On the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it is clear that al-Qaeda was a tiny fringe terrorist movement, not a globe-straddling threat to Western societies. The organization has been decisively disrupted and now lacks command and control. Its leader, Usama Bin Laden, has not been seen in a video since 2004, and is either dead or horribly disfigured. Its number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is dangerous only in the way that any other terrorist crank is, firing off crackpot messages to his dwindling band of followers from time to time. With the startling rise of anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States, fanned in large part by Republican Party fear mongering, it is worthwhile underlining the ways in which September 11 contravened Islamic values and Islamic law. (For a modernist, liberal interpretation, see this pdf file, “Jihad and the Islamic Law of War.”
1. It is forbidden to attempt to impose Islam on other people. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right way has become distinct from error.” (-The Cow, 2:256). Note that this verse was revealed in Medina and was never abrogated by any other verse of the Quran. Islam’s holy book forbids coercing people into adopting any religion. They have to willingly choose it.
2. Islamic law forbids aggressive warfare. The Quran says, “But if the enemies incline towards peace, do you also incline towards peace. And trust in God! For He is the one who hears and knows all things.” (8:61) The Quran chapter “The Cow,” 2:190, says, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.”
3. In Islamic war, not just any civil engineer can declare or launch a war. It is the prerogative of the duly constituted leader of the Muslim community that engages in the war. Nowadays that would be the president or prime minister of the state.
4. The killing of innocent non-combatants is forbidden. According to Sunni tradition, ‘Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the first Caliph, gave these instructions to his armies: “I instruct you in ten matters: Do not kill women, children, the old, or the infirm; do not cut down fruit-bearing trees; do not destroy any town . . . ” (Malik’s Muwatta’, “Kitab al-Jihad.”)
5. Muslim commanders must give the enemy fair warning that war is imminent. The Prophet Muhammad at one point gave 4 months notice. Sneak attacks are forbidden.
The World Trade Center had a mosque in it, which Bin Laden destroyed, and he killed dozens of innocent Muslims in the attack along with thousands of others. All of this is an abomination in Islamic law.
By the laws of classical Islam and the instructions of the Quran, then, the September 11 act of terrorism was illegal. It is not an affirmation of Islam but a departure from its laws of war. That is why, contrary to popular belief, Muslim authorities have roundly condemned al-Qaeda’s actions in no uncertain terms. See also the Amman statement, to which large numbers of prominent Sunni and Shiite leaders subscribed.
Al-Qaeda can legitimately be seen as not a Muslim group at all. Usama Bin Laden openly said of the hijackers that ‘those young men had no fiqh [Islamic law]‘– i.e. they were lawless secret operatives rather than proper Muslims. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad when in the Philippines lived like James Bond, going to nightclubs with a pure silver cigarette lighter. Several of the hijackers frequented strip clubs. Ziad Jarrah was from a secular family and had a Turkish live-in girlfriend. Many of these operatives simply were not fundamentalists but rather an odd sort of Muslim nationalist. Bin Laden did not target the US because of its way of life, but because he said it imposed a boycott on Iraq in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, because it encouraged the Saudi regime to pump more oil than it should so as to keep the price low, because it stationed troops in the kingdom. Even if Bin Laden hadn’t been a crackpot with conspiracy theories, these points are not civilizational or religious issues. They are just politics.
Bin Laden wanted a big fight between the Muslim world and the United States. He wanted the US mired in Afghanistan. He is a nobody, leading a tiny group of cells now mostly disrupted. But the US has sunk itself into a quagmire of wars in a vast over-reaction to a terrorist attack. Without the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, al-Qaeda might well have just disappeared even further into insignificance than it did. And now, instigated by the Republican Party, US society is moving toward an Islamophobia that could well set it at odds with 1.5 billion Muslims.
Bin Laden is not a proper Muslim, and his actions contravened Islamic law. He is a Jim Jones-type cultist with a fringe, violent People’s Temple. Americans need to stop blaming Islam, and to recognize that most Muslims in the world are their friends, and that American Muslims are patriots and contributors to our well-being.
Every time Americans tear down Islam, Bin Laden gets a little bit of what he wanted.