Doran: America not bin Laden's primary target

Marilyn Marks


Michael Doran, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies

Princeton NJ -- In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Michael Doran, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies, presents a provocative answer to the question many Americans have been asking since Sept. 11: Why do they hate us so much?

Doran argues that the United States is not the primary target of radical Islam at all, but is being used as a means to foment Islamic revolution and topple regimes viewed by Muslim extremists as corrupt and nonbelieving. Here, he discusses his analysis, which is also published in a new book, "How Did This Happen: Terrorism and the New War."

In your article, you argue that the United States is not Osama bin Laden's primary target. What is his primary goal, and what events did he hope the attacks on Sept. 11 would set in motion?

I argue that bin Laden dragged us into a civil war between radical Islam and its local enemies. His primary goal was to foment Islamic revolution, not unlike the kind of revolution that Iran experienced in the late '70s and early '80s. His most important targets were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but he would have been happy to see his stringent brand of Islam wielding state power anywhere in the Muslim world. Many in his organization, including his top advisers, Ayman Zawahiri and Muhammad Atif, came from Egypt, where for years they had struggled to carry out an Islamic revolution. These men undoubtedly calculated that the war with the United States would advance their cause in their native land.

After the war began, we in this country were rudely awakened by the fact that many in the Arab and Muslim worlds have little sympathy for America's war aims. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, there is much evidence that bin Laden is a popular figure. Bin Laden himself, of course, was more attuned to Saudi anti-Americanism than we were, and he sought to capitalize on it.

He envisioned the following scenario: Washington was supposed to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks by pressuring the Saudi leadership to take a more active role in our war against the Taliban. Incorrectly anticipating a prolonged and bloody conflict with the United States, he sought to play on the spectacle of Americans killing innocent Muslim civilians.

Bin Laden intended to open up a chasm between, on the one hand, a Saudi regime inextricably tied to its American patron and, on the other, a Saudi society broadly sympathetic to al Qaeda. He expected that the same dynamic would operate in Pakistan as well.

How do the extremists in al Qaeda view the world, and the place of the United States in this world?

Al Qaeda represents a particularly extreme version of Salafi Islam. Its primary concern is to purify Islam, which bin Laden and his followers believe is no longer practiced by most Muslims in its true form. Their biggest complaint is that Muslims today have, under the influence of Western culture, adopted idolatrous practices. Their worldview centers on Islamic law, which purports to organize every aspect of a believer's life.

So when Muslim states follow the example of Western countries and adopt laws and practices not in accordance with Islamic law, they are by definition promoting idolatry, since they have replaced God's law with man-made law. Since Western culture promotes democracy and secularism, since it entices Muslim elites in the Middle East to follow permissive Western cultural values, it is the primary source of "global idolatry," as bin Laden referred to America recently.

In this worldview, Western civilization always has been dedicated to the destruction of Islam. Israel is the spearhead of the latest Western onslaught into the Islamic body politic. Thus al Qaeda speaks in terms of a Zionist-Crusader alliance. We are Crusaders, because we are simply the latest in a long line of Western warriors who have taken an oath of enmity toward God and Islam.

Who has been winning the "civil war" between moderate and extremist Muslims so far? We get the impression from news reports that more and more people are embracing the Salafi "evil America" point of view, yet you note that the extremists represent a tiny minority of Islam and that, with the exceptions of Afghanistan and Sudan, political Islam generally has failed to take power.

It's hard to call the civil war between the fundamentalists and their mainstream Muslim enemies. In the political realm, the fundamentalists are losing. In the 1980s and 1990s, they suffered some tremendous defeats. They were crushed in Egypt, Syria and Algeria. In other places, such as Jordan where they did not revolt outright, they were marginalized or co-opted.

In the social and cultural arena, however, they have been making significant advances -- by establishing networks of voluntary societies and by establishing social services like hospitals and schools that often provide better services than do their state-run counterparts. So, in the cultural sphere, their star has been rising. In politics, therefore, they sometimes show a disturbing ability to set the agenda, to capture the moral high ground, as they would seem to have done in the current crisis.

Is there something inherent in these extremist groups that makes them politically ineffective, even when they manage to set the moral agenda?

The political failure of these extremist Islamic groups is not only the consequence of the repressive powers of the states arrayed against them. They do not have good answers to the most serious problems that beset their societies. Despite their very strong vision of social welfare, they have a very weak economic vision. Their primary demand is that the state should implement Islamic law exclusively, and they assert that this step alone will solve all of the economic and political problems, but it is difficult to see how this is so. The Taliban, for instance, hardly looked like a regime that, even in more propitious political circumstances, would have produced an economic revival for Afghanistan.

Since the attacks on Sept. 11, many people have said that U.S. foreign policy has contributed to the despair of the Arab world. Would these attacks still have occurred if there were no settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip? If there were no U.S. sanctions on Iraq? If the U.S. had no military presence in Saudi Arabia?

In a sense you are asking the question, "What are the primary sources of the anti-Americanism that al Qaeda is tapping into?" This is the most hotly debated issue in Middle Eastern studies today. My guess is that most academic experts on the region would answer that the three issues you mention are in fact the heart of the matter.

In my view, it is true that bin Laden wants to get the Americans out of Saudi Arabia, but he and his organization also want to topple the Saudi government, not to mention all other governments in the Middle East. If the internal struggle, the intra-Muslim "civil war," is indeed the heart of the matter, then U.S. foreign policy is of secondary importance. And so, for that matter, is the Israeli stance in the conflict with the Palestinians. It is clear that bin Laden is a very late convert to Palestinian nationalism. His conversion mimics that of Saddam Hussein, who attacked Israel in 1991 in order to keep Kuwait. Obviously, Iraq did not invade Kuwait in order to save the Palestinians, and al Qaeda is not trying to save them by blowing up parts of Manhattan. So I don't agree with the prevailing wisdom.

The obvious objection to what I have just said is, "OK, al Qaeda might not be primarily motivated by opposition to American foreign policy, but the wider society is." There is no denying that some American policies, such as our support for Israel and sanctions against Iraq, are unpopular. But it is important to analyze anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism in the Arab world as political speech. When leaders in our own country justify particular policies on the basis of their deep commitment to freedom and democracy, no serious political analyst would take these statements at face value. The statements would be interpreted against the backdrop of the domestic political debate, national interests, etc. But when Arab political actors invoke opposition to Israel and the United States, we tend to take what they say at face value.

In my view, much of the discussion in the Arab world about Palestine, Iraq and America's role in both is not only about those three issues. It is also about other things.

Can you give an example?

An important example is the Palestine question, which has a strong symbolic role in Arab and Muslim political speech. Palestine as a symbol means, among other things, the disregard that the West has for Arab and Muslim suffering. Obviously, when a Palestinian talks about Palestine, he or she is talking about the situation at home. But when, for instance, Saudis, Egyptians or Iranians invoke Palestine, they are often discussing their own circumstances as well.

Rightly or wrongly, most Arabs perceive Washington as the guardian of the current Arab political and economic order, which, quite frankly, stinks. Consider, for instance, Saudi Arabia, whose problems are typical. Nearly 50 percent of the Saudis are under the age of 15. While the population has been increasing at more than 3 percent a year, the average real income in the kingdom has decreased precipitously -- perhaps by as much as 50 percent in the last decade. The monarchy, like most Arab governments, does not permit freedom of expression or of assembly. In my view, the extreme anger that many Saudis are expressing toward America has its roots in that dismal state of affairs rather than on this or that policy that Washington might be pursuing.

Should the U.S. make any changes in its foreign policy as a response to the realities you discuss in the Arab world? If so, what should it do?

My analysis suggests we should promote political liberalization and economic growth. Exactly how Washington can achieve these goals under the current difficult circumstances, I cannot say. It's a very tall order.

What is the result of the war so far in terms of al Qaeda's position? Do the losses on the battlefield amount to a lasting blow, or have the extremists advanced their cause nonetheless?

So far, the war is a success for the United States. I was full of gloom and doom at the beginning, because I strongly suspected that the Bush administration did not fully understand the political minefield in the Middle East, and I feared that it was allowing al Qaeda to pull us into a prolonged, Soviet-style war in Afghanistan. But President Bush did not allow al Qaeda to sell the war to the Muslim world as America vs. Islam.

The speed with which we toppled the Taliban and the fact that the attention of the world community will be focused on the problem of starvation this winter are accomplishments of great significance. Liberating people from political oppression and starvation is very good propaganda. If we root out al Qaeda from Afghanistan, we will have significantly damaged the ability of the extremists to inflict severe harm on us in the short term.

With regard to the long term, however, much will depend on whether we remain engaged with the Muslim world and its problems. If we turn our back on Afghanistan this time as we did in the past, we will demonstrate that we care about the welfare of Muslims only when we are under attack. For instance, it has not been lost on people in the Middle East that America was not particularly concerned about starvation in Afghanistan until the World Trade Center went down.

It is also much too soon to tell how these events will affect the balance of power between extremists and moderates. The extremists have been dealt a significant political setback, but their cause will not disappear. In the social and cultural realm, they remain very much a presence in most Middle Eastern countries.

Radical Islam has one great strength: It is calling for a new order. We, together with the Middle Eastern guardians of the existing order, have very little to say in response. Bin Laden and others like him are broadcasting a populist critique of local tyranny and its relationship to the international political and economic system. The Middle Eastern leaders and America have no answers to this critique of tyranny. Middle Eastern states have significant powers of repression, but they have no alternative vision to offer in place of the clearly unacceptable status quo.

What should secular and/or moderate leaders in the Arab world -- those on the other side of the civil war -- be doing at this moment to advance their position?

In order to avert disaster, secular and moderate leaders need to articulate an attractive vision of the future that can command the loyalties of their public. Again, it's a very tall order. Such visions do not issue directly out of a few minds sitting on top of a repressive state. These visions rise out of a free cultural debate. Such a debate has been long absent from the Middle East.

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