ”the infidels and unbelievers.” Indeed, notwithstanding the Bush Administration's public insistence recently that the new al-Qa`ida audiotape proves that al- Qa`ida and Saddam Hussein are ”partners,” in fact this latest message from bin Laden expresses nothing but contempt for Iraq's ”socialist” and ”infidel” government. The conflict that al-Qa`ida urgently seeks is not a clash of governments, but an armed clash of civilizations, with the Muslim world as a whole opposed to the American infidels and their allies.

For those in the U.S. and elsewhere who wish to see this way of thinking defeated, the intellectual and strategic imperatives are equally clear. As much as possible, we must seek to shrink the constituency for holy war in Muslim societies. Because al-Qa`ida and similar groups seek to portray this crisis as a war against Islam, we must deny them this definition.

We can begin by describing what we oppose more precisely. There are about 1.2 billion Muslims in the world – about one of every five inhabitants. Among all Muslims, probably a minority are Islamists, meaning that they view Islam as the defining feature of politics and want to ensure that Islam is the state religion. Among Islamists, a significant minority, who themselves are hardly unified, can be described as salafists (or revivalists), meaning that they subscribe to a past, unchanging model of Islamic law and practice, based on the experiences of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors.

Among this group, only a small fraction, who typically call themselves jihadis, believe that the goal of establishing this timeless Islamic order is justifiably pursued by violence. (Their appropriation and misuse of the term jihad is tragic, since jihad is a classical Islamic term with multiple meanings.) And even among jihadis, only a handful are also takfiris, who believe that violence is justified against all persons, even Muslims, who are not jihadis. Osama bin Laden and his comrades, at least in practice, are takfiris – one fringe of a small fraction of a minority of a sub-group called Islamists, who are probably a minority of Muslims.

The persons who have declared war against civilization itself are the self-described jihadis and those who assist them. They have not only launched an external war against the United States and its allies, but are also waging – at times with disturbing degrees of success, despite their minority status – ongoing internal campaigns to influence and intimidate a number of Muslim societies. Americans and others should specify this enemy clearly, and act upon that understanding, because unlike al-Qa`ida, we want to define this struggle accurately and in light of universal human values. ”Them” is a specific network of radically intolerant murderers and their sponsors. ”Us,” at least potentially, is all people of good will everywhere in the world.

But some Americans speak as if they are pursuing exactly the opposite strategy. The columnist Ann Coulter wrote in the aftermath of September 11 that ”we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Today, Coulter regularly mocks Islam in her columns. She may imagine that she is just striking a clever pose, and it may be true that few serious Americans take her seriously, but her comments are widely reported in the Islamic world as those of a prominent U.S. opinion leader.

Franklin Graham, the son and ministerial heir of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, said on national television that Islam is ”a very evil and wicked religion.” Jerry Vines, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, says that the Prophet Mohammed was ”demon-possessed.” Jerry Falwell, another evangelical leader, recently called the Prophet ”a terrorist.”

These and similar comments are tailor-made for al-Qa`ida's purposes, since they seem to confirm that Americans hold Islam as a religion in contempt and view it as the enemy. The Rev. Falwell even seems to endorse the view, preached fervently by bin Laden and his associates for years, that the founder of Islam would look with favor upon today's jihadis. Could any al-Qa`ida recruitment poster have put it better?

Engaging Islam

A second way to help thwart the al-Qa`ida strategy is for intellectuals in the U.S. and in the Muslim world to engage with one another on what they have in common. One important purpose of the ”Letter to America” was to chastise those Arab intellectuals who had organized formal responses to the original U.S. letter. For example, in May of 2002, 153 Saudi scholars and religious leaders, including a number of prominent Islamists, responded to the U.S. letter with their own statement, ”How We Can Coexist.”

The statement was highly critical but also respectful, and called for further dialogue. All summer long, the signatories to this statement were furiously and publicly denounced by Saudi militants, less for what they said than for having decided to say anything at all to their U.S. correspondents. In particular, in their Internet communications and elsewhere, al-Qa`ida insisted not merely that one or another particular conversation with U.S. citizens is wrong, but instead that any conversation – any exchange at all short of a promise of war – is against the interests of Islam. For example, one al-Qa`ida-linked statement attacking the Saudi signatories said that, instead of engaging in dialogue, ”the signatories should have made clear to the West” that ”a person has only three options: become a Muslim, live under the rule of Islam, or be killed.” The jihadis are seeking to prevent non-governmental leaders from the two civilizations even from talking to one another.

Even the Saudi government seemed upset by this citizen-to-citizen exchange. When my colleagues and I wrote back to the Saudis several months ago, and our letter was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat, the pan-Arab newspaper based in London, the Saudi authorities censored the letter, preventing that issue of Al-Hayat from even entering the country. What should this tell us?

Here is what it tells me: In a time of war and discussions of war, and in a world facing the grim prospect of religious and even civilizational polarization, few tasks facing intellectuals from East and West are more important than reasoning together, in the hope of finding common ground on the dignity of the human person and the basic conditions for human flourishing. Let us begin this conversation.

(Edited versions of this article appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel on Sunday, February 16, 2003.)