Al-Qaeda as Fringe Cult: 12 Years Later, Heretical Text of 9/11 Hijackers Still Withheld by FBI (Kurzman)

Charles Kurzman writes at IslamiCommentary

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What sort of Muslims carried out the largest mass murder in American history, 12 years today? The FBI refuses to release a document that might show just how unusual their brand of Islam was, and further reduce what little sympathy they enjoy among the world’s billion Muslims.

This document, a handwritten note by 9/11 organizer Muhammad Atta, opened with a heretical-sounding invocation — “In the name of God, and of myself, and of my family” — in addition to the standard invocation, “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.” We know this from a government translation that was leaked to the Washington Post (left) in late September 2001.

The FBI released four other pages of Atta’s notes on its website within weeks of 9/11, but not the Arabic original of the fifth page, on which this invocation appears. I have filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the document six times, but the FBI refuses to make it public, even in a redacted form, on the grounds that it might “interfere with enforcement proceedings.” (See image below right)

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The FBI did not indicate what enforcement proceedings would be affected, 12 years after the event, or how the document might interfere with them. (“The role of FOIA is not to answer questions, it is to provide documents,” the FBI’s public liaison officer told me when I asked for further information. In this instance, he clarified, the FBI would not provide either answers or documents.)

In the court of public opinion, however, the document deserves close inspection. To associate oneself and one’s family with God, as Atta’s invocation (“In the name of God, and of myself, and of my family”) seems to do, is considered impious by virtually all Muslims — a breach of the monotheism that is central to their faith. “Whoever associates others with God has committed a terrible sin,” the Qur’an declares.

The invocation could be seen as especially heretical by puritanical Islamic groups that are intolerant of practices they consider polytheistic, such as prayers for the intercession of saints. And, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, these radicals have destroyed entire Muslim cemeteries in order to prevent prayers at family tombs. These groups identify themselves as Muwahhidun, or Unitarians, a sign of the importance they accord to the principle of the unity of God. Outsiders often call them “Wahhabis.”

If the leaked translation of Atta’s invocation is correct, and the document is genuine, then the release of the missing page might help accentuate the sharp theological divide between puritanical Wahhabis and al-Qa’ida militants.

Likewise, Atta’s odd invocation could provide further grounds for Muslim religious scholars of all stripes to distance themselves from the terrorists. Almost every major Muslim leader in the world denounced the attacks of 9/11, publicly and forcefully. Even Islamic militants — 46 leaders of radical movements in Pakistan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and elsewhere — released a joint proclamation on September 12, 2001, expressing sorrow for the “innocent lives” lost on the previous day: “We condemn, in the strongest terms, the incidents, which are against all human and Islamic norms.” They quoted a verse of the Qur’an on the inviolability of innocents: “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another.” (This and dozens of other Islamic statements against terrorism are available on my website.

Of course, ordinary Muslims too were horrified by the violence perpetrated in their name. While television cameras zoomed in on small crowds cheering the news, far greater numbers gathered in sympathy with the victims of September 11, carrying candles and flowers. Rumors blaming the U.S. or Israeli government spread among Muslims who were so appalled by the event that they did not want to believe fellow Muslims could be responsible. Many of these people will not be swayed by the release of a document that they may not consider genuine.

But for the small cohort of Muslim revolutionaries who embraced the “raid” on America, as they called it, the missing page of the hijacker’s letter could well be cause for consternation — further calling into question the theological purity of the attack and of al-Qa’ida itself.

Charles Kurzman is a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists (Oxford University Press, 2011). He is also co-director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations.

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Mirrored from IslamiCommentary

20 Responses

  1. Killing people does not cause the revulsion than a breach of orthodoxy? How sick is that!

    • “Killing people does not cause the revulsion than a breach of orthodoxy? How sick is that!”

      My thought exactly.

  2. On the morning of 9/11, the first words out of my mouth were (besides, holy sh*t), blowback! I was immediately told to watch what I say by a friend.
    We have a very long negative history in the M.E., so that’s not an unreasonable assumption.
    But, aren’t the Neo-cons an American version of Al Quaeda?
    A minority voice acting out a radical militarism affecting the way Americans are viewed by the world at large?
    The violence by both is extreme at best…

    • “We have a very long negative history in the M.E….”

      Not nearly as long or as negative as the British and the French who, in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Treaty, carved up the Near East between them after the defeat of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire in World War I. And speaking of the Ottoman Empire, it exercised imperial rule over the Near East for four centuries, and that was an Islamic–not Western–Empire.

      • Hmm, not sure I understand your point.
        I’m aware of history; I was addressing our part of that history, which goes back longer than my age of 68.

    • But as the Professor explains, al Qaeda terrorists like Atta are not merely extremists. They are not fundamentally like other people in the Middle East, only more so. They are basically different in how they view the world.

      It’s not “Al Qaeda is to Middle Eastern Muslims as the Symbionese Liberation Army is to American liberals.”

      It’s “Al Qaeda is to Middle Eastern Muslims as the Manson Family is to American liberals.”

      Not an more violent, extreme version, but a bizarre little cult off to the side.

  3. Addendum: I also acknowledge there is now very little, to no, difference between the two dominant political parties in America when it comes to “foreign policy”. .

  4. “If the leaked translation of Atta’s invocation is correct, and the document is genuine, then the release of the missing page might help accentuate the sharp theological divide between puritanical Wahhabis and al-Qa’ida militants.”

    Unfortunately, that might mean less aid for the military-industrial complex George Washington tried to warn of. If the actual threat is less than the ‘presented’ threat, then less money is required for high-paying wages, lucrative lobby contracts, sale of equipment and weaponry to overseas countries, and the need for a surveillance state staffed with minders who cant speak Arabic or think the Constitution a quaint document that unfortunately gets in the way of administering the law. Its the new old ‘welfare’ state with the priorities for spending shifted to different sectors

  5. It depends on the original text; there are some formulations that are quite routine that could have been translated as in the Post article, as in bismillah, rabbi wa rabb aba’i. Even if it were bismillahi wa bismi wa bism ahli or something like that would it be necessarily be heretical?

    Another issue is that the political beliefs, as opposed to the religious ones, of the 9-11 attackers were not so ‘heretical’ in the sense that a significant contingent in the ME at the time felt the US richly deserved to pay for its active and tacit crimes in the region. This attitude cut across sectarian lines, especially after the events at Jenin.

    • Agree with Kizilbash. There is nothing wrong with saying “bismillah wa bi-ismi wa bi-ismi aa-ilati,” if that is what the original document says. One might swear upon one’s family, meaning “I will not dishonor my family” and “you can trust my word.”

      Also agree with Kizilbash re political vs. religious.

      There are two aspects to Bin Laden’s message, one is political and the other religious. (1) Political message: “Rid Arab lands of foreign armies or foreign influences,” a message that rings true for vast majority of Arabs. (2) Religious message: “Islam is the method and solution” except that al Qaeda’s version of Islam is derived from Wahhabism, a very harsh puritanical (Salafi) version of Islam that the vast majority of Muslims don’t support.

      Many people from just about any background in the world believe in “the good old days.” Salafism is a form of returning to “the good old days of Islam” to restore the world to its natural order. Supposedly these glory days of Islam were in the first two centuries after Muhammad. In Christianity, Puritanism is somewhat of a parallel and which involves the reading and practice of scripture in its purist form. Just as Christianity has variants on Puritanism, particularly after it crossed the Atlantic, Islam has various puritanical groups that spread from Arabia to N. Africa and Central Asia, and which can be conveniently lumped together as Salafis as a term of classification rather than a specific method of Islamic practice. The subsets of Salafis would certainly be fringe groups, or the “cults” that Mr. Kurzman refers to in the above article.

      Note that strains of Salafism have been creeping into the Islamic Brotherhood movement which originally established as a social and political Islamic movement that also aimed to rid Arab lands of colonialism and foreign influence, but it is not a Salafi movement.

      That Salafis have various and often opposing views of how Islam is to be practice is expected. It would be a shocker if all Salafis were of one mind.

  6. I thought at least in academic circles, outside the far right, or at least policy analysts al Qaeda was always seen Fringe movement. Like lets face it outside the radical Taliban government he had no political support, even Sudan didn’t like Osama Bin Laden after the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation was abolished. Al Qaeda hated the Arab states for their US support, he hated Iran and Syria for their Shia government and well Saddam was seen as the un-Islamic bastard of the Middle East.

    I always viewed Osama and Al Qaeda as that radical fringe movement that was born out of a revolutionary Wahhabi movement, e.g they had support from their like minded Wahhabi compatriots that was created in the Afghan-Soviet war and the Afghan civil war, forged in the brotherhood of war, and a dying breed of radicalism.

    Even though the support for Israel, the Lebanese Civil War, Yugoslavia and the Golf War created this environment for anti-Americanism, it was never pivotal enough for most Muslims to support a radical Wahhabi group such as al Qaeda.

    However, the current war on terror has created a paradox were this revolutionary brand of Wahhabism has resurfaced. Iraq created a new brand of al Qaeda, gained new support and revitalized the movement and now the US and Arab States are doing the same thing in Syria as they did previously in Afghanistan. On the other hand, despite the majority of Pakistanis detesting the Taliban and al Qaeda, years of drone strikes have equally caused enough anti-Americanism to become a problem in the future. Often forgotten by Western Media that Pakistan currently has a polio-endemic, mainly caused through fear of vaccination.

  7. I wish that we would stop the “are they good Muslims” type discussions. They are insurgents fighting for a cause who happen to be Muslims. Religion is not their cause!

    Do we have the same discussions after domestic terrorism events? Did we ask if Timothy McVeigh, the Kansas City bomber, was a good Christian? Do we ask if the KKK are good Christians? They certainly claim to be. Lots of nasty people find it useful to wrap themselves in religion.

    These discussions distract us from asking useful questions like why are they fighting? What is their cause? What are their grievances? Can we stop them from attacking us by acting on their grievances?

    These are difficult questions that we don’t want to thing about. We are much happier to talk about their religion; lets us off the hook.

    • Since McVeigh’s was brought up, I would like to add to that. It WAS questioned, since he associated with Christian Identity members, whether or not he also belonged. Christian Identity followers were indeed engaged in anti-government actions and bank robberies, hence the questioning of his membership. As noted, however, McVeigh claimed to have had sex with an associate’s (sent to jail for the bombing) wife, who was from the Philippines. Christian Identity members justify the murder of inter-racial couples through one passage of the Old Testament regarding the killing of a Jew who intermarried. I have to say I find the convoluted “logic” of radical fringe “religious” groups absolutely fascinating. Speaking on the main topic, as an Arabic speaker (ahem, Presbyterian), I remember reading the (partial) Atta letter and immediately thinking what a flake he was. Not only the heretical opening, but instructions on how to wash his body. Yes, I want to see and read the whole thing as well.

    • Do you really ask whether Timothy McVeigh and the KKK have legitimate grievances that we should act upon?

      Does the deliberate mass murder of civilians always cause you to respond this way, or is it only when carried out against Americans by non-Americans that you assume some legitimacy to their cause?

  8. “Likewise, Atta’s odd invocation could provide further grounds for Muslim religious scholars of all stripes to distance themselves from the terrorists.” Ah yes, because Muslim religious scholars today are in love with these terrorists? What the heck is this guy really trying to say? No offense, but this article lacked any meaning, and as a Muslim, was insulting.

  9. It’s a good point, and kudos for the efforts to get the details, but Robert Fisk noticed this almost 10 years ago: link to commondreams.org . “The document begins with the words: “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate … In the name of God, of myself, and of my family.” The problem is that no Muslim – however ill-taught – would include his family in such a prayer. Indeed, he would mention the Prophet Mohamed immediately after he mentioned God in the first line.”

    If you Google the phrase in Arabic (بسم الله وباسمي), the second hit is a translation of Fisk’s article, and there are only two pages of results, mostly chat-page comments. The reaction to this poetic usage of it is illustrative: “This is shirk, the intention doesn’t matter: better erase it.”

  10. This illustrates a simple but important point that is mostly overlooked: The most radical forms of antiimperialism can be related to various kinds of ideology. The prevailing discourse today is religious, and someone such at Atta is taken to be an extremely religious person.He might have been such, or he might not have been. In an earlier time, he might have been a secular Arab nationalist.He might have been a Maoist or whatever. That is not to say such a person is just pretending to be a fervent Muslim, for he may rationalize what he is doing in religious terms (whatever the religion). What is defined as a religious community is often essentially the equivalent of a tribe/nation. The political extremist who talks and thinks in religious terms should not necessarily be referred to as a “religious extremist,” “Buddhist extremist,” or “Muslim extremist.” The political moderate may be the more extremely religious person.

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