05 April, 2008

They Attacked Us

And lo, suddenly the world changed.

Within the entire glass menagerie of specious right-wing counter-arguments made whenever some boorish, wrong-headed, dubious, illegal or insane Bush/neocon policy is challenged by their opponents, "they attacked us" and its rhetorical cousins are the most annoying retort I commonly hear.

"What do you suggest? Therapy? Hugs for the terrorists?" the argument goes, "they attacked us, we have to fight back."

First of all, who are "they"? Well, if you are talking about 9/11, "they" were largely Saudi Arabian middle-class college students. "They" were goaded into the operation by the son of a Saudi construction magnate of Yemeni decent and an Egyptian doctor, who were in turn disciples (at least in spirit) of an Egyptian dissident named Sayyid Qutb.

In America, the "they attacked us" crowd likes to throw around terms like "jihad" and "fatwah" and "sha'ria" as if all of the sudden they are experts on the subject of radicalized Islam. But ask about the differences between Sunnis, Shi'ites, Wahhabism or Salafism and you will draw blank stares, or worse, inept and blundering explanations followed by a reiteration that "they" (whatever that means) attacked "us" (whatever that means). A scant few know who Sayyid Qutb was, and if they have heard the name, they cannot explain what his significance was.

In 2001 the name Osama bin Laden was not unknown to me. In 1998 I had as a roommate an ex-Marine who shared with me a book by Angelo Codevilla about the gaffes and missteps the US had taken between the end of WWII and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the intelligence and security challenges we would face in the 1990s and beyond. Around the same time, this interview was published: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/542192/posts

My interest was piqued, to say the least, and my view of our national interests was radically shifted as a result of being exposed to both Codevilla and bin Laden and later many others (Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Pat Buchanan, Madeleine Albright, etc).
Our duty is to incite the jihad against America, Israel and their allies. We are following this route. Because of circumstances surrounding us, as well as our inability to move outside Afghanistan to take care of matters closely, we were unable to do so.

But, with the grace of God, we have established with a large number of our brothers in the International Islamic Front to confront Jews and the crusaders. We believe that the affairs of many of those are moving in the right direction and have the ability to move widely. We pray to God to grant them victory and revenge on the Jews and Americans.
I cannot vouch for this translation from Osama bin Laden, nor can I say what exactly bin Laden may have meant by "jihad". In the United States, the arabic word "jihad" means a religious war, or to engage in warfare -- the word "muhajadeen" describes one who is engaged in "jihad."

In reality the word "jihad" can take on a number of meanings depending on context, and perhaps a closer translation from it to English would be "great esoteric struggle." In this sense, jihad is the same as a tribulation, like a monk struggling to remain pious. The esoteric struggle for piety in Islam is considered to be the greatest jihad an adherent can wage, al-jihad al-akbar. Jihad waged through violence is considered the lesser jihad, al-jihad al-asghard. It is the latter that we associate with the generic term in the West, and it is the latter which bin Laden strives to perpetuate.
A revolutionary or terrorist movement has much to gain from getting a real government to declare war upon it. This gives the movement considerable status, putting it in some sense in the same league with the government with which it is now recognized as at war. No sensible government wishes to give such quasi-legitimacy to a movement it is trying to stamp out.
As usual, American Conservative magazine is lucid with regard to this subject. Bin Laden's "lesser" jihad is a vulgar guerrilla tactic of an illegitimate resistance movement.

Bin Laden knows how to speak to and engage his audience, and to twist his lesser jihad in their minds into a noble cause by invoking common and deep-seated feelings of unrest, rage and humiliation among young Muslims and scapegoating the West. History has given bin Laden a tailor-made narrative of victimization that all Muslims can to some degree relate to: it was the Holy Crusades that crushed the glorious caliphate, Jerusalem was sacked and stolen, and ultimately given over to the Jews as the State of Israel. Centuries of colonial rule stifled Arab society, and even after colonial rule European and American interference kept Arabian and Muslim nations subservient. Whatever oil-producing countries couldn't be bought by greasing the palms of the corrupt rulers had their popular governments covertly subverted by the CIA.

Nevermind that many of these claims are exaggerated or entirely false, bin Laden's narrative of victimization resonates with the disaffected -- even if it is their native governments and not the West causing them grief.

While bin Laden may consider the form of Shi'ite Islam practiced in Iran to be heretical, the example of Iran's religious and political revolution in 1979 must have been to him a very powerful symbol of the potential inherent in his brand of radicalism. That bin Laden and al Zawahiri's rag-tag band of misfit extremists managed to rise to the notoriety they enjoy today is in many ways an acute symptom of the boiling cesspool of dissent that had been fomenting in the region since at least the end of World War I.

It is generally felt that the Iranian Revolution in 1979 resembled the Bolshevik revolution by design. This was of course great propaganda and political theatre against the West at a time when the Cold War was in full swing.

Informed by his experiences rebuffing the Soviets in Afghanistan, is it any wonder that when bin Laden turned his murderous intent on the United States he would use the same tactics of hit and run? Certainly it cannot be a coincidence that the United States is now engaged in a free-form guerrilla war in Iraq, designed to resemble both the Soviet's failed war with Afghanistan and the United States failed and demoralizing war with Vietnam -- bolstering the muhajadeen while at the same time wearing down the will of the Americans, fomenting the same sorts of internal turmoil that America endured in the 1960s and 1970s?

Yet the voices that raised the alarm in 2001 about the costs of engaging bin Laden, and worse, waltzing into the strategic tar-pit of the Middle-East were and are dismissed as fringe elements, even when we have bin Laden in his own words in 1998 saying that it is his goal to engage the United States in just the sort of war we are now fighting.

4000 soldiers and a trillion dollars and counting. The best hardware and presumably the best military minds that can be found, and the 6'4" son of a construction magnate with a set of bad kidneys is literally leading us around by our dicks.

They attacked us, and apparently hit us in the brain, because little we have done since then has made much sense.

I'm sure that each night before going to sleep Osama bin Laden thinks about it and smiles.