Bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi businessman, was born in 1957. While studying economics and business administration at university, he met members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Muslim group who called for the rejection of Western values and their replacement with values and practices demanded by the Muslim holy book, the Koran. Following experience in Afghanistan fighting with the mujaheddin against the Russians and time spent in the Sudan, bin Laden was disowned by his family and stripped of his Saudi citizenship. He now lives in Afghanistan north of Jalalabad in a heavily guarded underground complex nicknamed "the bat cave." From here, surrounded by books on Islam, he finances pro-Islamic and anti-U.S. activities.
Osama bin Laden is an Islamic fundamentalist. Islamic fundamentalists are not in themselves terrorists—they are believers in the Muslim religion who take the Koran literally and believe that its precepts should be implemented as law. The vast majority of Muslim fundamentalists are peaceful, wishing to peacefully persuade others to follow their ideas. Fundamentalist Islam is a growing force in the Middle East and elsewhere. Its growth has been spawned by, among other things, a desire to assert a cultural identity based on historic Islamic roots instead of an identity based upon what are seen as foreign, alien, Western values and ideals. The Iranian revolution under the Ayatollah Khomeini was fueled by a desire to assert an indigenous culture so as not to be swamped by Western ideas and values as promoted by the Shah. Being Islamic was a way of asserting a national identity and a cultural uniqueness.
Islamic fundamentalism has grown in the Middle East because in many countries, political opposition to the existing ruler or government is not permitted; the main vehicle for any opposition is through the mosque and religion. Fred Halliday comments that had the Shah of Iran not destroyed many of the secular opposition forces within Iran, opposition to the regime probably would have followed a secular path. In some Middle Eastern countries, political debate and movement take place through professional associations that technically are nonpartisan—but even here fundamentalist Muslims often dominate. The 1992 elections of Egypt's medical, engineering, and legal associations, for example, were dominated by the activities of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
The Tenets of Islamic Fundamentalism
Islamic fundamentalism takes the Muslim holy book and interprets it in a simple, literal sense. It is in this respect that it may be described as two-dimensional: It allows for no interpretation of its holy book in the light of contemporary circumstances. What the Koran says must stand because Allah is believed to have dictated it word for word to the prophet Muhammad; it is therefore perfect and without error.
The Koran says that the world was created in six days; the fundamentalist takes such a statement literally and cannot reinterpret it in light of modern scientific ideas. In the political sphere, the fundamentalist argues that whatever the Koran demands should be implemented literally. So when the Koran requires that thieves have their hands and feet amputated, the fundamentalist demands that society should enact laws to reflect the holy book's demands. Similarly, fundamentalists argue that courts should require, as the Koran dictates, that those found guilty of adultery should be whipped 100 times.
Not all Muslims are fundamentalist in outlook. In Indonesia in particular, there is a strong modernist movement. One of that movement's leaders, Nurcholish Majid, commented that "the Koran doesn't come down to the prophet in a vacuum. So one of the ways to understand the message is to understand the context." Modernist Muslims argue that because the Koran is conditioned by its historical context, it must be reinterpreted for modern times.
Islamic punishments, therefore, while appropriate for the age in which the Koran was written, are not acceptable today. Punishment must be given, but precisely how must depend on the time, place, and circumstances; Modernists believe that to import punishments direct from the Koran to the modern day is not valid.
But bin Laden is a Muslim fundamentalist: He believes that the Koran and the words and deeds of Muhammad should be taken literally without interpretation. According to fundamentalists, Islamic law, as enshrined in the Koran and the words and deeds of Muhammad, should be adopted by governments so that states essentially become theocratic. The state and religion do not just join—they become one. It was for this reason that the Ayatollah Khomeini demanded a Muslim theocracy, noting that "what the nation [Iran] wants is an Islamic republic. Not just a republic, not a democratic republic, not a democratic Islamic republic. Just an Islamic republic. Do not use the word `democratic.' That is Western and we do not want it."
After U.S. troops had landed in Saudi Arabia to assist in the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, the Muslim Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Sa'ad a-Din al Alami, said to Saddam Hussein, "We are calling upon you to remove the impurity of the Americans and their underlings from the Hijazi land, to purify those Muslim Holy Lands from the desecration of the American troops and their aides, and to salvage the holy cities of Mecca and Medina...." Unless one understands how Muslims, and fundamentalist Muslims in particular, feel about the land of Arabia, one cannot appreciate the revulsion that many Arabs felt at U.S. troops setting foot on Saudi soil. Islam's holiest city, Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, is open only to Muslims, because it is regarded as being so holy that non-Muslims would defile it.
Many believe that the whole of Arabia is holy, because it is the country in which Allah chose to reveal his message. To have U.S. and other troops come onto Saudi soil, and to do so in order to fight another Arab and Muslim nation, was seen by many—Osama bin Laden among them—as a desecration. Such a view was reinforced by the employment of women in the U.S. military, permitted to behave in their holy country in a way that is not permitted to Saudi women.
Bin Laden accuses the United States of taking advantage of Gulf Arabs by taking their oil. He also argues that the non-Islamic behavior of the Saudi royal family and their oppression of the Saudi people is a result of U.S. domination of the area. Bin Laden hates the United States—not just on account of what the United States has done in the Gulf, but also because of its support for the state of Israel. In supporting Israel, the United States is seen as opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The fundamentalist terrorist group Hamas (Harakat Muqama al-Islamiyya, the Movement of Islamic Resistance) also is calling for a Palestinian state. Its members wish to create a Palestinian state where Islamic sharia law based on the Koran and the sayings and deeds of Muhammad is implemented. Hamas believes that the state of Israel should not be allowed to exist and that Muslims are under an obligation to kill members of the Jewish faith. Hamas's method is jihad—holy war.
The World in 2-D
The fundamentalist Islamic view of the Koran is two-dimensional. It refuses to grapple with the complexities of the modern world. Political views such as those of bin Laden and Hamas also are two-dimensional, as they fail to consider the practicalities of political situations, preferring to take what they see as the religious and moral high ground—demanding, for example, that the United States withdraw its influence from the Middle East and that the state of Israel be abolished and a Palestinian state be established in its place. Doctrinaire, simplistic politics of this kind cannot take into account the wish of the Jews for a homeland of their own, the post-war U.N. settlement for the Jewish people, or the 50 years of political history that have taken place between then and now. Two-dimensional, doctrinaire fundamentalist politics of this kind cannot deal effectively with the real world. All such politics can do is make simple, uncomplicated, but essentially unrealistic demands.
Recent political developments in Israel and the West Bank have been successful only because each side has taken the pragmatic political situation into account and shown willingness to compromise. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which once refused to recognize the existence of the state of Israel, now recognizes it. The state of Israel has accepted that the Gaza strip should be under Palestinian control and that the West Bank eventually must be handed back to the Palestinian people. In offering a compromise, Israel demanded better security arrangements by the Palestinian authorities. Each side has given a little, taken a little, and compromised. In giving there has been a need to receive; in receiving, a need to give. Such moves are part of politics in the complex real world.
In the problem of Palestine, it is not only some Islamic fundamentalist groups that have a two-dimensional political view. Some fundamentalist Jewish groups take their stand on God's promise to Abraham: "To your descendants I give this land, from the wadi of Egypt to the Great River Euphrates, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Hittites, the Canaanites and the Jebusites." The promise was reiterated to Joshua as he entered the promised land: "From the wilderness and Lebanon to the Great River Euphrates and to the Great Sea westwards, this shall be your territory. As long as you live, no one shall be able to stand in your way."
The most extreme Jewish fundamentalist was Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990. Kahane called for all Arabs to be deported forcibly from Israel. He wanted a law that would make it illegal for any Jew to have sexual relations with a non-Jew. He described Arabs as "Cancer, cancer, cancer in the midst of us.... Let me become defense minister for two months and you will not have a single cockroach around here! I promise you a clean Eretz Israel." Like the position taken by Hamas, this represents a doctrinaire approach with little understanding of the real world, with an absence of pragmatism.
One might look to Northern Ireland to see how simplistic, two-dimensional politics has been transformed into a more pragmatic, three-dimensional version. Each side, weary of the struggle and bloodshed, has compromised. Eire gave up its claim to the north; Sinn Fein gave up its call for Ulster to be governed from Dublin alone; the British government agreed to cross-border bodies being set up. Each side has compromised and has done so because the pragmatic realities of the situation meant that holding on to simplistic, two-dimensional visions would result in no progress toward the peace that everyone wanted.
A Few Rotten Apples…
It must be emphasized that the vast majority of fundamentalist Muslims are not terrorists; they are sincere believers who espouse the path of peace. In their fundamentalist reading of the Koran, however, the small minority at the terrorist end of the political spectrum are able to find a justification for their practices—just as those who oppose violence and terrorism can. Many fundamentalist Muslims have a well-developed political understanding and accommodate their religious beliefs to modern political developments. Not all fundamentalists, can be labeled as having such a two-dimensional political understanding, nor should they be seen as having a simple, two-dimensional political agenda.
But a simplistic, two-dimensional political program sometimes does go hand-in-hand with a simplistic, two-dimensional, fundamentalist version of religion. In both spheres, there is a difficulty in facing the complexities of the real world. In its place comes a retreat to the simple and the understandable, as religion and politics are reduced to simple slogans; a retreat into the safe and an avoidance of the complex and anything that might involve a compromise with the real world. Compromise is seen as a denial of the divine revelation. Groups associated with bin Laden, Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Egyptian groups such as Takfir wal-Hijra (Excommunication and Flight) and al-Jihad, and the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armee have such characteristics.
The West must avoid making its own two-dimensional, simple response to Islamic fundamentalism. To cast all fundamentalists in the same mold is a two-dimensional response. Western countries need to realize that Islamic fundamentalism may offer a path to greater democracy and human rights in some countries of the Middle East. Where this is the case, and where political opposition is through the mosque and through fundamentalist Muslims playing a political role in civil society, then it can be argued that we should assist them in some circumstances in this respect. In the longer term it may be that Islamic fundamentalism will wither, particularly where it has spawned greater democracy and human rights.
From the experience of Northern Ireland, we know that the realities of a particular political situation actually can force those with a fundamentalist, two-dimensional political outlook to change and modify their fundamentalism. Dealing with a real, pragmatic situation can lead to a rejection of the political fundamentalism that its members once held dear. If it can happen in Northern Ireland, it can happen elsewhere. It already has happened with the separatist Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) in Spain and with the PLO in Palestine, and there is no reason why it should not happen in other areas of the Middle East. Where fundamentalist Muslims are involved actively in the political process, their religio-political fundamentalism withers. In Malaysia, the Muslim Youth Movement joined the secular ruling party and subsequently abandoned some of its distinctly Islamic objectives; in Tunisia, the Islamic Tendency Movement gave up some of its Muslim demands when it joined forces with other political parties in the 1980s; and the Turkish Refah party has accepted a secular constitutional framework.
While there is hope that Islamic fundamentalism in some areas of the Middle East may actually be a force for positive change—a change toward greater human rights and democracy, a change that might in the longer term actually herald the waning of the politico-religious fundamentalism that gave birth to it—there is less chance of this happening with regard to Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, pursuing his anti-U.S. agenda at a distance, by definition will not ever be closely involved with the realities of politics in the way of the PLO in Palestine or the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.
There is little doubt, therefore, that the United States and the West will have to be continually vigilant with respect to Osama bin Laden. Continued terrorist attacks should be expected, and plans should be made both to prevent such attacks and to deal with them if and when they do occur.
While there is evidence for and some hope that many Muslim fundamentalist groups are ready to enter the real, pragmatic, three-dimensional world, there are no signs that bin Laden is. From the batcave, he continues to proclaim his two-dimensional political agenda based on his two-dimensional faith. The U.S. Navy may well be involved in delivering an appropriate response once again.
Lieutenant Commander Kibble is Deputy Headteacher at the Huntington School in Huntington, York, England. A former Commanding Officer of HMS Ceres , a land-based training center, he also has written on both sides of the Atlantic on defense issues, particularly on the Islamic background to problems in the Middle East and on the ethics of nuclear deterrence. In 1990, he was the first British Naval Reserve officer to carry out an exchange with the U.S. Navy.