The U.S. government has been very careful to tell the world that the air strikes on Afghanistan are directed not on the Afghan nation itself but on a band of international terrorists led by Osama bin Laden and the tyrannical regime of the Taliban that shelters them. Neither is this a war against Islam, America stresses, but a war solely against a fringe group of Islamists who use a particular version of Islam to justify their attacks on innocent people who do not share their values.
One wishes that reality were so simple. But the results and the reactions to America’s war speak differently. Innocent Afghan civilians are dying and starving in the process. Cities and towns that took generations to build are being razed to the ground. Millions of destitute people, who were just beginning to rebuild their lives from more than two decades of war, albeit under the dictation of a bunch of dogmatic pre-modern theologian-warriors, are fleeing their homes to seek refuge in temporary settlements at the border.
After a week of relentless bombing, there is no evidence that the U.S. military is anywhere close to flushing out the enemies it has singled out for destruction. Instead, because of the devastation caused by the high-tech bombing of key population centers, terrorism — the reckless attack on civilians to secure political ends — is ironically being pinned on America itself by its critics around the world.
It is a measure of the complex configuration of this war that not a single government in the Islamic world, apart from Pakistan, has categorically justified the bombing of Afghanistan. They denounce terrorism, they condemn the terrorist attacks on the United States, and they support the fight against the many faces of global terrorism – but outside of Pakistan, no other Islamic nation has come out in support of the U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan. They know that to do so is to court the anger of their own people. This is the danger that the Musharraf regime in Pakistan has brought upon itself by supporting the American war effort in Afghanistan.
Not even the royal house of Saudi Arabia, America’s staunchest ally in the Gulf, where U.S. forces have been based since 1991, has agreed to allow the use of its territory to launch American missiles and fighter jets destined for Afghanistan. Robert Fisk, the British journalist who has reported on Middle Eastern affairs for many years, thinks that the Saudis have acted ambivalently because they are aware of the great political risks they face at home.
On BBC television the other night, Fisk said that Osama’s longstanding obsession is not the formation of a Palestinian state but the overthrow of the Saudi princes. Osama is not a known advocate of Palestine, but for the longest time, according to Fisk, he has waged a campaign against Arab rulers who betray the Islamic faith by colluding with America in its plan to control the Middle East. In particular, he vents his ire on the Saudi princes for allowing U.S. troops to be stationed in the homeland of Islam. Mecca and Madina, the two most important centers of the Islamic faith, are located in Saudi Arabia. Fisk says that a careful analysis of Osama’s 12-minute lecture on Al-Jazeera TV after the first American air strike would support this conclusion. This homily, he says, was addressed not so much to America but to the Islamic peoples who continue to suffer the autocratic regimes that have turned against the true teachings of Islam and their own peoples.
The message is powerful because it echoes the frustrations, grievances, and aspirations of many Muslims around the world. “Those who wished to arouse them to action,” wrote Albert Hourani in his magnificent summation, The History of the Arab Peoples, “had to use the same language. Islam could provide an effective language of opposition: to western power and influence, and those who could be accused of being subservient to them; to governments regarded as corrupt and ineffective, the instruments of private interests, or devoid of morality; and to a society which seemed to have lost its unity with its moral principles and direction.”
Bin Laden’s call is especially resonant in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the country that stripped him of his citizenship. While other Arab states, says Hourani, were forced in self-defense to use the language of religion increasingly in state affairs, Saudi Arabia was precisely “created by a movement for the reassertion of the primacy of God’s will in human societies.”
Because of its own economic and political interests, America has found itself mired in the complex internal affairs of the Arab world. Here the modern language of nationalism, which served the Arab nation-states in their early years, has lost its appeal. No longer does it meaningfully link governments to their peoples. Only Islam remains, though it is too deep and powerful a current to be fully harnessed by any temporal government. Those that did, like Saudi Arabia, observes Hourani, “were caught in the ambiguities and compromises of power, and if they used languages with such a strong appeal, their opponents could also do so, in order to show the gap between what the government said and what it did.”
For many Muslims who cannot live in the compromises of the modern world, Osama bin Laden is the living symbol of the quest for a route back to Allah. That quest is sweeping in its effects because of its religious character. Osama’s war is a religious war against the modern way of life, with great repercussions for politics on a national and global scale. The modern world must show that there is a role for religion within it, but not as Osama would define it.
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