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On 9/11, Islam and the Nature of the Enemy

By Kirk H. Sowell | September 11, 2006

As we contemplate the fifth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans continue to grapple with the issue of who or what is the enemy, and why did this happen. Why was the United States attacked, and who is truly to blame? Is the enemy Islam, or a form of Islam? Why did this happen; was it because of some specific set of U.S. foreign policies which could be changed, or was it because of a broader movement which made it inevitable?

No, the enemy is not Islam. But it is important to understand why this is the case, for it is certainly not the case that the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Islam, as some have suggested. Al-Qaeda and similar groups are unimaginable without Islam. Nor is the enemy “terrorism,” for while the phrase “war on terror” is diplomatic, it is imprecise, as terrorism is but a means used by the enemy. Herein I will argue that the enemy should be understood to be a movement based on an ideology of state which is derivative from Islam, but certainly not synonymous with it. While bearing both resemblances and contrasts with previous Islamic movements, this movement – be it called radical Islam, militant Islamism, jihadism, Islamic fundamentalism or something else – has been empowered by the transportation and communication revolutions inherent in modern globalization. Neither al-Qaeda nor the 9/11 attacks would have been possible without it.


Is the enemy Islam? If not, what is the enemy?

In the fall of 1529, the Austrians had their hands full facing down the greatest threat imaginable to them, the armies of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had come to control most of southeastern Europe, having recently taken Serbia and then Hungary, although with some difficulty. The Ottoman sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, pressed on to the heart of Europe in the hope of taking Vienna. After a three-week siege he withdrew, and that in part due to the weather.

Contemporaneous with the Ottoman assault on Europe, the Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood, like the Turks of Central Asian origin, were spreading through the Middle East. A mystical movement which stressed the spiritual search for God’s truth, the Naqshbandis also respected Islamic law and were thus accepted by the Ottoman state. It would not have occurred to the Austrians that the Naqshbandis were their enemies, assuming they were aware of the Muslim mystics at all. Yet were the Sufis not Muslims, did they not pray, fast, give alms, attend to the Hajj and worship only one God, just as the Ottomans?

The enemy then was, not Islam, but a state based on the ideology of Ottomanism. Turkic peoples migrating from Central Asia first took a military role under the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’atasim (r. 833-842). Over the centuries Muslim rulers became more dependent upon them, culminating in the rule of the Turkic Seljuks, who consolidated control of Iraq, the old Abbasid center of power, in 1055. In 1071, Turkic warriors defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in Anatolia, and by 1301 a Turkic ghazi named Osman established sufficient control over Anatolia to found what we know as the Ottoman Empire. Ottomanism was not a perversion of Islam, as its jihadist impulse dated back to the early caliphs and, if oral tradition is to be believed, to the Prophet Muhammad himself. Ottomanism was not synonymous with Islam, but rather it was a movement, an ideology of state which adapted selected Islamic principles for the service of imperial power.

So it was with al-Qaeda. For present purposes, the modern history of radical Islam can be dated to the Saudi-Wahhabi Pact of 1744, in which the tribal leader of the powerful Al-Sa’ud reached an agreement with the religious ideologue Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab in which the Saud would have political and military power and Abd al-Wahhab’s followers would be placed as jurists and religious authorities in areas conquered. The movement was terrorist from the beginning, attacking Sunni Muslims for refusing the rule of the Saud and wantonly murdering Shi’a Muslims, who they considered heretics and not true Muslims. Despite reversals over time, a third revival of the movement led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

The establishment of the Saudi-Wahhabi state was complimented by the 19th century rise of the Deobandi movement in British India (modern Pakistan), which eventually gave rise to the Taliban, and the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which gave rise to a number of radical Islamist groups, most prominently the Palestinian Hamas and the Jordanian Islamic Action Front. The three movements augmented one another, with Saudi-Wahhabi finance supporting MB activities in Arab countries and establishing thousands of madrassas, or Islamic schools, in Pakistan, a country which for the most part had no other education system. Often MB members served as Wahhabi foot soldiers, being educated in Saudi institutions and then sent abroad. One of them was a Palestinian, Abdullah Azzam, the mentor of Usama bin Laden.

From the 1950s through the 1990s Islamists fought bloody and uniformly unsuccessful wars against secular Arab states, one of them involving the Egyptian Islamic Jihad led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri believed that he had learned a lesson – as America was the world’s great power, it did no good to fight the local secular regime, it was necessary to strike the source itself. He was a long-time ally of bin Laden, and the two men merged operations in 1998. Bin Laden adopted Zawahiri’s thinking, and a plan pushed by Khaled Shaikh Muhammad, the planner of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, would end with the attacks of September 11.

The parallel drawn here is not based on vague resemblances, but upon the fact that modern radical Islamists model themselves on Muslims in earlier centuries who fought to establish the caliphate which would implement Islamic law and spread the borders of Islam through conquest. Bin Laden himself drew the connection in an October 7, 2001 video in which he referred to the “humiliation” that Muslims had endured for “more than eighty years.” This was a reference to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, resulting from having lost the First World War in 1918. That the Ottoman state had been the “Sick Man of Europe” for over a century and that bin Laden and his band of fanatics bore little resemblance to the Ottomans’ forbearers is beside the point; bin Laden and those who are like-minded view modern radical Islam as the vanguard for the return of the caliphate.

This is the history of our enemy.

While the Ottomans represented a dignified civilization which usually made war consistent with Islamic rules of law, modern radical Islam is different, so no moral equivalence should be implied between the two. Otherwise, what the world faces today is very much like the threat that faced by the peoples of Europe and the Middle East in the Turks in the 13th century – an energetic movement unattached to any established state and bent on reestablishing the glory of the early Islamic caliphates by force.

Radical Islamists do not need to come even close to achieving that grandoise goal in order to be a massive threat. The Shi’a Islamic revolution in Iran has given way to a state capable of maintaining extensive terrorist operations on every inhabited continent, while the weak and impoverished emirate of the Taliban in Afghanistan was able to provide a base for attacks on the United States, at home and abroad. Now the Taliban-dominated areas of Waziristan, Pakistan have become al-Qaeda’s primary base, while Hizballah’s substate entity in Lebanon and Hamas’ proto-Islamist state in Palestine offer bases for attacks on Israel. The Ottoman state started small as well, and the enemies we face are ambitious.


There is a final, catalyzing element which makes modern Islamic terrorism different from all Islamic movements, indeed all militant movements, of the past, and that is globalization. The revolution in transportation and other technologies has made it possible for a small group of individuals to inflict damage on advanced societies vastly disproportionate to their numbers and means.

There is a second element to the catalyzing effect of globalization, and that is the communications revolution. When British forces under Herbert (Lord) Kitchener defeated the Mahdist movement in the Sudan in 1898, there was no uprising in Muslim sections of India, no protests in Istanbul pressuring the Sultan to break his de facto alliance with London, no revolt in Egypt or other signs of solidarity with the armed Islamic Sudanese campaign anywhere in the Muslim world. Today, attempts to take the war to Islamic terrorists in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan give rise to jihadist recruiting from Indonesia to sub-Saharan Africa to European converts to radical Islam in Belgium. A global jihadist consciousness exists today which could not possibly have existed previously.

Given the existence of a movement based on establishing an alternative global order along the lines of an Islamic order believed to have existed in the eighth century, conflict was inevitable. As the guarantor of the modern global order, it is logical that the United States would be the focus of their fury. The specific operations leading to 9/11 could have been stopped, but the global war was inevitable. If it were China rather than the United States which was the world’s leading power in the 1990s, then China’s western province, which has traditionally been inhabited by Muslims, would be a center of militant activity, China’s navy, which would have to safeguard the sea lanes upon which its economy depends, would face motor boat bombs, and its airlines would be targeted by hijackers. Even as things stand, France, Russia, India and China are all targets to a degree, despite the wide variations in their foreign policies. The ideology of state which is radical Islam seeks to replace them all.


Conceptual issues outstanding: Are the world's primary political units still nation-states? John Negroponte has said they still are (C-Span). Are we still living in the debris of collapsed empires such as the Ottoman,Austro-Hungarian? Or, as Richard Barnett thinks, are we on the way to globalization but with some very resistant areas, such as the Muslim swath? These differing conceptions are not necessarily mutually exclusive but do lead to differing strategies. Examples: pursue geopolitics, nation-building or new world empire.

Stimulating comment Mr. Halasz. Here's my take on your points:

- Generally yes, I think that the primary political actors are still states, but the other actors - tribes, terrorist and criminal organizations, legal NGOs, multinational corps - are increasingly important. The nonstate actors seem to be most important where state boundries are the most artificial. An example of this we have discussed recently is the ceding the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands to the Taliban. The Sudan is another. An interesting twist on this is where a non-state actor becomes a state actor, as Hamas in Palestine and the ICU in Somalia are trying to become. But I expect states to be the primary actors for a very long time.

- We are still living with the detritis of collapsed empires, most vividly in the Balkans, the ME and much of Africa south of the Sahara. Some societies have had the elements necessary to create functional states, and some don't. Pakistan, the Sudan and the Congo are major countries which have never really gotten it together.

Re Barnett versus above (I presume you are referring to Thomas PM, not 'Richard'): I think there is a lot of value in Barnett's theory, but I think that it is limited by two big caveats:

1) Some societies, due to their constituent elements, are more able to deal with globalization positively, and as noted above, some societies just don't have that. Societies with stronger social networks, and more social capital geared toward work, do better with globalization. And despite the fact that globalization is highly cosmopolitan and has a certain multicultural ethos, more homogenous societies can have an advantage because heterogenous societies can be pulled apart. Compare China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea to Indonesia, India and the multitribal states of Africa. Homogenous societies do better, all else equal.

And here is what I think is the big catch - for those societies that can't take advantage of globalization, they are worse off, because greater awareness of wealth elsewhere creates rising expectations, and the failure of these expections aggravates societal dysfunction (a twist on Schumpeter's theory).

2) Globalization creates its own backlash in the name of defending local identity, and radical Islam is part of this. I do not subscribe to the theory that radical Islam is a product of modernity (because of the Wahhabi example, in part), but modernity can certainly fuel it.