Al Qaeda’a Demands

The question, “Why do they hate us?” was, for a short period, earnestly asked by Americans of all stripe. Least doubt grow in the superior stewardship of those charged with our protection, the question has been safely contained by Bush’s simplistic formulation that they are evil and we are good, buffeted by a fusillade of conservative accusations of America hating against anyone who has offered any alternative to Bush’s sage analysis.

Now, the September 11th Commission offers its answer:

Bin Ladin also relies heavily on the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood11 executed in 1966 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government, Qutb mixed Islamic scholarship with a very superficial acquaintance with Western history and thought. Sent by the Egyptian government to study in the United States in the late 1940s, Qutb returned with an enormous loathing of Western society and history. He dismissed Western achievements as entirely material, arguing that Western society possesses “nothing that will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence.”12

Three basic themes emerge from Qutb’s writings. First, he claimed that the world was beset with barbarism, licentiousness, and unbelief (a condition he called jahiliyya, the religious term for the period of ignorance prior to the revelations given to the Prophet Mohammed). Qutb argued that humans can choose only between Islam and jahiliyya. Second, he warned that more people, including Muslims, were attracted to jahiliyya and its material comforts than to his view of Islam; jahiliyya could therefore triumph over Islam. Third, no middle ground exists in what Qutb conceived as a struggle between God and Satan. All Muslims — as he defined them — therefore must take up arms in this fight. Any Muslim who rejects his ideas is just one more nonbeliever worthy of destruction.13

Bin Ladin shares Qutb’s stark view, permitting him and his followers to rationalize even unprovoked mass murder as righteous defense of an embattled faith. Many Americans have wondered, “Why do ‘they’ hate us?” Some also ask, “What can we do to stop these attacks?”

Bin Ladin and al Qaeda have given answers to both these questions. To the first, they say that America had attacked Islam; America is responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims. Thus Americans are blamed when Israelis fight with Palestinians, when Russians fight with Chechens, when Indians fight with Kashmiri Muslims, and when the Philippine government fights ethnic Muslims in its southern islands. America is also held responsible for the governments of Muslim countries, derided by al Qaeda as “your agents.” Bin Ladin has stated flatly, “Our fight against these governments is not separate from our fight against you.”14 These charges found a ready audience among millions of Arabs and Muslims angry at the United States because of issues ranging from Iraq to Palestine to America’s support for their countries’ repressive rulers.

Bin Ladin’s grievance with the United States may have started in reaction to specific U.S. policies but it quickly became far deeper. To the second question, what America could do, al Qaeda’s answer was that America should abandon the Middle East, convert to Islam, and end the immorality and godlessness of its society and culture: “It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.” If the United States did not comply, it would be at war with the Islamic nation, a nation that al Qaeda’s leaders said “desires death more than you desire life.”15

  1. The Muslim Brotherhood, which arose in Egypt in 1928 as a Sunni religious/nationalist opposition to the British-backed Egyptian monarchy, spread throughout the Arab world in the mid-twentieth century. In some countries, its oppositional role is nonviolent; in others, especially Egypt, it has alternated between violent and nonviolent struggle with the regime.
  2. Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (American Trust Publications, 1990). Qutb found sin everywhere, even in rural midwestern churches. Qutb’s views were best set out in Sayyid Qutb, “The America I Have Seen” (1949), reprinted in Kamal Abdel-Malek, ed., America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature: An Anthology (Palgrave, 2000).
  3. For a good introduction to Qutb, see National Public Radio broadcast, “Sayyid Qutb’s America,” May 6, 2003 (online at
  4. “Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America,'” Observer Worldview, Nov. 24, 2002 (trans., online at,11581,845725,00.html). The al Qaeda letter was released in conjunction with the release of an audio message from Bin Ladin himself.
  5. Ibid.

This passage is very good, but it should be more clear that al Qaeda’s objectives are two. The second is the murderous, uncompromising advancement of fundamentalist Islam, an objective the West cannot accommodate. The first objective, however, is merely territorial: al Qaeda and fellow travelers want the agents of Western influence out of the dar al-Islam (abode of peace, or Islamic territory). The writers of the 9/11 Commission Report have attempted to portray first objective as equally hysterical to the second by characterizing Islamic militants’ territorial objectives as wholly the result of a paranoid and endlessly wounded pride. Nonetheless, they do point out that one of the goals of al Qaeda et. al. is limited and, hence, rational.