The Emir and His Lieutenant

Al Qaeda’s Bosses Exploit Arab Desperation Using Islam as Their Calling Card

At the same time it was becoming clear that Egypt and Saudi Arabia were largely dependent on Western nations and institutions for survival, and neither had made a real acknowledgement of political opposition. Combine this with the fact that almost all non-oil-producing Arab countries have staggering unemployment, and the resulting anger is predictable.

Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said, "You see a sense of desperation and hopelessness among people who think, 'I'm going to be unemployed for my entire life.' " Many Islamic groups sought to ease this load, but others saw an opportunity.

So they provided clothes, food, services, and a message to the urban poor and to students in bursting public universities. "Human designed systems," said Sayyid Qutb in a thinly veiled stab at socialism and capitalism, caused "human suffering." The path of Islam, he said, "is easy and lenient." Sadat's assassin put it more succinctly. "I am Khalid al-Islambouli!" he is reported to have shouted while spraying Sadat and everyone around him with bullets. "I have killed Pharaoh!"

Haykel claims that the extremist ideology is rooted in Islam's Salafi movement, "which is literal in its interpretation of the scriptures, which rejects the entire medieval legacy of interpretation, and which only draws on one or two figures from the whole corpus of Islamic law and theology," he said. But Salafiyya (from the Arabic words translating as "the venerable forefathers") describes a wide range of minority Islamic movements: from those who struggled to bring Islam and liberal Western democracy closer together, to those who would install Islamic regimes throughout the Middle East. It also includes figures as divergent as the Muslim Brotherhood's Qutb and Mohammed Abdou, a 19th-century Egyptian humanist. But though Haykel allows that the extremists "are as much a threat to the Arab world as they are to the West," he simply calls for regimes to stop funding "this type of Salafism" and "teaching that all the problems of the Muslim world have to do with outsiders."

"I don't agree with that," said Talal Asad. "It doesn't relate specifically to Islam. The ideological component has to be understood and [the extremists] are infused, but what exactly are they infused with? If there is something intrinsic in Salafi ideology, then you would expect, if not everybody who is a Salafi to be a potential terrorist, then at least all terrorists to be of Salafi origin. Religion takes that form due to various contingent circumstances, which [include] the CIA's various policies in the Middle East, the Saudi government not wanting to offend Americans, etcetera." And U.S. involvement in the Arab world has not been of the simple pro-democracy, human rights sort, especially when it comes to Islamic political parties.

"The Islamists present a utopian vision," Haykel said. No Islamic group has achieved significant power in an Arab country, so their theories on governance remain largely untested. "The only way that it can burst is if they come to power and show that they don't have the answers to the fundamental questions facing society," he said.

Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have seized on the desperation of the Arab world, cloaked their edenic "solution" in faith, and set a massive trap in the wreckage near Wall Street. Bombing Afghanistan to hell might feel like catharsis, but the threat is elsewhere, and it won't go away with the emir and his lieutenant.

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