(Second in a series.)
In a The
Mirage of Moderate Islam, I have described the Koranic roots of
Islamic fanaticism, and observed that Osama bin Laden’s terror war on
the west is part of a recurring pattern of fundamentalist revival
associated with jihad in Islamic history.
In this essay, I’ll get more specific about what Osama bin Laden is
really after. In the process, it will become clear why Arab-world
governments are so frightened of him.
The first thing to understand is that Osama bin Laden is neither
crazy nor stupid. He is a very intelligent, educated, visionary man
who is operating from deep within the Islamic worldview. He’s trying
to do on a global scale what the Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran in
1979; he’s bucking for the job of Caliph of Islam (“Khalifa” in
The position of Khalifa
has been vacant since the last Padishah Emperor of the Ottoman Empire
was deposed in 1924, when the British and French broke up the Empire
after it picked the wrong side in World War One. Before that, the
Caliph was in theory both the supreme temporal and spiritual ruler
of the Islamic world.
I say “in theory” because the Caliph’s actual authority varied
considerably. In the early centuries of Islam, during the initial
expansionary phase of the Empire, it was absolute — in European
terms, as though Charlemagne or Napoleon were also the Pope. It
tended to decrease over time as the increasing size of the Islamic
empire led to political fragmentation. Independent emirs swore
nominal fealty to the Caliph and accepted his symbolic authority
in religious matters, while otherwise behaving as sovereigns. An
able Caliph backed by strong armies could buck this disintegrative
trend and make the allegiance of the emirs more than nominal. Eventually
emperors of the Ottoman Turks collected this title, and gathered most
of the Islamic world under their sway. But the Ottoman Empire had been in
decline for four centuries by 1924, and the title of Caliph had
become almost meaningless.
One of the signature traits of Islamic revivalism is nostalgia for
the halcyon days of Islamic expansion, when the Caliph was the
undisputed Arm of Allah and there was plenty of plunder and rapine
to go around as the armies of God smote the infidel and claimed
new lands for the Dar-al-Islam.
Here’s where we cue the ominous theme music. It is part of Islamic
tradition that the title of Khalifa may be attained by conquest if the
incumbent is not fulfilling his duties — or if there is no incumbent.
Under shari’a law and hadith, the umma (the consultative assembly of
the elders of Islam) is required to recognize as Khalifa
anyone who is able to fulfill the duties of the position and
demonstrates the sanction of Allah by mobilizing the Dar-al-Islam in
successful jihad. Jihad, here, is interpreted broadly; a war of
consolidation that united a substantial portion of the Dar-al-Islam
under a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy would do it.
In other words, since 1924 the position of Caliph has been waiting
for a Man on Horseback. Or, for you science-fiction fans out there, a
Muad’Dib. The Ayatollah Khomeini could never quite make this nut;
first, because he was not a plausible warlord, and second because he’s
part of the 10% Shi’a minority branch that disputes the Khalifal
succession. The next Caliph, if there is one, will have to belong to
the 90% Sunni majority.
Osama bin Laden has behaved precisely as though he intends to fill
that role. And in doing so, he has frightened the crap out of the
rulers of the Arab world. Because he’s played his religious and
propaganda cards very well in Islamic terms, barring the detail that
he may well be dead and buried under rubble in an Afghan cave.
On 9/11, bin Laden took jihad to the symbolic heart of the West
more effectively than any Islamic ruler has managed since the Siege of
Vienna was broken in 1683. By doing so he caught Arab rulers
(especially the Saudis) in a neat theo-political trap. They have been
encouraging hatred of Israel and the West, and hyping the jihadist
mythology of fundamentalist Islam, as a way of diverting popular anger
that might otherwise focus on their own corrupt and repressive
regimes. But Bin Laden has trumped and beaten them at this game. He
has acted out the Koranic duty of jihad in a way they never dared –
and in doing so, seized the religious high ground.
The sheikhs and ayatollahs now have a dilemma. If they support
jihadism, they must either start a war against the West they know they
cannot win or cede their own legitimacy to the Caliph-claimant who is
leading the jihad. But if they come out against jihad, bin Laden or
his successor can de-legitimitize them simply by pointing to the
Koran. The possibility that the semi-mythical “Arab street” would
revolt behind local Khomeini-equivalents hot to join al-Qaeda’s jihad is
Let the last word go to the mentor of Osama bin Laden, Sheik
Abdullah Azzam: “Jihad must not be abandoned until Allah alone is
worshipped by mankind…Jihad and the rifle alone…no negotiations,
no conferences and no dialogue.” The Palestinians are, as usual,
disposable pawns in a larger game. The objective of al-Qaeda’s game
is to follow the Koranic blueprint to its logical conclusion; global
jihad, a second age of conversion by the sword, the destruction of the
West, and the establishment of a global Islamic theocracy.
Osama bin Laden himself may be dead now. Unfortunately, this
doesn’t necessarily stop the game, because his body hasn’t been found.
The Twelfth Imam of Shi’a disappeared under mysterious circumstances
in 941CE; persons claiming to be him and calling the faithful to jihad
emerged at intervals for a thousand years afterwards, the most recent
one being the Mahdi who led an anti-British revolt in Egypt in 1899.
If the jihadist tendency in Islam is not confronted and destroyed,
Osama bin Laden could haunt the West for a thousand years.
(To be continued…)