U.S. Foreign Policy, Not Islamic Teachings Account for al-Qaeda's Draw
Recently Michael Scheuer, a former 22-year CIA analyst and head of the agency's Bin Laden Unit gave an interview with John Barry of Newsweek. Scheuer observes that a new generation of middle class, well-educated Muslims are taking up arms to fight for Al-Qaeda. Furthermore, he points out the main reason why America is unable to defeat Bin Laden is because the US government refuses to acknowledge-and tell the American people-its longstanding policies toward the Muslim world are the root of the problem. Here's the main quote:
"Our leaders say he and his followers hate us because of who we are, because we have early primaries in Iowa every four years and allow women in the workplace. That's nonsense. I don't think he would have those things in his country. But that's not why he opposes us. I read bin Laden's writings and I take him at his word. He and his followers hate us because of specific aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Bin Laden lays them out for anyone to read. Six elements: our unqualified support for Israel; our presence on the Arabian peninsula, which is land they deem holy; our military presence in other Islamic countries; our support of foreign states that oppress Muslims, especially Russia, China and India; our long-term policy of keeping oil prices artificially low to the benefit of Western consumers but the detriment of the Arab people; and our support for Arab tyrannies who will do that." (emphasis added)
Scheuer's analysis is supported by opinion polls of the Muslim public. A survey by the Project on International Public Attitudes (PIPA) in April 2007 shows large majorities of Muslims polled throughout the world now believe the US seeks to "weaken and divide the Islamic world." Consequently, in the same poll corresponding majorities also want US troops to withdraw from Muslim lands.
Scheuer also observes that a new generation of well-educated and middle class Muslims is providing a fresh batch of recruits for Al-Qaeda. Terrorism researchers like Marc Sageman and Randall Collins find that middle class individuals, not poor and uneducated people, fit the ideal psychological and intellectual profiles for terrorists who can easily move within societies and attack targets without drawing much attention. Furthermore, a recent Gallup World poll (PDF) found middle class Muslims were more like to support radical organizations like Al-Qaeda than poorer individuals.
Finally, we turn to the issue of policies. Neo-conservative analyses ranging from academics like Samuel Huntington, Fouad Ajami and (now ex-neo con) Francis Fukuyama to the blogger pundits at JihadWatch et al., tend to blame Islamic religious principles for violence and lack of democracy. In other words, Islam is a violent and backward religion that opposes democracy and modernity.
Leaving aside the fact that Islam is not the only religion that has been abused by extremist ideologues for violent political purposes, or that Muslim leaders have been extremely vocal in denouncing terrorist attacks, let's begin by looking at what ordinary Muslims themselves say. In the PIPA poll, while Muslims believe that US is engaged in some effort to weaken and divide Muslim countries, a majority of responses show they also reject Bin Laden, and react positively to democracy. Similarly in the Gallup World poll, both radical and moderate respondents had equally positive views of democracy and free speech. The difference is that the radicals are more skeptical that they will allow the Muslim world to have democracy, blaming the West for keeping dictators in power. The bottom line: Muslims are opposed to US foreign policy, but not necessarily American political values and economic prosperity. Similar polling conducted by the World Values Survey (PDF) and Terror Free Tomorrow also draw very similar conclusions.
Furthermore empirical research (PDF) testing so-called "culturalist" assumptions debunked notions that Islam, rather than politics and policies, is to blame for the lack of democracy and violence in Muslim countries. Culture and religion are NOT statistically significant factors in the violence and lack of democracy affecting Muslim nations. In fact, another empirical study (PDF) finds that even when looking at culture as a separate variable, Catholic Latin American countries, not Muslim countries, are more violence prone. However, that study identified oil, economic well-being and lack of democracy as the main culprits. Culture remained an insignificant variable. Perhaps this is why Graham Fuller, a former CIA analyst, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine, that even if Islam did not exist, the same bloody geopolitics of natural resources, ethnicity, nationalism and colonialism in the Middle East would exist. Anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism would remain.
Opinion polling of Muslims, empirical testing and thought experiments can give us very good indicators of where the truth really lies, but there's one other important source: Usama Bin Laden himself. In doing research for this article, we decided to get information straight from the horse's mouth. We compiled a list of nine easily accessible statements from October 7, 2001 to January 19, 2006, transcribed in English translation available on the Internet. We have done a quantitative content analysis of the texts. Our results are as follows:
|10/7/01 - total words 573 (100%)
- religious justifications 60 (10.5%)
- policy grievances 410 (71.6%)
- ambiguous words 0
|2/12/03 - total words 1,986 (100%)
- religious justifications 280 (14.1%)
- policy grievances 319 (16.1%)
- ambiguous words 36 (1.8%)
|11/3/01 - total words 2,282 (100%)
- religious justifications 573 (25.1%)
- policy grievances 1,296 (56.8%)
- ambiguous words 83 (3.6%)
|10/18/03 - total words 64 (100%)
- religious justifications 0 (0%)
- policy grievances 726 (84%)
- ambiguous words 0 (0%)
|12/13/01 - total words 925 (100%
- religious justifications 277 (29.9%)
- policy grievances 0
- ambiguous words 0
|1/6/04 - total words 768 (100%)
- religious justifications 27 (3.5%)
- policy grievances 734 (95.6%)
- ambiguous words 0 (0%)
|11/12/02 - total words 597 (100%)
- religious justifications 108 (18.1%)
- policy grievances 421 (70.5%)
- ambiguous words 0
|11/4/04 - total words 2,302 (100%)
- religious justifications 0 (0%)
- policy grievances 1,287 (55.9%)
- ambiguous words 29 (0%)
|11/24/02 - total words 3,800 (100%)
- religious justifications 198 (5.2%)
- policy grievances 1,472 (38.7%)
- ambiguous words 17 (4%)
|1/19/06 - total words 1,500 (100%)
- religious justifications 27 (1.8%)
- policy grievances 419 (27.9%)
- ambiguous words 0 (0%)
|Total words  15,597 (100%)
Total religious justifications  1,550 (9.9%)
Total policy grievances  7,084 (45.4%)
Total ambiguous words  165 (1%)
(Note: These results are preliminary and are NOT considered conclusive. Further research is still underway and will be published in a forthcoming research paper on the Minaret of Freedom Institute website. The purpose of these statistics is to provide a rough sampling of Bin Laden's statements, add to foreign policy and counterterrorism debates, and spark further research.)
Our preliminary analysis shows that Bin Laden spends a preponderant amount-close to half-of the time railing against Western countries about their policies, and much less time talking about religion. Some religious self-justification is used, but it is not the main content of his statements. Based on the above findings, Mr. Scheuer, it seems, has good reason to take Bin Laden at his word.
The one exception to this pattern appears to be the translation of a video on December 13, 2001. However, that was not a public statement, but more of a "home video" made in Kandahar and confiscated at a private residence in Jalalabad during the invasion of Afghanistan. Therefore, it was probably not meant for recruiting purposes, but seems to reflect casual conversation among the subjects. It is also interesting that some have questioned the comprehensibility of the soundtrack and the accuracy of the translations.
Straight from UBL's mouth, and the mouths of tens of thousands of other Muslims polled, policies matter more than differing social values with Western non-Muslims. And Mike Scheuer is right: most of our presidential candidates don't seem to get this. McCain paints "radical Islamic extremism" as "the greatest evil, probably, that this nation has ever faced" (as in worse that Hitler or the Soviet Union); Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, from their place in the Senate, fund the war in Iraq in blatant disregard of their rhetoric against the Bush administration's policies; and Mike Huckabee continued to promote the occupation of Iraq as part of the "War on Terror" to the end of his campaign. The only candidate to consistently acknowledge the role of foreign policy in generating the current climate, Ron Paul, is ignored by that segment of the press that doesn't vilify him.
Given that a correct understanding of the roots of violence directed against America is in America's interests, how can we account for the evasion of an honest discussion of the issue by politicians, policymakers and the media? For a clue, consider the evaluation of how the presidential candidates rate in terms of whether they are good for Israel in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. The omission of Ron Paul, and the defense for such an omission is remarkable, given that the rankings include dropouts like Fred Thompson and never-rans like Michael Bloomberg and Condi Rice. You cannot account for the omission by speculating that Ron Paul would be bad for Israel, since the whole point of the article is to rank candidates on that score. The implication is that warning supporters to avoid a candidate considered bad for Israel is less important to Israelis than making sure certain questions are never discussed: for example, when are Israeli and American interests at odds?
The pretense that there is a war between civilizations is a distraction from the real war that is going on within civilizations. George Weigel has defined "jihadism" as "the religiously inspired ideology which teaches that it is every Muslim's duty to use any means necessary to compel the world's submission to Islam." Then, perhaps, neoconservatism is "the philosophically inspired ideology that teaches that it is the duty of the West to use any means necessary to compel the world's submission to American hegemony." Both groups mirror one-another. They espouse an extremist ideology that runs on fear, divides the world between "us" and "them" and argue they are always justified in resorting to violence no matter what the cost in human lives. Put this way, such a perspective shows where the real fault line lies: not between an imaginary monolithic Islam and an imaginary monolithic West, but between so-called "jihadis" and neocons on one side and the rest of us on the other.
 Alejandro Beutel and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad 2008, "Religious or Policy Justification for Violence? A Quantative Content Analysis of Bin Ladin's Statements." in preparation.
 Full category title is "Number of Total Words in the Text". In compiling the total number of words in each transcripted statement explanatory words in parentheses "()" and/or brackets "" were removed and stuck to a more "literal" English translation of Bin Laden's words. Otherwise ambiguous statements are classified according to the context of the sentiment of the paragraph in which they appear, when that sentiment is unambiguous.
 Full category title is "Number of Words Giving Religious Justification for Militant Activity."
 Full category title is "Number of Words Stating Policy Grievance Reasons for Militant Activity."
 Full category title is "Number of Ambiguous Words that can be Classified as Giving Religious Justification or Stating Policy Grievance Reasons for Militant Activity."
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