It’s 15 Years Since 9/11 – Why Did Bin-Laden Attack?

911-locationThe fifteenth anniversary of Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington DC, and the attempted attack that resulted in a plane crash in Pennsylvania has just passed. Almost 3,000 people were murdered that day by Islamist terrorists.

We all know that the attackers were fundamentalist Muslims who were followers of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden himself, originally from Saudi Arabia, was a member of the Wahhabi sect of Islam. The Wahhabis are dominant in Saudi Arabia and holds the reins of power in that country following an arrangement with the royal family, the House of Saud.

The Wahhabis, who themselves prefer the name Muwahhidun (Unitarians) or ahl al-hadith (people of hadith), are named after the eighteenth-century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). They were originally a revivalist movement that was committed to going back to a purer form of Islam. They thought that Islam had moved too far away from what it was originally and were particularly upset by the practice of visiting of shrines and tombs, which they see as idolatry. Idolatry (shirk) is the greatest sin in Wahhabism.

The Wahhabis were persecuted early on, but that changed when they made the aforementioned agreement with the House of Saud. Via this agreement they promised obedience to the royal family (as long as Islam wasn’t violated) in return for protection. In that way obedience to political leaders became part of Wahhabism. Before long, Wahhabism had spread throughout Saudi Arabia and was in control of government and the judiciary. It’s why the form of sharia practiced in that country is little different from that of DAESH in their self-declared caliphate.

Bin Laden and his followers are opposed to this modern form of Wahhabism that defers to political leaders. For example, he considered that he had the right to issue fatwas (rulings on sharia or Islamic law), but most within Islam would not consider him a legitimate authority to do that. He issued fatwas in 1996 and 1998 calling for Muslims to fight those who either support Israel, or support non-Muslim military forces in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. He held the delusional belief that this would make those forces withdraw from the region and stop foreign aid to Israel.

Bin Laden was considered a major terrorist long before 9/11. He not only planned and participated in terrorism himself and inspired others to do the same, he used his considerable fortune to sponsor attacks against Israel and the West. To give him his full name, Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was the son of billionaire construction magnate Yemeni Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden and his tenth wife, Syrian-born Hamida al-Attas. He inherited US$25-30 million from his father, which he used to support terrorist causes. Following his education at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, where he studied economics and business administration, he joined the mujaheddin to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

(It’s not known for sure whether he completed a degree, and if so, in what subject. Some reports say he completed a civil engineering degree in 1979, others a degree in public administration in 1981. Some say he left university in his third year to join the mujaheddin without any formal qualifications at all.)

He is said to have been very involved in religion at university, and this may be where he became involved with extremist activities.

His financial support made him very popular in the wider pan-Arab movement. In 1988 he formed al-Qaeda, which eventually led to his banishment from his home country in 1992. He was connected to multiple terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1997 he was interviewed by CNN‘s Peter Arnett and Peter Bergen in Afghanistan where he was already in hiding from the US. This is the interview where, when asked what his future plans were, he said, “You will see, and hear about them, in the media. God willing.”

Even back then his extreme anti-Semitism is obvious. He seems to believe Jews are controlling the US government, and that they are behind a vast anti-Muslim conspiracy. He also makes it clear back then that he considers civilians valid targets merely for being in non-Muslim in Saudi Arabia.

In 2002 bin Laden sent an open “Letter to the American People” explaining his reasons for his previous and ongoing attacks. It initially appeared on the internet in Arabic, and the English translation is not by or from him. (The full translation can we read here.) In it, although there is much criticism of America and Americans (by which he means the United States of America and her people) and aspects of their foreign policy, all his justification of his actions are religious. To bin Laden, it is Islam, and the fact that the US does not follow Islam and sharia, that gives him the right to murder.

Bin Laden opens his letter with a quote from the Qur’an:

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, “Permission to fight (against disbelievers) is given to those (believers) who are fought against, because they have been wronged and surely, Allah is Able to give them (believers) victory” [Quran 22:39]


The letter includes multiple statements that make it clear that bin Laden thought it was his extreme interpretation of Islam that justified his actions. The establishment of Israel was always a particular point of contention with him, and his rhetoric against that country was especially strong:

Why are we fighting and opposing you [the USA]? …

You attacked us in Palestine:

(i) Palestine, which has sunk under military occupation for more than 80 years. The British handed over Palestine, with your help and your support, to the Jews, who have occupied it for more than 50 years; years overflowing with oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction and devastation. The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals. And of course there is no need to explain and prove the degree of American support for Israel. The creation of Israel is a crime which must be erased. Each and every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution towards this crime must pay its*price, and pay for it heavily.

(ii) It brings us both laughter and tears to see that you have not yet tired of repeating your fabricated lies that the Jews have a historical right to Palestine, as it was promised to them in the Torah. Anyone who disputes with them on this alleged fact is accused of anti-semitism. This is one of the most fallacious, widely-circulated fabrications in history. The people of Palestine are pure Arabs and original Semites. It is the Muslims who are the inheritors of Moses (peace be upon him) and the inheritors of the real Torah that has not been changed. Muslims believe in all of the Prophets, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon them all. If the followers of Moses have been promised a right to Palestine in the Torah, then the Muslims are the most worthy nation of this.

When the Muslims conquered Palestine and drove out the Romans, Palestine and Jerusalem returned to Islaam, the religion of all the Prophets peace be upon them. Therefore, the call to a historical right to Palestine cannot be raised against the Islamic Ummah that believes in all the Prophets of Allah (peace and blessings be upon them) – and we make no distinction between them.

(iii) The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged. You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.

Bin Laden’s opposition to the establishment of Israel is rooted in the claim that the Jews have an historical right to the region based on the Torah. That particular reason to oppose its establishment is fair. However, since he follows it up with the equally unjustifiable reason that it is actually Muslims that have the historical right to the region he destroys his own argument. His reasoning is that the Torah is wrong and the Qur’an is right. His belief is that Islam has always existed and that Palestine (and the rest of the world for that matter) has been Muslim from the time Allah created the earth. The Jews took over that land, but with the coming of Muhammad, that land was returned to its rightful owner, the Muslims.

Bin Laden was not so much interested in the rights and wrongs of everything that has happened between the Israelis and Palestinians since the establishment of Israel. What was important to him was that the Qur’an said that the land belonged to the Muslims and that was, therefore, the end of the argument. Muslims believe that the Bible and Torah have been corrupted and only the Qur’an has a correct record of history. This is one of the reasons secular Muslims, who support modern lawmaking and human rights legislation, are criticized for not being “proper” Muslims.

In the following part of the letter, he justified attacking US civilians. Again, it is couched in religious language, including the religious concept of free will:

(3) You may then dispute that all the above does not justify aggression against civilians, for crimes they did not commit and offenses in which they did not partake:

(a) This argument contradicts your continuous repetition that America is the land of freedom, and its leaders in this world. Therefore, the American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will; a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies. Thus the American people have chosen, consented to, and affirmed their support for the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the occupation and usurpation of their land, and its continuous killing, torture, punishment and expulsion of the Palestinians. The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change it if they want.

(b) The American people are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq. These tax dollars are given to Israel for it to continue to attack us and penetrate our lands. So the American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us, and they are the ones who oversee the expenditure of these monies in the way they wish, through their elected candidates.

(c) Also the American army is part of the American people. It is this very same people who are shamelessly helping the Jews fight against us.

(d) The American people are the ones who employ both their men and their women in the American Forces which attack us.

(e) This is why the American people cannot be not innocent of all the crimes committed by the Americans and Jews against us.

(f) Allah, the Almighty, legislated the permission and the option to take revenge. Thus, if we are attacked, then we have the right to attack back. Whoever has destroyed our villages and towns, then we have the right to destroy their villages and towns. Whoever has stolen our wealth, then we have the right to destroy their economy. And whoever has killed our civilians, then we have the right to kill theirs.


There is a lot that is wrong with the argument above of course. For example, there are many in the US who did and do oppose the actions of their government. Of course, bin Laden is sending them a message that if they oppose what their government is doing they should at the very least convert to Islam. DAESH has extended this message in recent years by encouraging people to take action via so-called “lone-wolf” attacks.

Bin Laden was answering two questions in his open letter. The second was, “What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?” The answer to this was also long and based on his radical interpretation of Islam. The very first thing wrote in this part of his statement was also religious: “The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.”

What bin Laden wanted, and those who are carrying on in his wake continue to want, is for the whole world to convert to Islam.


He goes on:

(a) The religion of the Unification of God; of freedom from associating partners with Him, and rejection of this; of complete love of Him, the Exalted; of complete submission to His Laws; and of the discarding of all the opinions, orders, theories and religions which contradict with the religion He sent down to His Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Islam is the religion of all the prophets, and makes no distinction between them – peace be upon them all.

It is to this religion that we call you; the seal of all the previous religions. It is the religion of Unification of God, sincerity, the best of manners, righteousness, mercy, honour, purity, and piety. It is the religion of showing kindness to others, establishing justice between them, granting them their rights, and defending the oppressed and the persecuted. It is the religion of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil with the hand, tongue and heart. It is the religion of Jihad in the way of Allah so that Allah’s Word and religion reign Supreme. And it is the religion of unity and agreement on the obedience to Allah, and total equality between all people, without regarding their colour, sex, or language.

(b) It is the religion whose book – the Quran – will remained preserved and unchanged, after the other Divine books and messages have been changed. The Quran is the miracle until the Day of Judgment. Allah has challenged anyone to bring a book like the Quran or even ten verses like it.

There is more of course. Reading this letter from him there can be no doubt that Osama bin Laden thought that he was on a mission from God. He wrote of some of the injustices suffered at the hands of the US military, many of which any reasonable person would be in sympathy with. These include situations where civilians were bombed. The illegal war in Iraq following 9/11 greatly increased the number of civilians who have been injured and killed and therefore increased the number of those who have a direct connection with someone who has suffered. The political situation created in Iraq following the war made things even worse. However, using religion to justify the murder of civilians is disturbing to say the least.

Whatever the injustices suffered at the hands of the United States (real or imagined) no one has the right to force their religion on others, despite what bin Laden and those who believe as he did, think. The reality is that Islam, as interpreted by them, does not mean “… total equality between all people, without regarding their colour, sex, or language.” It means the oppression of women and murder of LGBT people, apostates, and anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs, including fellow Muslims who have a different interpretation of the religion. (In fact the letter includes a section that justifies the murder of Muslims that don’t share their beliefs.)

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has an extremely professional on-line magazine called Inspire. Back on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 they published the following in Issue 7 (“Shaykh Usama” is Osama bin Laden):


Inspire 7 Editor 10thWe dedicate this special supplement to the greatest events of the Expeditions of Washington DC, and New York, as Shaykh Usama would call it, or simply 9/11. As American mourns and we celebrate this glorious event, we look into what 9/11 means ten years on. We have all been touched one way or another by the attacks. They are a marking point in history. There was a world before 9/11 and another one, drastically different, post 9/11. I remember one scholar was asked about the effects of the attacks right after they occurred. He said, “It is too early. Ask me ten years from now.” Well here we are ten years on and it is time for us to look into the effects of 9/11 on America and the world.

Shaykh Usama might be dead but his deeds are not. 9/11 has left a permanent scar on the American psyche and will love long after in the hearts of every American. The pain, suffering and agony that Shaykh Usama brought to America is fair payback for the pain, suffering and agony that America has brought to millions of Muslims around the world, in Palestine, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. America got part of what it deserves. The rest will be served by the heroic mujahidin [jihadi fighter] who are continuing on the path of jihad until they achieve victory or meet their Creator. 9/11 was neither the beginning of the war between Muslims and the West nor was it the end. It was merely an episode in a long, protracted war that started at the time of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and will end with al-Malhama [Armageddon], the epic battle mentioned in the hadith.

The story of 9/11 is the story of jihad. It is the story of a small band of men who were guided by Allah, made the intentions to fight, trained on the battlefields and then culminated their struggle with martyrdom to end up their short, but eventful lives, in meeting their Lord.
The 10th anniversary of 9/11 passed with the world commenting on it. We bring to you some of the images from that decade to remind our readers of that great day.

We ask Allah to shower His blessings on the nineteen brothers who fulfilled their duty and moved on and all those who participated in the planning of that glorious event and we ask Allah to grant us the strength to carry on the fight and to grant us victory against our enemies. Âmîn [Amen].

Osama bin Laden also provided a short justification on video of the 9/11 murders. It covers similar points to the letter and he paints himself and Islam as an innocent victim (a sheep butting a wolf).

Personally, I think there is no doubt that bin Laden’s motivation has always been his extreme interpretation of Islam and that he believed what he was doing was the Right Thing, right up until he was killed by a US Navy seal on 2 May 2011.


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93 Responses to “It’s 15 Years Since 9/11 – Why Did Bin-Laden Attack?”

  1. One of the most basic points of psychology is that motivation and justification are rarely the same. Everyone knows that — except when they discuss Islam, it seems.

  2. I meant to add that research into terrorist activity has never disputed the role of religion in the case of Islamist terrorists. That is as obvious as the nose on one’s face. The question is why some people take up the radicalized and extremist views, why they join such groups, etc.

    As for the debate over whether Islam is a religion of peace or not, that is a false debate. It was answered well by Maajid Nawaz in his book with Sam Harris when he said and explained why it is neither a religion of war or peace. It is a religion of peace for those who believe and act on it as a religion of peace and it is a religion of war for those who choose war. That’s the same with any and every religion you can think of.

    When a political figure says it is a religion of peace he or she is trying to defend from public attack those Muslims for whom it is indeed a religion of peace; that’s a good thing. But obviously for those who become radicalized (WHY did they radicalize? Why were they attracted to extremism?) Islam becomes a justification for violence.

    Research shows conclusively that there are common social and personal factors involved in the processes of radicalization. Islam per se explains nothing because it can just as well explain the peaceful Muslims as the violent ones. To blame the Koran is like blaming the Bible for the Waco and Jim Jones cults or for the Zionist extremists who believe they ought to dispossess Palestinians.

    • Ken says:

      Neil, while I largely agree with your comments, that religious belief is so easy a justification for all manner of bad behaviour (as well as good), is enough reason to apportion it a share of responsibility, whether we’re talking about Islamists or Zionists. Yes, a Zionist might find some other excuse to steal land, but nothing serves their purpose better than “god told me it was mine”, because there is no way to argue they are wrong, except to argue against the notion that any such statement could be correct. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should focus on religion, particularly when there are other actions that we have much more control over and which would likely effect real positive change.

    • Coel says:


      Islam per se explains nothing because it can just as well explain the peaceful Muslims as the violent ones.

      You persist in seeing Islam and religion in general as inert. It is the central ideology of people’s lives, and yet — according to you — it has no role in determining whether people are moderate or extremist, peaceful or violent; the only role it plays is in being pointed to in post-hoc rationalisation by people who are violent for other reasons.

      The relevant question is Islam’s role in determining how likely someone is to be moderate versus extremist. The charge is that it makes people more likely to be extremist and intolerant than if they didn’t hold to Islam. (And yes *of* *course* political, social and other factors are also relevant.) Attempts to rebut that charge seem to be little more than denial.

      • Yakaru says:

        Yep. People who sincerely think they have private access to a fourth dimension beyond life and and death that they can transport into are indeed likely to act differently from those who don’t.

      • Coel, you wrote: “according to you — it has no role in determining whether people are moderate or extremist, peaceful or violent; the only role it plays is in being pointed to in post-hoc rationalisation by people who are violent for other reasons.”

        What I wrote was: “I meant to add that research into terrorist activity has never disputed the role of religion in the case of Islamist terrorists. That is as obvious as the nose on one’s face.”

        I have never disputed the role of religion as a factor involved in the reason many people become terrorists. Scott Atran, contrary to what Harris and Coyne say about his research, actually writes that religion is a motivation of Islamic terrorists.

        Take Bin Laden for example. He stated his motivations very clearly and they were geo-political. They were also religious. He expressed his rationale for his geo-political goals in religious terms. The religion was his justification for his political goals.

        That is not reducing to religion to a mere afterthought. It is more than that.

        I have been posting a series on the books setting out the foundational Islamist ideology that has spawned todays Islamist terrorist movement. The first was by Qutb. What we are seeing today is a religious revolutionary ideology that is very dangerous.

        Once one reads the writings of the likes of Qutb and others one sees that religion is an essential factor (obviously) but the question facing us is what attracts people to this revolutionary ideology that declares, in effect, all other Muslims to be apostates.

        Just blaming Islam does nothing to explain this attraction. Most Muslims reject it, and in fact are the targets of the extremists. Islam can be called upon with more justification why most Muslims reject Islamism (i.e. the politico-religious ideology of the terrorists).

        We know once a person is wrapped up in the extremist groups he and she see themselves as very devout and desiring only martyrdom. That’s not your average everyday Muslim.

        There is abundant research to explain why this attraction. I wish Sam Harris would listen just a wee bit more closely to his colleague Maajid Nawaz in understanding some of this and not misrepresenting it.

      • Coel– Islamism is not Islam. Islamism is a religious-political ideology that rejects mainstream Islam as apostate. Islamism is as much at war with Islam as with the West, even moreso because it sees Islamic clerics and rulers and political systems as a betrayal of the “faith”.

        Islamism is to Islam as Jim Jones or some other cult is to Christianity. Of course Jim Jones and other cults proclaim that only they represent True Christianity and they quote literally sections of the Bible. But no-one believes them — quite rightly, too.

        Look at Maajid Nawaz’s boyhood — he describes n his autobiography the fear and horror among mainstream Muslims (his parents included) at the reports of spreading Islamism.

        Read the Islamist founding documents. If you want to know what Nazism was about you could not go past Mein Kampf. Ditto if you want to know what Islamism is about you can’t go past Qutb and Naji’s “Management of Savagery”.

        We alienate our best allies in the fight against Islamism when we blame Islam for extremism.

        • This is almost exactly what I’ve expressed several times myself in the past, although I usually use the Westboro Baptist Church as my example. Jim Jones is a better one because of things like practice runs where he tells them to drink poison that turned out not to be poison and other extreme forms of control.

          Knowing about Outb is vital to understanding Islamism, and I think in this post I wrote about how bin Laden rejected even the Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia as not being pure enough. The writings of Qutb are referred to in the CNN/Fareed Zakaria documentary I posted a few weeks ago: Why They hate Us.

    • I agree with you Neil. (Makes a nice change!) I’m not going into causation so much here as the the fact that bin Laden consistently used his interpretation of Islam as the justification for his acts. I’ve never written a proper causation post to put my line in the sand, though the issues have come up a lot as a result of other posts and I’ve kept saying I will write one. I think regular readers know my views pretty well though. (I will do one sometime.)

      I don’t know whether the fact that I’ve never been able to get across adequately that my biggest problem with Islam re terrorism is the fact it’s used as justification for heinous acts (rather than the cause) is the failure of my writing or that there’s so much emotion bound up in the issue. It’s a subtle difference, but I think an important one.

      • Diane G. says:

        “…my biggest problem with Islam re terrorism is the fact it’s used as justification for heinous acts…”

        I’ve mentioned that more than once here myself (as have others), just finally stopped because it was the same-old butting of heads each time; as if we (at least some of us) want to talk past each other. I’d also add that in addition to justification (or maybe as a corollary), Islam is an excellent recruitment tool that the masterminds wield to stir up the masses. Sure, you can no doubt recruit some segments of the population by stressing Western aggression, but I doubt you’d be able to convince them to fly into buildings. To do that you need the sorts of persuasion (and mortal threats) Yakuru lists below.

        • Yes. You can see it in the way they recruiters target those who are already marginalized, especially those who have criminal records or are already in prison, where they are a captive audience (pun intended). Islam gives them a purpose they never had before where they can use the only life skills they know (i.e. being a criminal) in the service of a greater purpose.

          • Diane G. says:

            Of course, the 911 perpetrators were pretty well-off and educated; but you’re speaking of experiences like Maajid Nawaz’s, the role the Muslim Brotherhood played in Hirsi-Ali’s radicalization as a young woman, etc. So many stories of what we used to call brain-washing!

            I’m just remembering the vid of the woman who was not only proud of her sons for becoming martyrs, but encouraged them to do so! That takes religion!

          • Yes you’re so right. I’m not even a parent and I just can’t imagine that. It does take brainwashing (or whatever we’re supposed to call it). It so often goes back to that Steven Weinberg quote about it taking religion to make good people to do terrible things.

      • nicky says:

        I tend to disagree with you there. I think Islam plays an important part in causation too, not just justification.
        Note, I did not say the only cause, but an important one.

        • I’m not denying it plays a role in causation – I think it does as well. But i think the role in causation is much smaller than the role in justification. That’s why, imo, there are tens of millions who share the very conservative beliefs that are part of causation, but only about 100-200 thousand who move onto carrying out terrorist attacks that are justified by referring to doctrine.

  3. Ken says:

    Very disappointing, Heather! In the two years I’ve been commenting on your site, there’ve been so many discussions on the motivations of terrorism and I was sure you agreed that politics, and particularly western ME interventions, was a huge part of the problem. I’m sure I could find places where you said that. That this is true is demonstrated clearly by the comments of bin Laden, who I have often used as an example to make the point and I don’t remember you ever arguing. Yet here you say his motivation is almost entirely religious despite including all the evidence needed to show that’s just not true. I’m confused to say the least.

    In the first video of the tv interview in 1997, the first thing bin Laden says is that he declared jihad against the US govt because it is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. He links this to US support for the Israeli occupation, to his belief the US is directly responsible for those killed in Palestine and Iraq, and because the US established a permanent troop presence in Arabian holy lands. He later refers to the occupation of countries, stealing of resources and imposing rulers on Muslims, and that the US practices a double standard between Israeli actions and Palestinian actions. He says if the mothers of US soldiers in Arabia are concerned for their sons, they should object to US policy.

    This is primarily a political argument, infused with both political and religions justifications.

    His “Letter to the American people” is similar, with huge amounts of both religion and politics. And the last video about the lamb is almost entirely a political statement. So I can’t understand how you conclude that “all his justification of his actions are religious”, despite so many statements to the contrary. It’s not that what you say about his religious statements is wrong, but that you ignore the implications of all else. You even write that he talks of US crimes, but don’t think these had any part in motivating his own, that it must be religious only instead. But you haven’t made that case and I don’t think it’s possible to do so.

    • BigBillK says:

      Sorry, but I must strongly disagree. While it is indeed true that political conditions and Western meddling.oppression are factors in the radicalization and rebellious desires of many jihadis and terrorists, it is religion that provides the final impetus to adopt such a philosophy and the “moral cover” and rationalization to square it in the delusional’s mind. Religion’s dictates to follow “faith” and believe nonsense despite what the evidence shows is one of the greatest impediments to the advancement of civilization, whether you are talking about islam or any other religion – but especially the Abrahamic religions. Our culture has developed the unfortunate canard that religion is benign and should be respected, but that is absolutely false.

      • Ken says:

        BBK, nothing I’ve said is fundamentally at odds with your comments, so I can’t see what you’re so strongly disagreeing with. I would just add that our culture has also developed the unfortunate canard that it can inflict massive violence on others and expect little or no response in return. That is also absolutely false. We can point to all the truths we want about religion, but that will do little to reduce the violence because we have such small influence over what people choose to believe. I think we should point out those truths anyway, but not at the expense of dealing with the interventionist elephant in the room.

    • From my pov, you’re mixing up motivation with justification. There have been a lot of bad things done by the US government over the years and I’m not disputing that at all. What I’m saying is that IslamIST terrorists use religion to justify their murders of civilians, and that to them this is a holy war. There is, of course, a valid argument that there’s a religious streak in US foreign policy, but that’s not what this post is about. Even though that’s true though, it is not a threat to all other religions that the US has nuclear weapons, for example. If IslamISTs had nuclear weapons, everyone who was not Muslim, or even not their kind of Muslim, would not just be at risk, the weapons would be used. As I would remind you, you and I are already at risk if we travel to several Muslim-majority countries just because we’re atheists. There are a lot of people in the US who would hate us because of that, but most would accept our right to believe as we choose and there’s no legal threat.

      • Ken says:

        Of course, I’ve never had issue with any of that, Heather, though we have noted before it isn’t strictly true for all Islamists, as we know that, despite their mouthing the words, many know little about their religion. But I believe it is true for bin Laden and that’s who you were writing about.

        So just re your first sentence, am I that dumb, or have you not been at all clear enough? Yes, you say “justification”, but I had no idea you were making a distinction between that and motivation. Neil felt the need to make the distinction himself, so un-obvious was it, to us anyway. When your piece is called “why did bin Laden attack”, and the answer is religion, this distinction seems subtle indeed and I think needs to be quite clearly spelled out to avoid confusion, for those of us less literate at least.

        Having said that, I still think you have it wrong that religion is his only justification. Bin Laden clearly also justifies his actions with self defence. He uses both religious license and a sort of “what would you expect?”. In answer to the question why are we fighting you, he says because you attacked us, as though anyone should understand that. The litany of US actions is there to cause indignation and outrage worthy of responding to, as he says. And in the lamb video the ram attacks the wolf not because she is religious, but as a reaction to the wolf eating her lamb. He’s telling this story in part to argue that it is natural that victims would seek to fight back.

        And as we know, the feeling of revulsion and indignation, the playing of the victim card; these also feature very strongly in recruitment pitches. It is easily arguable they play the most important role in the recruitment of western joiners of terrorists groups, for whom religion has hitherto often played very little role in their lives. Indeed, a primary argument for the west to unilaterally stop violent interventions is to deny al Qaeda and others these very recruits, as it is the unjust death of innocents that makes them somehow feel justified to also kill innocents.

        The other problem with claiming his entire justification is religious, is that it implies that if he were not religious, he would have no way to justify his actions. I don’t think that is true even for a religious nutter like bin Laden.

        • I don’t think his entire justification is religious. The thing is, there are valid reasons to complain about US foreign policy. The least likely way to get them to change their minds is terrorism. Reading ‘Inspire’ and ‘Dabiq’ (which is even named for Armageddon) it’s clear that their focus is not changing US foreign policy, but that final mythical battle they believe will bring about a worldwide caliphate.

          • Ken says:

            Justification not entirely religious – great to have that confirmed.

            How to get the US to stop violence. I totally agree there are better ways, not least because terrorism is completely immoral, but the brutal truth is that terrorism can be effective. Just ask the folks who with one suicide bomber killed 243 American military in Lebanon and caused the rest to leave entirely.

            And yes, terrorist groups like Daesh don’t have as a goal to stop violence, but to turn it to their advantage. That they do this so very effectively is just another reason to stop feeding them.

            But I beg you not to get sucked into their propaganda, or you’ll start to sound like Sam Harris. Jill Stein will tell you she’s going to become president, but we know she won’t and that even she doesn’t think that will happen. Of course Dabiq is going to talk big. Propaganda works too. But their actual goals are much closer to home. They are not an existential threat and treating them so will lead to further disastrous mistakes.

          • I agree they’re not an existential threat, and that we shouldn’t feed their propaganda. Terrorism is the ultimate form of bullying and you’re right – it does work. It’s easy to say from NZ of course, but I’m determined not to be bullied about anything and perhaps that’s why I sometimes come across pretty aggressively.

            You’re also right that there are plenty of things we can do that we should do. There has to be more focus on prevention imo, and I suspect you feel the same. The trouble with prevention is that it’s harder, it takes longer, and it’s often difficult to measure success. That means that unless politicians cooperate across the aisle often nothing gets done.

            As for DAESH, I’m not so sure that their actual goals are closer to home. I think their immediate goals are closer to home, but their fantasies do involve a worldwide caliphate, just like the fundamentalist Christians who support extremist groups in Israel because they think it will bring Jesus back. Because those things are so stupid, and the Islamist leaders clearly aren’t stupid, it’s hard to reconcile that they believe in eschatological myths.

          • Ken says:

            I don’t think there are any quick solutions – it’s taken fifty years or more to create the mess – so we might as well concentrate on effective solutions. I’m not sure what you think prevention takes longer than, but surely it’s the most effective thing we can do. A real effort to reduce the attraction of these groups, starting with removing the legitimate grievance of our violent interventions has to be step one if we’re serious. And yes, there has to be the political will, which is why I harp on about it, for that will can only come from the likes of us forcing the pols to do the right thing. No simple task, but name something more in our control than our own actions.

            Yes, Daesh fantasize and a good number actually believe it’s possible, but that shouldn’t change our approach at all. There will always be people like that, so our job has to be to reduce their attraction to take away their capacity for violence. See step one.

          • What I’m referring to is those who think the solution is to go in militarily and kill all terrorists (and often their families too). There has to be some physical control of what terrorists are doing – we can’t just let them take over. At the same time, that’s not a solution. The solution is all the other things, such as you mentioned, that take a long time. In the meantime, there will be more joining terrorist groups, and that can’t be ignored. We have to cure the diseases caused by smoking, we have to stop people smoking, and we have to stop people starting to smoke in the first place, all while recognizing they have a right to smoke if they want to.

          • j.a.m. says:

            “[N]ame something more in our control than our own actions.”

            Wait, what!?!?

          • Ken says:

            Well played!

          • Ken says:

            Agree with that, Heather. Not only is just trying to kill them not a solution, it compounds the problem. Some level of self defence is necessary, but every innocent killed creates another terrorist, so we have to be very judicious in deciding how and when further violence is used.

          • Yeah. I get very screwed up trying to work out this part of the problem. Every death has the potential to create another terrorist via resentment is nothing else. So often it looks like the big guy picking on the little guy and all have family members and most will have someone who loves them. That’s before we get to all the other issues. At the same time, as we’ve both already said, you can’t just ignore them. It’s all but impossible to capture them all, and how do you kill someone in a nice way? If you can’t justify judicial killing, and I don’t think you can, how can you justify extra-judicial killing? Self-defence is a valid argument, but I’ve always thought even that can be taken too far e.g. stand your ground laws have resulted in people getting away with murder imo. I’ve gone off on a tangent, but that’s what always happens when I try to think of a way we could get this right.

          • Ken says:

            Yes, it’s terrible to contemplate. The answer is not to get into such a mess in the first place 🙂 But no matter how complicated, there has to be room for doing less of the stuff that’s obviously wrong. Particularly when we can’t predict the exact outcomes of actions over time, we must still maintain confidence that reducing our wrong-doings will improve the situation. If we can’t say that at least, then I can see no reason to have any hope at all and we might as well give up.

  4. rickflick says:

    Well, looks like an old can of worms is reopened. I’m not sure what proportion of causation derives from the broad scope of Islamic religion, all I can say is, without it, the shape and style of any aggressive response to Western influence in the Middle East would be very different. Further, without acknowledging the significance of Islamic extremism in the world wide insurgency we are probably doomed to failure in defeating it.

    • Ken says:

      The problem with Heather’s piece isn’t lack of acknowledgment of religion’s significance, but overstating its significance, while vastly understating the significance of major other factors that also just happen to be much more within our ability to do something positive about. That’s what is really dooming our efforts to defeat extremism.

    • I’m going to keep the can of worms open too because the only way to solve the problem is to talk about it. In expansion of what I said in reply to Ken, I’m not so much talking about causation here as justification. Whatever the religion, as long as it is used to justify acts of terror, especially against civilians, there’s a problem. It also, as Yakaru points out, makes it impossible to find a rational solution to the problem. As long as one or both sides think that their actions are supernaturally supported, we’re not going to get anywhere.

      • Ken says:

        It’s just not true that rational solutions to terrorism are impossibly beyond our reach due to religion. While it would greatly help, we don’t need the wackos to change their views address the problem. As I said above, denying them recruits would be an extremely rational first step. Cutting off Saudi funding is an obvious next step. The wackos will always be there, but we can do a lot to dis-empower them.

        • I’m not sure I said that, and I’m sorry if I implied it. Both the things you suggest are ideas I also support in preventing Islamist terrorism. Otoh, I think direct negotiation with the terrorists themselves is unlikely to work in this case because of the ideology that drives them. Solutions need to be about creating a society that doesn’t result in people being attracted by their message, and preventing them from operating if they are.

          • Ken says:

            Agree, but preventing them from operating is hard, and the most effective way to do that is to reduce their numbers by concentrating on the reasons people become attracted.

  5. Yakaru says:

    Thanks for writing this, Heather. I agree that it’s important not to lose sight of the basic aspect of this entire situation, (and disagree, as usual, with Neil and Ken above).

    Belief in the personal survival of death can lead people to go to lengths that would otherwise be unthinkable. This is why I think it is extremely important to debate even “moderate” religion when it is presented and normalized in public. People should regularly encounter the idea that God might not exist, and if it does, people probably don’t know what it wants. (And to call this a “Western” idea is an insult to humanity and human history.)

    Further, refusing to consider the role of religion in motivating people’s actions makes their behavior seem more mysterious and unpredictable. If anyone thought militant Zionists are really only interested in real estate, they would be missing the point, and incapable of estimating the settlers’ commitment to their goals, and incapable of finding an effective way of opposing them.

    Even for those who (unlike bin Laden) personally face oppression, their religion can (a) prevent them from acting intelligently towards freeing themselves, and (b) lead them to commit strategically pointless acts of terrorism.

    Slaughtering random people deemed an “enemy” in the streets until martyrdom is not a strategically useful act. Not unless there is the idea of a reward waiting in heaven; and not unless there is the idea of a greater multi-generational war for world domination, as in the case with Islamist extremism.

    Islamic extremism is a very poor political response to oppression. Supernatural powers and divine beings are not useful for real life situations, and we are failing our young people by politely ceding the public arena to popes and imams, no matter how moderate, and letting them talk nonsense unopposed.

    • Diane G. says:

      Excellent comment, Yakuru!

    • Ken says:

      Yakaru, you say “the basic aspect of this entire situation” is religion. I say the basic aspect is western violence. In my scenario (and the CIA happens to agree), 9/11 was in large part retribution for western actions like the 1.5m Iraqi deaths due to war and sanctions, as bin Ladin said, along with his religious justifications.

      In this view, if those western interventions hadn’t occurred, 9/11 probably wouldn’t have either. but if it’s fundamentally about religion, you’d have to say 9/11 would likely have occurred no matter what we did or didn’t do.

      Is that your view?

      This is not an academic question about the past. There are right-wing pundits on tv/radio in the States right now arguing that US actions played no part in creating this mess and so we should continue to do whatever we want, regardless of how many innocent people we hurt. Are you happy to provide support to that lot?

      • Yakaru says:

        Ken, Western oppression is an excuse and an ad hoc justification for it, as Heather pointed out too, above. Oppression committed by other Muslims and by these terrorist groups themselves doesn’t bother them. For them, that’s policy. Human rights, freedom and justice are entirely alien concepts to these people.

        • Ken says:

          So your answer to both questions is yes.

          • Yakaru says:

            It does not follow that I must therefore support right wing racists and loons.

            9/11 (or something similar) may well indeed have happened had the US not invaded Iraq. Islamic terrorists even target random German civilians, even though Germany opposed and condemned the Iraq war, and has taken over a million refugees.

            Religious belief is a significant part of the territory of this issue. It’s like the topography of it — like a large mountain that is not shown on a map that only shows towns and borders. Pointing that out in no way denies the existence of oppression, racism and poverty. In fact, it is essential to understanding why the political responses by Muslims populations (and their supporters in other countries) have often been either impotent, counter-productive or overtly and catastrophically destructive.

          • Ken says:

            Yakaru, I have far less issue with your last paragraph, but then I never said pointing out the significance of religion in any way denies the existence of oppression, racism and poverty. I said denying that the countless violent deaths of innocent Muslims has no part in the motivation and justification of terrorists is wrong and plays into the hand of right-wingers.

            They also argue that there is no legitimate grievance, that western oppression is just an excuse, in response to the charge that US foreign policy has to change if we’re serious about reducing violence from terrorism. I don’t think you’re a right-winger, but that’s a very dangerous point to be agreeing with them on, and certainly does provide support to their conclusion that the US doesn’t need to change its ways, even if that’s not your intent.

            Bin Laden told Fisk that he turned against the US, because of those deaths, US support for Palestinian oppression, and military occupation in Arabia. He said later that 9/11 was intended to illicit an overreaction from the US in the ME that would destabilise corrupt Arab govts. His main target was Saudi and there he failed, but it’s pretty amazing how successful he actually was. I so often hear that we should listen to what terrorists say their motivations are and take them seriously. It’s hypocritical to cherry pick just the religions statements they make and discount the rest.

            I didn’t say it was just the invasion of Iraq in the 1990’s that caused 9/11, so I agree if that hadn’t happened, something like 9/11 likely still may have. Mind you, that is a bad example as bin Laden had no particular problem with that invasion because he hated Hussein. What he objected to were the sanctions that killed 5000 children per month throughout the rest of the 90’s.

            But I’m referring to the last 50-100 years of interventions. It is particularly ironic that this history includes the US and it’s allies purposely militarising Islamic fighters who were motivated in part by their desire to fight the atheist Soviets. That the US exploited their religious fervour and thereby created the very weapon that brought down the twin towers is really what one might call karma, if one believed in such a thing!

            In the absence of the laundry list of deplorable acts from the west, including this militarisation of fundamentalists, I don’t think we can credibly claim 9/11 would have happened, or be in the same situation as we are now with terrorism increasing. I’d like to see us learn from that, that what we do really does matter very much, so that in the next 50 years we slowly make things better rather than even worse. So I say again that the first step is to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of ME Muslims and take real action to address them.

        • nicky says:

          And we should not forget that ‘Western oppression’ is quite a recent phenomenon. Until quite it was the other way round.

          • Ken says:

            Sure, let’s remember all history, though of all the things we’re debating, I can’t think of anything that matters less than this.

      • Hleepage says:

        So what is the ‘real’ motivation behind Islamists’ killing other Muslims who are themselves the victims of American oppression? They claim it is religiously motivated, but we know that they are either lying or mistaken. So what is it really?

        • Hleepage says:

          For that matter, what is the real motivation of Christian missionaries? They also claim to be motivated by their religion, but that can’t be true.

        • Ken says:

          Religion certainly plays a part, as do tribal and other historic differences, plus just the human propensity to want to control others.

          • Hleepage says:

            Would Missionaries go to such lengths to help others without the religious motivation? That seems to me like a very large part of why they behave the way they do.

          • Ken says:

            That seems reasonable. How much they actually helped others is debatable.

          • phil says:


            Much of missionaries motivation is to help others get to the next “life” with their souls intact, i.e. to spread their own religion and stamp out “false” religion.

          • Ken says:

            Not to mention the role so many played in convincing the natives to turn the other cheek while their countries were colonised.

          • Hleepage says:

            My thinking is that maybe Islam is not by itself the reason for the violence, but its relationship to the other motivations is like gasoline to a sparkler. The gasoline might not be THE problem, but man does it change the situation.

          • Whenever there’s an ideology that people accept completely that teaches that the afterlife is more important that this one, there will be issues. We’ve seen several in the West that have resulted in mass suicides, for example. So yes, it does change the situation.

          • Ken says:

            I think that’s true, but we shouldn’t overstate how much it changes the situation. That violence begets violence is true whether religion is involved or not.

          • nicky says:

            As do “historic differences”, but you “can’t think of something that matters less (than history)”? I fear I do not read you right, that I misunderstand you. Could you be a bit clearer there?

          • Ken says:

            I meant the fact that Muslim countries were once colonisers should not be used as an excuse by westereners to avoid advocating for less imperialist foreign policies now.

    • I agree with Diane – great comment.

  6. nwalsh says:

    I stopped counting at 20 the references to the Quran,Allah and Jihad in Bin Laden’s letter. It seems this whole thing is religiously based.

  7. nicky says:

    Slightly off topic, I like to see it in a longer term perspective.
    There has been a long war going on between the Christian -now secular (a struggle in its own right)- ‘West’ and Islam.
    Eg. We may celebrate the achievements of the Arabo-Andalus (music, architecture, science, Avicenna, Averroes), but we should not forget it was a totalitarian set up, not averse to massacres of infidels.
    The Ottoman (muslim) Turks besieged Vienna, right in the heart of Europe, not that long ago.
    ‘Barbary corsairs’ took more than a million ‘Westeners’ into slavery in the 19th century (the raison d’ etre for the sixth fleet btw).
    Over the last 150 or so odd years the’West’ got the upper hand, mainly due to the Industrial Revolution (Ithink)
    They have not really always been magnanimous or even smart.
    The arbitrary borders in the Near East are a case in point.
    The invasion in Afghanistan was justifiable, the first Iraq war (by papa Bush) was justified, NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia was justfied too. The 2003 invasion of Iraq (by baby Bush) was not (I’m not a legalist, but a case of war-crime could be made there, methinks).The support for anti-Assad rebels is a serious mitake, methinks, and the humanitarian (don’t forget is was a UN mission) in Libya turned disastrous. So yes, the ‘west’ has a lot of butter on its head.
    I do think Islamist terrorism is a side issue, the ‘colonisation’ of western Europe over the last few decades, combined with the resurgence of Islamic fundamentaalism, funded by the Wahabist Salafist Saudi madrassas (our own petro-dollars) is a much greater problem. And if Islam is not a problem (which I doubt) Salafi Wahabism definitely is.

    • Ken says:

      I’m not sure what you’re overall point is, if that both sides have done wrong when they had the chance, then I don’t disagree. It’s what we should expect, but that’s denied in the US due to American exceptionalism, which is the myth that we only do good, or at worst make occasional “mistakes”, if Sam Harris is to be believed.

      All the justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan and the Kosovo bombing I’ve heard are bogus. I don’t have much sympathy for the first Gulf War either. The best that can be said is that we were restoring order, but of course, the order was artificial to start with, given the arbitrary borders as you say, plus the fact that Hussein was another monster that the US put in power and directly supported through far worse crimes. And speaking of war crimes, our care for innocents was absent here too, possibly the worse example being the use of depleted uranium shells that predictably contaminated the soil and led to a huge increase in birth defects and cancers. When Bush said they hate us for our freedoms, maybe it was our freedom to kill indiscriminately he was referring to.

      • Hleepage says:

        With the premise that the West is at fault for essentially all of the current violence in the Mulim world, what could the U.S. do, starting tomorrow, to set things right?

        • nicky says:

          1 – Start by investing just a part of the trillions spent in the Iraq war to develop solar, and electric cars. Make that technology available world wide.
          No more oil, no more easy riches for Saudi, no more funding for Wahabist Salafi madrassas the world over.
          That would be a good start methinks.
          2 – Choose Elon Musk, Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, Jerry Coyne, Heather Hastie or even the unjustly maligned Sam Harris for president. 🙂 With the prospect of a Trump presidency looming……
          3 – Prosecute the real hate speech of the Wahabist Imams, even if it is in Arabic.
          1 and 3 can be relatively easily done, me seems. 2 is more moot.

          • Hleepage says:

            The maligning of Sam Harris is one of those things that makes me feel like I’m taking Crazy Pills. I am fully convinced that he has honor, integrity, self-knowledge/awareness, and genuine intentions to effect positive change for mankind. He is entertaingly condescending toward bad arguments and bad ideas, but will listen patiently to anyone willing to extend him the same courtesy. He even freakin’ admits when he is wrong! But somehow he’s really a genocidal, racist book-peddler. Can I really be that bad at assessing other humans?

          • Ken says:

            Harris has been discussed a lot on this blog, so I won’t repeat arguments that you can search for if your really interested. I’ll just say that as someone who has read all of Harris’ books and spent years defending him (for he has been unfairly maligned), I have come to realise that Sam isn’t as close to perfect as you seem to think. I have little argument with his academic criticism of Islam, but his analysis of our situation with regard to terrorism either outright denies or very largely discounts the need for the west to take the sort of actions to reduce violence discussed on this page. As a result he gets the priorities so wrong that following his prescription would lead to more strife, not less. Indeed he has become so shrill in his talk of “sleepwalking towards Armageddon”, that I think he has lost his sense of perspective. I expect he won’t make a positive contribution to the debate until he finds some way of stepping back from the shit storm he and others have created around him. Other than that, love the guy.

        • Ken says:

          That’s not my premise at all, Hleepage, but I would add to nicky’s list by saying that we should play the fair arbiter that we often claim ourselves to be and take positions that show the average ME Muslim at least that we want to act in support of their wellbeing rather than against it. That would have to include actually supporting a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine by not letting the Israelis build settlements for another 50 years. We might fling a few less drones around since they seem to have the same affinity for wedding parties that tornadoes do for trailer parks. Let’s promise that when we do feel it absolutely necessary to intervene, we won’t do so in ways that predictably cause so many civilian casualties; maybe sign the land mind treaty and certainly never again used depleted uranium in battle. Telling the Saudis to fuck off wouldn’t go amiss either, instead of actively supporting their own aggression in Yemen while funding the very religious ideology of the terrorists that need defeating. It would also help to stop selling arms to both sides of so many conflicts and take nuclear nonproliferation seriously too. I’ve little idea what to do in Syria, but taking our fair share of refugees seems the least we could do.

      • nicky says:

        I’m not so sure that Saddam was put into power by the US (more bluntly: he was definitely not) Baathism was quite socialist, leaning towards the USSR, anathema to US policies.
        For ‘justified’ read ‘justifiable’, quite a difference, my bad. The 2003 invasion of a Iraq is/was not in any way justifiable, a war crime IMMO. (I opposed it, but not very vigorously, to my regret).
        My point is that the Islamic world is no more of a victim than the ‘West’, it is as imperialist as the worst we know, and that the ‘West’s upper hand is only recent and probably not lasting.

        In other words, I do not buy into the victimhood stance of mainstream Islam . Islam is as imperialist, opressive and bigoted as the worst of us.

        • Ken says:

          I have read often that Saddam was the “CIA’s favorite coup” and never even heard that challenged, just like that they had a role in the coup in Iran a few years earlier. Perhaps they saw in him the realignment they wanted in Iraq.

          I don’t see how can you say there was a war crime, but no victims. Whatever Islam is has nothing to do with any crimes perpetrated on innocent Muslims. The ideas that Islam can be bad and Muslims can be unjustly killed are just not mutually exclusive.

          • nicky says:

            I did not say there were no victims, my point is that ‘Islam’ is no more a victim than the ‘West’, if you look at it in the somewhat longer term. They are both imperialist agressors. Moreover, many victims -if not the bulk- in this ongoing war are muslims victim of other muslims.
            Saddam was the USSR’s man. (As an illustration, he had Scud missiles, not Tomahawks). During the Iran-Iraq war, admittedly, the US saw him as the lesser evil, but I’m unaware of serious ‘Western’ support.

          • Ken says:

            Countries (or caliphates) can be imperialist, not religions. But how does any historical imperialism justify our present imperialism? In the context of western violence and even war crimes, of what particular use is this longer term view, except to in some way try to justify actions that can’t be justified?

            I don’t think the west is responsible for inter-Muslim violence, except indirectly to the extent that our interventions contribute to the general chaos that this violence occurs in, such as is the case with the destabilisation of Iraq.

            It’s true that the Ba’athists originally had an orientation towards the Soviet Union, but even before Saddam became president, they started persecuting communists and turning towards the west, though it is fair to say he tried to keep good relations with both sides. The US was keen to support Iraq in the war with Iran, removing Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, providing Saddam satellite intelligence and removing export restrictions, which knowingly led to the importation of the ingredients for chemical weapons. Soon after he used chemical weapons in Iran, Rumsfeld visited Saddam, not to complain, but to assure him he still had US support in the war. Joke from Gulf War II: We know you have WMD. We have the receipts!

  8. nicky says:

    Ken, how can religions not be imperialist? When one reads the Islamic trilogy (Qur’an, Hadith and Syra) one reads a blueprint for imperialism. It is neigh impossible to read it otherwise.

    • Ken says:

      Imperialism is about one country controlling another country’s land, political system, resources or economics. A religion on its own doesn’t have the means to do this. Christianity on it’s own didn’t establish colonies, countries did that. Certainly countries can use religion as a means of implementing their imperial ambition, like Christian Europeans did, but there has to be some organised political structure calling the shots ultimately. Same with the Crusades. And likewise, with Islam, it was either the Turkish caliphate or more traditional Arab caliphates that planned and colonised other lands, not Islam by itself.

      • Ken you’re forgetting that Islam isn’t just a religion, it’s a political system. The Christian Church used their secular allies to carry out their warfare for them. They even handed over people they judged and sentenced to death for the secular authorities to carry out the penalty to keep their own hands clean. Islam hasn’t done this from the beginning. Any biography of Muhammad will show that what he did fits the description of Imperialism. Some majority Muslim countries now have secular and religious separate, and some are trying to, but plenty haven’t. Pakistan is nominally separate, for example, but when they tried to introduce a law forbidding child marriage earlier this year the senior clerics wouldn’t allow it because it opposed Sharia.

        • Ken says:

          I’m no expert on Islamic history, but that just doesn’t fit with what I’ve read. Imperialism is about extending influence outside one’s acknowledged boarders. When Muhammad started, there weren’t even boarders to extend. His achievement was to establish a state of sorts with boarders by taking control of the Arabian peninsula where he lived, and particularly by uniting Mecca with Medina. Much of the ten years this took he was being attacked nearly as often as attacking and many of his excursions were to deal to nearby groups that were a threat to his very existence. And he died not long after the conquest of Mecca, so had little time to even contemplate taking it further. It makes more sense to see this as an extended local struggle for supremacy that Muhammad eventually won. The imperialists were the caliphs that followed. They created an empire, not he.

          Yes, the religion and politics were inseparable, but that doesn’t argue against the point, which holds even more in the modern context. For the west to be threatened by “imperialist Islam”, it would take an established political state with the capacity as well as the desire to do so. This is the qualitative difference with Daesh, as compared to al Qaeda. And while they have the desire in spades, they have little capacity and talk up the prospect mainly as a propaganda tool for recruitment.

          The original claim by nicky was that the modern migration of Muslims (ironically, due itself in large measure to western imperialism) amounts to a “colonisation” of the west, and he says this to argue that we shouldn’t be so concerned to curtail western imperialism. I was specifically arguing against that.

          • I agree that Islam isn’t an existential threat to the West, and what’s happening now isn’t Imperialism, though DAESH, Al-Shabaab, and a couple of others would like it to be.

            The methods used by Muhammad though were, in the context of the time, imperialist imo. He was also particularly brutal (even by the standards of the time) and untrustworthy when it came to things like treaties. He plundered to an extent that would make the British Raj blush.

            As an aside, it’s also possible that he didn’t really die when he is said to have; there is evidence he was alive past when he is traditionally said to have died. It’s also highly likely he never existed in the first place – much of his biography shows signs of having been made up later, for example. It’s very difficult getting evidence though because there is no appetite locally to search in case no evidence of his existence can be found.

          • Ken says:

            Ok, but I just don’t see how uniting/conquering one’s homeland can be seen as imperialist, no matter how brutal, and if he didn’t even exist, even less so! I’ve never heard there was any doubt about that though. Unlike Jesus, of whom there is no mention in any secular records or stories of the time, I’d have thought the existence of treaties would be evidence for Muhammad, though I guess someone else could have done what he is credited with doing.

          • Yes, that was my thought too – Putin has endorsed it therefore it could be problematic for the West to support it and there could be something else going on. There’s the strengthening Russia/Iran alliance to worry about, which might be part of it, and the whole thing could get mired in the political Iran/Saudi animus.

            And yes, more arms to Saudi is a major issue. They’re one of the world’s biggest military spenders and I’d like to know what they’re doing with them all, because they’re not using them all themselves. That goes back to the US supporting Saudi and Russia supporting Iran too.

          • There is no reliable evidence of his existence. Also, there is no archaeological evidence that Mecca even existed when Muhammad was supposed to be alive. All the evidence comes from the Qur’an and hadiths, which were, of course, compiled years later, so are naturally not considered reliable by historians. The Qur’an is quite open about him breaking treaties etc – the idea is that he didn’t have to keep agreements with non-Muslims. There’s lots of nasty stuff about him in the Qur’an but it’s like the Bible – most Muslims have never actually read it.

          • nicky says:

            No Ken, I think we should be very much curtailing Western imperialism. Any imperialism, for that matter. I must not have been very clear there. Just that it takes two to party.
            Note, an expanding “struggle for supremacy” is nearly the definition of imperialism, methinks.

            I think the main original cause for the Muslim immigration into Europe was cheap labour from the Europen side, and a way to improve economically from the muslim labourors’ side.
            There was the idea that these labourors would go back after a while, or would integrate into European society (like southern and eastern European immigrants did). This did not happen, fueled by the ‘west-despising’ whahabist madrassas.

            And now we have the growth of all kinds of fascistoid parties all over Europe, because they were/are the only ones recognising the problem. The ‘reality-detached’ rethoric of the regressive left, and the not so regressive left, is, of course, the other leg fueling the conflict (which I fear could even end in civil war). For all clarity: I find that very distressing.

          • Ken says:

            Ok, thanks for clarifying that. Yes it takes two, the coloniser and the colonised.

            If we’re going to say that almost any “struggle for supremacy” is imperialism, the word will lose it’s meaning. From Wiki:

            Imperialism means “to extend a country’s power through military and diplomacy”. Its name originated from the Latin word imperium, which means to rule over large territories. Imperialism is “a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means”. It has also allowed for the rapid spread of technologies and ideas. The term imperialism has been applied to Western (and Japanese) political and economic dominance especially in Asia and Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its precise meaning continues to be debated by scholars. Some writers, such as Edward Said, use the term more broadly to describe any system of domination and subordination organised with an imperial center and a periphery.

            This applies perfectly to what the caliphs did in extending Arabia’s power and control well beyond Arabia, all the way to Spain. It does not fit with creation of a united Arabia itself.

            Your theory of cheap labour is surely part of the reason for Muslim immigration, but it’s not nearly the whole story, and “‘west-despising’ whahabist madrasas”, being a recent phenomenon, have little to do with why they stayed. In France and Britain, for instance, most Muslims came from their colonies and had a right to stay as British and French citizens. These Muslim communities are now many generations old and predate any influence from the whahabists. It’s true that integration was bungled. The US has done a much better job at this. And of course, neither has much to do with the huge influx of refugees from states western imperialism helped to break.

            The fascists don’t understand the problem, they are just exploiting people’s fears. They are the ‘reality-detached’, those who complain about immigrants and refugees, but who will take no responsibility for their own part in creating the mess, but think a racist policy of just closing borders will fix the problem.

          • nicky says:

            On Imperialism I’m close to Said. Borders are a moot subject. A forced ‘unification’, how does one decide it actually is ‘one nation’? Only after that forced (or not) unification. How big is the ‘homeland’?
            In still think that a ‘struggle for supremacy’ is close to a definition of Imerialism. Supremacy over what? Moot indeed.

            I also note that those who do not want to go into relatively recent examples of Islamic imperialism are keen to invoke the Crusades… 🙂
            I did not imply *at all* that the ‘West despising Salafist Wahabist madrassas’ (indeed more recent than the start of the migration) were the reason the muslim immigrants in Europe stayed, Only that they made integration much more difficult, if not close to impossible.

            ‘Colonisation’ is a correct term here, meseems: in many areas muslims have replaced the original population, imposing their Islamic rules and culture. How would you call it otherwise?

            As Heather pointed out, Islam is more than just a religion.

          • Ken says:

            I find such loose definitions of words serve more to confuse than clarify, but I guess that’s just me.

    • Interesting? It’s bloody fantastic! And about time. If this gets momentum, it could be what finally saves the world from Islamist extremists. Thanks so much for finding it!!!

      • Ken says:

        Tru dat! Would like to know more before I get excited though. Suspicious of anything involving Putin. And how will the US respond? Rather than embrace and assist I can see this being treated as just another Russian threat. The US just signed off another $1b in arms to Saudi that they will use in Yemen. As Senator Chris Murphy said in the debate to try and stop it,
        “If you’re serious about stopping the flow of extremist recruiting across this globe, then you have to be serious that the … brand of Islam that is spread by Saudi Arabia all over the world, is part of the problem”. Of course he was ignored and I worry what the US might do to further support the Saudis.

  9. Just a couple of points after reading some of the comments above:

    1. Islam has many problems that need to be addressed in relation to human rights and social justice questions.

    2. Terrorism should not be mixed up with those generic problems facing Islam. Islamist terrorism is a recent development that needs to be explained on its own terms — and that means studying the origins and spread of the Islamist ideology in recent decades, including the ideological writings laying down its foundations and setting out its goals, methods and rationale.

    3. As for the difference between motivation and justifications the division is not always black and white. But studies into the processes of radicalization show that religion is usually the worst predictor of who will become radicalized because those who do become extremists generally only show a suddenly new zealous interest in religious ideas after they have already moved well along the path towards extremism. By the time that new interest is evident it is too late to do anything to change them in too many cases.

    One study showed that would-be suicide bombers often were the ones who received their most intense religious indoctrination only after they were committed to their cause.

    One often hears someone say yes of course social and political factors are also a cause but at the same time they speak of Islam as if it is the only cause and one cannot understand what significant role other factors actually play. I think this is because so much of our view is governed by a broader hostility to religion generally and Islam in particular.

    But if we try to step outside our biases and study the research literature we find it by and large supports what Maajid Nawaz expresses in his book co-authored with Sam Harris. (I am no fan of Maajid, by the way, but that’s for other reasons.)

    What dismays me in this debate is how so few people seem willing to read the serious research into Islamist extremism, the processes of radicalization, etc. and rely upon lay views that unfortunately rubbish that research (misrepresenting it, in fact) and fan little more than an all round anti-religious and anti-Islamic bigotry.

    Sure Islam and religion have a lot to answer for and lots to change. But let’s be careful and get our facts straight — do a bit of serious study of the research — when we’re talking about terrorism.

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