Bin Laden's Trap

Bernard Haykel
Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies
New York University

The war America is engaged in after the attacks on the WTC, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania is a war for the hearts and minds of average Muslims around the world. Bin Laden, if indeed he is the mastermind behind the attacks, has set a trap for the US into which it must not fall. By attacking the US as part of a jihad ("a holy war"), Bin Laden is in fact claiming to Muslims to represent their grievances and to represent real Islam. He is in effect saying: "Muslims, I share your grievances unlike your corrupt and authoritarian governments; I am the only one doing something about it. I have destroyed the symbols of American capitalism and stopped the heartbeat of world finance which the US dominates."

The US, as well as moderate Muslims the world over, must unite and deny him this symbolic victory and must not accept to engage him in combat on these terms. We should not let him define the terms of our intellectual and symbolic battle. As a professor of Islamic law I have researched the law of jihad and can state unequivocally that the war Bin Laden has engaged us in cannot be labeled a jihad. Furthermore, I believe a strong case can be made that he has acted contrary to the tenets of Islam and can be ostracized from the community of believing Muslims. Moderate Muslims will agree with me, certainly, as they are horrified by this attack and are desperate to have it disassociated from their religion. The West must provide moderate Muslims a way out of Bin Laden's trap.

According to Islamic law there are at least six reasons why Bin Laden's barbaric violence cannot fall under the rubric of jihad:

  1. Individuals and organizations cannot declare a jihad, only states can;
  2. One cannot kill innocent women and children when conducting a jihad;
  3. One cannot kill Muslims in a jihad;
  4. One cannot fight a jihad against a country in which Muslims can freely practice their religion and proselytize Islam;
  5. Prominent Muslim jurists around the world have condemned these attacks and their condemnation forms a juristic consensus (ijma`) against Bin Laden's actions. This consensus renders his actions un-Islamic;
  6. The welfare and interest of the Muslim community (maslaha) is being harmed by Bin Laden's actions and this equally makes them un-Islamic.


The Muslim Sentiment on "The Street":

Americans have been baffled by reports that Muslims do not like, and even hate the US. Muslims do not hate America. As proof of this we have: seven million Muslims living in the US; foreign Muslims, like many others around the world, clamor to obtain US immigration visas for the US; Muslims consume American products and emulate American fashions (intellectual, social and sartorial); Muslims place the bulk of their money in US financial institutions; the list goes on and on. What many Muslims undeniably resent about America, however, are American foreign policies towards Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine and a complicit policy of supporting corrupt and authoritarian regimes all over the Muslim world. Yet despite this resentment only 4,000 Muslims actively seek to destroy America. These 4,000 Muslims are Bin Laden's foot soldiers. Let us remember that in 20 years of recruitment Bin Laden has only been able to recruit 4,000 men. This group, otherwise known as the Arab-Afghans, have theological and legal beliefs that are at odds with the remaining 1 billion plus Muslims in the world today.[1] They are also at odds with those of their supporters, the Taliban, who, for their part, are fanatical Hanafis of the Deoband school. Surely, 4,000 men do not represent the entirety of the Islamic peoples?--and we should hammer this point home continually. We should also deny Bin Laden the opportunity of feeding off Muslim resentment and his claim to represent them.


An immediate plan of action for the US and Western governments:

There are very practical steps the US government can take that will take the wind out of Bin Laden's sails and sidestep the trap he has laid. I will begin with the most obvious measures. They are:

1. We should not send US or Western troops and special forces into Afghanistan with the aim of arresting or killing Bin Laden. He has thought about this scenario and desires it. A military attack on him would provide a double victory: If he is killed he dies a martyr and symbol of resistance to Western domination; he also gets to kill a number of US soldiers and tarnishes the image of America in the minds of ordinary Muslims. Afghanistan is the most backward and probably the poorest country in the Islamic world; the image of the most powerful nation stomping on it will be a public relations disaster and will destabilize Arab regimes.

We must encourage Muslim countries to lead the fight against Bin Laden. Support the Northern Alliance who have 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and work on the Pakistani moderates to get involved in the fight. If retribution, as seems to be the case, has to take place and America must feel it is the prime agent in the pursuit of justice, then no military action can afford not to involve moderate Muslim forces and their cooperation. This is not a plea for war, far from it: there is too much bellicose rhetoric as it is.

2. We must stop using inflammatory language, such as President Bush's statement that this is a crusade. Such a word evokes monstrous historical memories in the minds of Muslims, namely barbaric Europeans rampaging through the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, Crusade connotes Christianity versus Islam and this is not the right message. The infelicity of this locution has presumably been brought to the attention of the President.

3. We must publish a list of all the Muslims and women and children who died in the WTC attack, since Islamic law categorically prohibits the murder of such innocents.

4. We must engage our own Muslim community leaders here in the US, and, particularly, send the respected ones among them with these facts to the Middle East and South Asia to meet with impartial and respected Islamic legal scholars, people who are respected by the man on the street and who are clearly not in the employ of their respective governments.

Scholars in Mecca, Medina and Riyadh will be central in this regard, as will scholars in India and Pakistan. These scholars must be convinced to issue fatwas (legal opinions) declaring Bin Laden's teachings and actions illegal. Because it is prohibited by mainstream Islam, they cannot declare Bin Laden an infidel (a practice called takfir) and we should not expect this of them. These opinions will help bolster the consensus mentioned above and may convince the Taliban that they need to hand Bin Laden over.

5. In the near future, we must put forth subtle hints that we will be willing to reassess our foreign policies in the world.

I think if we take the steps outlined above we may be able to ostracize Bin Laden from the Muslim community and energize moderate Muslims to take center stage again. America will win the war as will the vast majority of Muslims.

[Footnote 1:] This Muslim sect is known in the Islamic world as Salafis. Their intellectual centers lie in Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf States and Jordan. The essence of Salafi ideology and their message is to interpret the sources of revelation literally (i.e., strict constructionism), and thus reject much of the medieval Muslim legacy of commentaries and opinions, and to reestablish a Utopian Islamic community. They are not Luddites, however, but reactionaries in the true sense of the word.


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