Al-Qaeda, Jihad and the Democratization of Islamic Authority

Published in Political Islam

by Faisal Devji

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11 a jihadist website posted a long interview with Osama bin Laden's lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he described Muslim militancy as offering an opportunity for all the world's oppressed, whether or not they converted to Islam:

[Interviewer] Speaking of the plunder of resources, grievances, and the oppressed ones in the world, in recent statements by Al-Qa'ida of Jihad calls for supporting the oppressed in the world have been repeated. Is this a new Al-Qa'ida approach?

[Al-Zawahiri] No, this is a confirmed jurisprudence-based law. God, the exalted, said in [a] Hadith Qudsi: "O my servants, I have forbidden oppression for myself, and forbidden it for you, so do not oppress each other."


I invite all of America's victims to Islam, the religion which rejects injustice and treachery. If they don't convert to Islam, then they should at least take advantage of Muslims' defensive campaign to repel America's aggression against them and overcome them, each under his own banner, and with whatever is at his disposal.[1]

This is a novel interpretation of Islam's universality, and one that has transformed the language of religious conversion itself. The American convert Adam Gadahn, for example, whose name within Al-Qaeda circles is Azzam al-Amriki or Azzam the American, invites his compatriots to accept Islam in a videotape released in 2006 by the terror network's media arm. Prefaced by a testimonial from Zawahiri, Gadahn's performance is dedicated to giving proselytism a radically new meaning:

We invite all Americans and other unbelievers to Islam, wherever they are and whatever their role and status in Bush and Blair's world order. And we send a special invitation to all of you fighting Bush's Crusader pipe dream in Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever else 'Dubya' has sent you to


Finally, some will ask how we expect to attract converts to Islam after having spilled so much non-Muslim blood, albeit in defense of our religion, liberty and lives. We might ask the same question to those who kill Muslims by the millions for the crime of being Muslim, and then foolishly hope to win their hearts and minds. But we will suffice by pointing to the sharp spike [in] conversions to Islam after September eleventh, which, as we've mentioned, is giving the enemy many a sleepless night.[2]

Echoing Bin Laden's comments in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Gadahn points out that these had led to a sudden rise in global interest about Islam, as well as a spike in conversions to the religion. Personal forms of missionary activity that would attract converts to a particular religious tradition, in other words, are dismissed for an impersonal and in fact inadvertent proselytism by way of spectacular events whose purposes might have been altogether different. Moreover the Islam to which such converts are led is completely open as far as sect, school or tradition is concerned, these particulars being left to the discretion of the converts themselves.[3]

Gadahn's invitation to Islam discounts doctrine and practice for something so generic as to be human in nature. The examples he gives of American soldiers turning Muslim rely not upon their discovery of Islamic scripture so much as their identification with the suffering, endurance and sacrifice of America's Muslim victims. Thus Gadahn reproaches critics of the War on Terror like the British Member of Parliament George Galloway and the journalist Robert Fisk for not taking the final step to accept Islam. Conversion for him has become a sign chiefly of identification with victims in general, who, whether or not they happen to be Muslim, are represented at this historical juncture by Islam. This is why Al-Qaeda's spokesmen can deploy the language of identification in secular as well as religious ways.

For those who adopt the brand name Al-Qaeda, non-Muslims who identify with Muslim victims become human and Muslim at the same time, even if their conversion remains in the realm of potentiality, since the criteria for both humanity and Islam are the same. The breadth of Islam's humanity is such that even its greatest enemies, according to Gadahn, could be forgiven and treated as brothers if only they would repent of their actions. Unlike the rhetoric used in the War on Terror, which is determined to punish Islamic militants for crimes committed, that used in Al-Qaeda's jihad would forgive US President Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Blair for crimes as great if only they were to repent. However preposterous, it is clear that Al-Qaeda's rhetoric is more Christian than that of its Western enemies.

The terrorist as humanitarian

Given that militants today routinely invoke the plight of suffering Muslims in exactly the same way as humanitarians do of victims in general, the identification of Islam and humanity is hardly surprising. Indeed humanitarian interventions even serve as the model for militant ones in the contemporary rhetoric of jihad, so that Ayman al-Zawahiri recommended attacks upon infidels in the same breath as he counseled assistance to those hurt and displaced by the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005. So Zawahiri not only identified the earthquake's victims as martyrs, as if, like Al-Qaeda's militants, they had died for their faith, he also accused America of making war against Islamic charitable work, thus very deliberately conflating militant with humanitarian action:

We have sadly received the news of the disaster that befell the Pakistani Muslim people following the earthquake that struck the region [...] We ask Allah to grant those killed in the earthquake the positions of martyrs and pious people. My brothers and myself wish to be among you, our dear brothers, on this day. However, agents of America are standing in our way to help our Muslim brothers in their distress. Today, I call on Muslims in general, and on Islamic relief organizations in particular, to go to Pakistan and help their Pakistani brothers and withstand the troubles and harm they face for this purpose. We all know the raging American war against Islamic charitable work.[4]

Such identifications are made even less surprising when we realize that one of the great themes of contemporary Islam, characterizing liberals as well as fundamentalists and pacifists as well as militants, has to do with its supposed naturalness. Islam is justified as the natural religion of humanity, one that some Robinson Crusoe might well discover by purely rational means on his desert island. Its history therefore serves as a carapace for Islam's essentially human nature rather than providing believers with truth of a doctrinal sort as in Christianity. So believers today have reworked traditional notions like that of Islam as mankind's original faith, one that Muhammad simply cleansed of time's corruption, by predicating them of humanity's modern manifestation in biological as well as juridical terms. Thus a tradition describing Islam as the religion of all children, who are only subsequently turned by their parents into Jews or Christians, has led to the development of novel terms like "reverts" for English-speaking converts.

How does Islam come to represent humanity and why? The answer lies in globalization, which has re-defined the place that Islam occupies in the world. If humanity in its biological and legal forms came to be embodied by individuals at the beginning of the last century by way of such notions as human rights, with globalization it became a collective reality well before that century was out. For humanity is the globe's only subject, being the true agent as well as the victim of crises like global warming or nuclear warfare. The worldwide Muslim community or ummah has become a global cause on the same pattern as a humanity threatened by global warming or nuclear war. And in fact the Islamic community literally takes the place of humanity in modern times. It does so by claiming the status of global victim, the purity of whose suffering serves as an equivalent of its pure humanity. While it has earlier precedents in colonialism, this idea of a victimized Islam can be dated to the First World War, in which the Ottoman Empire was dismembered and its emperor, who claimed also to be the caliph or successor to the Prophet's worldly authority, was deposed. Osama Bin Laden refers very frequently to this event as precisely the origin of Islam's victimization as a global phenomenon. Now in times past the Muslim ummah was viewed not as a body of people existing in the historical present, but as a trans-historical community made up of the dead, the living and the yet unborn-which meant that it could not be conceived of as a body of victims in any modern sense. By the time Osama bin Laden made the following statement to a conference of Pakistani divines in 2001, however, this community had come to represent nothing but human life itself under attack:

Honorable scholars, I write these lines to you at a time when every single inch of our umma's body is being stabbed by a spear, struck by a sword, or pierced by an arrow.[5]

It is only when the Islamic community becomes a merely contemporary reality that it can become a political one- either as an agent or a victim. Yet today all global figures, the environment and humanity included, exist in rhetoric and reality only as victims. Which is to say they exist only as the potential subjects of politics. The task of militancy is to fulfil this potential and make them into actors. But for the moment there is no such thing as a global politics properly speaking, though it is possible that the militants and their enemies will bring it into being by their combined efforts.

While Al-Qaeda's terrorists, therefore, may begin by identifying Muslims with the passive victims who embody humanity in the discourse of human rights and crimes against humanity, their aim is in fact to transform this humanity from the inside. These militants are not interested in saving Muslim victims by humanitarian missions, but in remaking humanity itself by abandoning the technical language of humanitarianism and human rights-which is invoked in their rhetoric only to be condemned as hypocritical.

From humiliation's heart

Zawahiri describes the humiliation of a humanity unachieved in the following passage from a video posted on the Internet on 23 December 2006, in which he goes so far as to compare the Muslim victims of Western domination to animals:

O my Muslim Ummah, you must choose between two choices: the first is to live on the margins of the New World Order and international law and under the control of the enemies of Islam, dishonoured, humiliated, plundered and occupied, with them meddling in your beliefs and true religion, sticking their noses in all your domestic and foreign affairs, and you living the life of a vassal, lowly, disgraced and defiled.

And the second choice is that you rely on your Lord, renew your Tawheed (worship of the one God), rise up with your true faith, follow the revealed religion of Allah, and stand with it in the face of the arrogant criminals, as your truthful and trustworthy Prophet (peace be upon him), his righteous companions, and his purified family (Allah was pleased with them all) stood in the face of the world, inviting, giving the good news, warning and performing Jihad in order that Allah's Word be made the highest and the word of the infidels the lowest. And there is no third choice.

The Crusaders and Jews will only be pleased with the Muslim Ummah if it is satisfied with vassalage, humiliation and repression. If, however, the Ummah sets about repelling the aggression which has been committed against it for centuries, it gets nothing but bombing, destruction, torture, occupation, abuse and infringement, because in that case it is not eligible for human rights, due to it being a species of animal which has attacked its Western masters.[6]

Not one militant has attributed his radicalization to any personal humiliation, whether arising out of foreign domination, racism or discrimination of some other kind, though to do so would not compromise his motives in the least. On the contrary these men explicitly reject such motives, which remain nevertheless the stock in trade of "expert" analyses regarding their militancy. Not their own humiliation, but that of others shames these men, whose acts are therefore committed out of pity for the plight of others. This is the same abstract and vicarious emotion that characterizes the actions of pacifists or human rights campaigners, and as we have seen, Zawahiri himself attributes the humiliation of Muslims to their deprivation of human rights. Taken together, these expressions of pity belong to the language of humanitarianism and therefore to humanity itself.

Osama bin Laden is probably the most eloquent orator of Muslim humiliation today, his rhetoric setting the standard for militant expositions of shame more broadly. But for Bin Laden shame and humiliation are by no means the expression of Islam's defeat or oppression by the West as has generally been assumed. Such an inference would indeed be an odd one to make for someone who glories in the wholesale martyrdom of Muslims. Whether death leads to the victory of the martyr's cause is neither here nor there as far as his elevated status is concerned. So in the case of the prophet's grandson Husayn, who provides the archetype of Muslim martyrdom, victory was most emphatically not the outcome of his death. Or as Bin Laden, referring to Al-Qaeda's martyrs, puts it in a video broadcast by Al-Jazeera on 26 December 2001:

No Muslim would ever possibly ask: what did they benefit? The fact is that they were killed-but this is total ignorance. They were victorious, with the blessings of God Almighty, and with the immortal heavens that God promised them. Victory is not material gain; it is about sticking to your principles.[7]

If martyrdom represents a victory in its own right, one that transcends defeat on the political plane, then humiliation, too, becomes a category transcending politics. Osama bin Laden's sermons of shame have little, if anything to do with the political, economic or religious subordination of the Muslim world to the West, and are concerned rather by the duties of courage and sacrifice that Muslims neglect, and of whose absence defeat and oppression are only the signs. Far from being negative phenomena, defeat and oppression are seen positively, as heaven-sent opportunities to make humanity manifest. They serve as counterparts to the biblical trials imposed by God upon an Abraham or a Job.

Martyrdom, therefore, is noble not because it will result in the political, economic or religious triumph of Islam so much as because it allows Muslims to exhibit the fundamentally human virtues of courage and sacrifice, thus doing their duty to represent humanity itself as a global agent rather than victim. And while there might not seem to be much religious character in such a notion of martyrdom, its elevation in the rhetoric of militancy is so pronounced that the martyr becomes the very embodiment of religious truth, his physical body being mysteriously perfumed and incorruptible even as he assumes a spiritual presence in the dreams of his surviving companions. This coming together of the traditional virtues of martyrdom with modern conceptions of humanity is manifest in Bin Laden's rhetoric, for example in the following extract from his 2001 message to a gathering of Pakistani divines:

I write these lines to you at a time when even the blood of children and innocents has been deemed fair game, when the holy places of Islam have been violated in more than one place, under the supervision of the new world order and under the auspices of the United Nations, which has clearly become a tool with which the plans of global unbelief against Muslims are implemented. This is an organization that is overseeing with all its capabilities the annihilation and blockade of millions of Muslims under the sanctions, and yet still is not ashamed to talk about human rights![8]

The link forged between Islam and modern conceptions of humanity in the passage I have just quoted is far from arbitrary. For one thing Islam's victimization is seen as a properly global phenomenon and put in the context of human rights violations. And for another the virtues of courage and sacrifice, as well as the aims of peace and security that militant acts like suicide-bombings supposedly uphold, are human in their generality and cannot be limited to Muslims. Indeed specifically Islamic virtues like honouring the prophet or attesting to the unity of God are remarkable by their absence from the rhetoric of martyrdom, though Muslim authorities are certainly invoked to support the sanctities of a wider humanity. But theological justifications apart, Islam has come to represent humanity by the sheer extent of its apparent victimization. Not only Bin Laden and his acolytes, but also the liberal or fundamentalist Muslims who oppose Al-Qaeda, need only count up the victims of conflict globally to obtain an overwhelmingly Muslim quorum. Thus the importance of such lists in the narrative of militancy: Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia and more.

Whether it is accurate or not, such counting is in fact used to make the connection between Islam and the victimized humanity it has come to represent. It is as if the very size and dispersal of the Muslim ummah are enough to guarantee the stability of this connection, whoever is responsible for the victimization that brings Islam and humanity together. Strictly speaking such causes are secondary to the identification of Muslims as human beings, though their seeming diversity poses a problem for militants, who must subsume them all under increasingly abstract labels like "the Crusader-Zionist axis". The enemy of Islam and humanity, in other words, is a constantly morphing presence that can be joined or abandoned at will. For the moment Israel and the United States account for two of this hydra's heads, but not so long ago the Soviet Union or Serbia were far more important. The point being that this enemy's abstraction permits militants to move past politics and establish themselves in a moral arena proper to humanity. This is why Osama bin Laden, in his videotaped statement of 4 January 2004, regards jihad as something providential and not simply an unfortunate necessity:

This confrontation and conflict will go on because the conflict between right and falsehood will continue until Judgment Day. Such a confrontation is good for both the countries and peoples. God says: "If God did not drive some back by means of others, the earth would be completely corrupt [...]"[9]

Similarly in a video posted on the Internet on 22 January 2007, Zawahiri welcomed President Bush's move to send some 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, even asking him to send the entire U.S. army, so that it might vie with the militants in virtue as much as vice. Seen as part of a providential design, the battle between faith and infidelity makes these enemies into partners striving to exhibit the truth of their cause and destroy its evil. The first words blazoned on Zawahiri's videotape, in English, are the following:

So send your entire army to be annihilated at the hands of the Mujahideen, to free the world from your evil and theirs.[10]

Militant acts serve to make humanity manifest by transmuting the shame of its negative existence into the pride of an identity achieved as if in some alchemical precipitation. Such an achievement is properly human because it has little to do with defeat or victory in a political sense, constituting rather the display of universal virtues by individuals and groups of all descriptions. The only victory on this battlefield is that of courage and the only defeat that of cowardice. And for this an enemy is necessary while being at the same time quite incidental. In vogue with the dispersed networks of Sunni militancy as well as among the hierarchies of Shiite radicalism, this conception of struggle differs markedly from the collective ideals that serve as traditional military goals. Whether fighting for his freedom, his country or even his material interests, the conventional soldier anticipates a result whose attainment lies beyond his powers in an undefined future. Such self-realization as he achieves in battle never becomes part of the struggle and is relegated to his letters and anecdotes, his memories and his dreams.

The militant however fights for self-realization of the most immediate kind, one whose individuality is at the same time a realization of humanity itself. Such acts of militancy, moreover, reach out to humanize their enemy in the moment of violence, for only in this way can the humanity claimed by Islam fulfill its universal destiny. It is no longer the universality of conversion that militant Islam seeks, but an identification that puts everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, friend or foe, in the quintessentially human position of global victim. This might seem a far-fetched argument to make, but it is borne out by the character of militant activity. For example it is clear from Osama bin Laden's statements that he considers acts of terror necessary so that the West might experience the equivalent of Muslim suffering. But far from being a form of revenge, such equivalence is meant to permit both sets of victims to identify with and indeed speak to each other. Thus the following statement of Bin Laden's, which was broadcast on Al-Jazeera on 12 November 2002:

If it pains you to see your victims and your allies' victims in Tunisia, Karachi, Failaka, and Oman, then remember that our children are murdered daily in Palestine and Iraq. Remember our victims in the mosques of Khost, and the deliberate murder of our people at weddings in Afghanistan. If it pains you to see your victims in Moscow, then remember ours in Chechnya.[11]

In statement after statement, Al-Qaeda's soldiers describe their attacks as a "language", in fact as the only language that America or the West understands. In other words these men define violence as a mode of conversation and persuasion, the common language they share with their enemies. Murder has therefore become a medium of exchange for Islam's global militants, representing in this way the intimate relationship they enjoy with the infidel. However its true purpose is pedagogical, to school these unbelievers in the forgotten language of ethics and principles, which is to say in the language of humanity itself. This is how Ayman al-Zawahiri puts it in an interview released on the Internet on 11 September 2006:

The materialistic Crusader western civilization knows not the language of ethics and principles but understands the language of punishment and retribution. So, if they taste some of what they are inflicting on our women and children, then they will start giving up their arrogance, stubbornness, and greed and will seek to solve the problem between them and the Muslims.[12]

The language of violence, then, belongs to the infidel as much as it does to the faithful, allowing one's vice to compete with the other's virtue in such a way as to bring the ethics and principles of humanity back to political life in the most spectacular of ways.

Faisal Devji is a historian who specializes in studies of Islam, globalization, violence and ethics.He has just been appointed to a post at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. His undergraduate education was at the University of British Columbia, where he received double honours in history and anthropology. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago with a dissertation entitled "Muslim Nationalism: Founding Identity in Colonial India", He has taught at Yale University and also served as Head of Graduate Studies at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Devji is also a regular contributor to the scholarly journal Public Culture, and serves on its editorial committee.

Please click here for a selection of Devji's articles.

[1] "Al-Zawahiri calls on Muslims to wage 'war of jihad', reject UN resolutions", United States Central Command, 14.

[2] "Al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn, aka 'Azzam the American': 'The truth of Islam is sweeping across America and constitutes a fearsome challenge to the security, identity, and survival of the crusader state [America]'; time is running out to convert to Islam before you meet the dismal fate of thousands before you", Middle East Media Research Institute special dispatch series, no. 1281, September 6, 2006 (, 2-3.

[3] For the religious pluralism of these militants see F. Devji. 2005. Landscapes of the Jihad:Militancy, Morality, Modernity, London: Hurst.

[4] "Al-Zawahiri urges Pakistan quake aid", Al-Jazeera, 23 October 2005, (, 1.

[5] B. Lawrence (ed.). 2005. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, London: Verso, 96.

[6] "Website Posts Latest Video of Al-Zawahiri, English Text", United States Central Command, 5-6.

[7] Lawrence, Messages, 154.

[8] Ibid. 96.

[9] Ibid. 217.

[10] "Al-Zawahiri Video on Bush's Iraq Security Plan", United States Central Command, 1.

[11] Lawrence, Messages, 175.

[12] "Al-Zawahiri Calls on Muslims to Wage 'War of Jihad', Reject UN Resolutions", United States Central Command, 2.

Last modified on Tuesday, 26 May 2015 15:58
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