We are devoting many posts today to the anniversary of 9/11, with first-hand accounts, insight, and commentary dedicated to that day seven years ago that changed our world.
Reza Aslan | BIO
Author, “No god but God”Perhaps the most significant change to have occurred over the last seven years of fighting the War on Terror is that we are no longer battling a terrorist organization called al Qaeda. We are now fighting a global social movement called al Qaeda.
The truth is al Qaeda was never the coherent, global entity it is so often imagined to be – an organization with an easily identifiable leadership structure and a systematic ideology. That al Qaeda existed only in the imaginations of those of us desperate for the days when America’s enemies were nations that could be assuredly defined and armies that could be conventionally overcome. It is no wonder that word al Qaeda continues to be rendered into English as “the base.” A base implies something concrete and conquerable, something that can be defended or assailed.
But the word al Qaeda also means “the rules” or “the fundamentals,” and is used by Arabs most often to refer to the basic teachings or creed of Islam. In that light, it may be somewhat appropriate to consider al Qaeda an Islamic form of fundamentalism, in so far as that word implies puritanical adherence to the elemental doctrines of a religion. But it is imprecise, and even dangerous, to consider al Qaeda the operational seat of global Islamic extremism.
al Qaeda is more like an ideological nerve center – a kind of brain trust propagating a series of simple propositions whose purpose is to classify the world into Good and Evil. Friend and Foe. Us and Them. As al Qaeda’s chief ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri said, “al Qaeda is not an organization…It is a call, a reference, a methodology.”
al Qaeda as methodology may be hard to swallow. Methodologies do not kill people; people kill people.
But when bin Laden refers to al Qaeda's attacks on America as “messages” to America, he is conveying a fundamental truth about the tactic of terrorism. These are not necessarily actions in pursuit of specific political or social ends. They are symbolic statements of power directed at a carefully selected audience. Indeed, it is the audience that can be regarded the principal victims of terrorism. Perverse though it may seem, terrorism’s actual victims – the bloodied, maimed, and murdered – are merely tools through which the terrorist’s “message” is delivered. What is that message? It is simply this: We are powerful, we are aggrieved, and we will not be ignored.
That is a message that has resonated with a wide spectrum of people – particularly young people – across the world (and not just the Muslim world). It is a message that cuts across all boundaries of religion, culture, class, and ethnicity. It is a message that has fed off the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the larger War on Terror: the use of torture; extraordinary renditions; the flaunting of international laws. It is a message that has become far more important than the messenger.
Of course, you can’t shoot a message (especially when you can’t even shoot the messenger).
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