ISRAEL IS NOT THE ISSUE: MILITANT ISLAM AND AMERICA (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER PUBLIC AFFAIRS) By Dore Gold 10/01/01)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
Did Support for Israel Trigger Islamic Fury? / Ideological Sources of
Bin Laden´s Anti-Americanism / The "Holy Land" is Arabia / Purifying
Islam from Alien Innovations / The Organizational Priorities of the
Bin Laden Network / The Supportive Media Environment in Arab States /
Israel and the Quest for a Coalition / The Real Issue: Anti-American
Did Support for Israel Trigger Islamic Fury?
After the September 11 terrorist assault on the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon, many American analysts have been seeking to
understand the source of the intense hatred against the United States
that could have motivated an act of violence on such an unprecedented
scale. In that context, a new canard is beginning to run through
repeated news reports and features: that somehow America´s support
for Israel is behind the fury of militant Islamic movements, like
that of Osama bin Laden, towards the United States. Indeed, a
Newsweek poll conducted on October 4-5, 2001, found that 58 percent
of Americans believe that the U.S. relationship with Israel is "a big
reason terrorists attacked the United States."1
These attitudes had to come from somewhere. For example, Caryl Murphy
wrote in the Washington Post: "If we want to avoid creating more
terrorists, we must end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly."2
Similarly, Gary Kamya, Salon magazine´s executive editor, added: "A
sword will hang over the U.S. until we convince Israel to make peace
with the Palestinians."3 Appearing on ABC with Peter Jennings, Hanan
Ashrawi also charged that the U.S. alliance with Israel was to blame
for the September 11 attack.4
This argument, unfortunately, has also found particular currency in
Europe. Thus, British Foreign Minster Jack Straw told an Iranian
newspaper: "One of the factors that helps breed terror is the anger
that many people in the region feel at events over the years in the
Palestinian territories."5 Egyptian diplomacy has clearly found this
theme to be useful; thus President Mubarak asserted during a trip to
Germany: "Without solving the Palestine problem with U.S. and
European help we will see a new generation of terrorists threatening
One significant exception to this trend was the Saudi Ambassador to
the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who frankly answered a
question posed by CNN´s Larry King as to whether the sentiment that
caused the attack came from frustration over the failure of the peace
process: "As a cause of it, I don´t think so."7
Bin Laden himself only placed the Palestinian issue front and center
among his grievances against the West during a video clip broadcast
after Anglo-American Forces began their retaliatory strikes against
Afghanistan on October 7, 2001: "America will never dream nor those
who live in America will never taste security and safety unless we
feel security and safety in our land and in Palestine."8
Yet a careful examination of the ideology and organization of bin
Laden´s al-Qaida terrorist network demonstrates that these
disturbingly ubiquitous assertions about the centrality of Israel as
the cause of the fury of militant Islam are seriously flawed. In
fact, state-supported media in parts of the Arab world continually
engage in incitement of the Arab civilian population against the
United States, regardless of the Israeli factor. Unless the sources
of anti-Americanism are correctly understood and addressed, policy-
makers are likely to fail to deal with the true motivating factors
behind the attack on the United States.
Ideological Sources of Bin Laden´s Anti-Americanism
A 1998 fatwa (religious ruling) issued by bin Laden jointly with
militant Islamic leaders from Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh
provides an insight into the sources of his anti-Americanism.9 The
document calls "on every Muslim...to kill the Americans and plunder
their money wherever and whenever they find it." True, bin Laden uses
language like "the Zionist-Crusader alliance" that sweeps in the
issue of Israel, but the primary justification for doing so is
that "for over seven years the United States has been occupying the
lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula,
plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its
people, [and] terrorizing its neighbors." Having helped to defeat the
Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s with other Arab volunteers,
bin Laden has now turned his attention to the remaining superpower,
the United States. U.S. forces are specifically described
as "Crusader armies spreading...like locusts."
A second bin Laden grievance is "the continuing aggression against
the Iraqi people." The "guarantee of Israel´s survival" appears only
as the third reason for criticizing U.S. policy. Bin Laden also
refers to the Jews´ "occupation of Jerusalem," but gives no
indication whatsoever of accepting Jewish statehood within any
borders. In fact, in 1998 he was critical of the Saudis for their
support of "Yasser Arafat´s regime" against Hamas.10 Israel´s very
existence is the issue -- not the status of the peace process. It is
not surprising that the planning and training for the September 11
attack is believed to have begun several years ago, well before the
current Palestinian intifada and the stalemate in the Israeli-
Palestinian peace process. There simply is no correlation between the
new terrorism facing the U.S. and the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The "Holy Land" is Arabia
Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton University also noted bin
Laden´s prioritization in his analysis of bin Laden´s 1998 fatwa in
The three areas of grievance listed in the declaration -- Arabia,
Iraq, and Jerusalem -- will be familiar to observers of the Middle
Eastern scene. What may be less familiar is the sequence and
emphasis. For Muslims, as we in the West sometimes tend to forget but
those familiar with Islamic history and literature know, the holy
land par excellence is Arabia -- Mecca, where the Prophet was born;
Medina, where he established the first Muslim state; and the Hijaz,
whose people were the first to rally to the new faith....Thereafter,
except for a brief interlude in Syria, the center of the Islamic
world and the scene of its major achievements was Iraq....For
Muslims, no piece of land once added to the realm of Islam can ever
be finally renounced, but none compares in significance with Arabia
and Iraq....Of those two, Arabia is by far the more important
Bin Laden issued an earlier document in 1996 called a "Declaration of
War Against the American Occupying of the Land of the Two Holy
Places" (referring to Mecca and Medina). Here, too, bin Laden
demonstrated that his priorities focus first and foremost on the
Arabian peninsula: "If there is more than one duty to be carried out,
then the most important one should receive priority. Clearly after
Belief (Imaan), there is no more important duty than pushing the
American enemy out of the holy land (i.e., Arabia) (emphasis added)."
Bin Laden made the same point in a 1998 interview with ABC
News: "Allah ordered us in this religion to purify Muslim land of all
non-believers and especially the Arabian Peninsula, where the Ke´ba
is (emphasis added)."12
Purifying Islam from Alien Innovations
In order to understand this prioritization, it is necessary to delve
into the general mindset of militant Islam. Like the Wahhabis of
eighteenth century Arabia, followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab
(1703-1787), whose doctrine was part of bin Laden´s early Saudi
education, militant Islamists seek to return Islam to a more
puritanical period, like the seventh century of the Prophet Muhammad,
before the Islamic world was contaminated by alien ideas, especially
from the West but also from within the Middle East. In their view,
the sources of heterodox impurities in Islam had to be eradicated.
The early Wahhabi movement, which had formed a political alliance
with the Saudi family, attacked Shi´ites as heretics and even sacked
the Iraqi Shi´ite holy city of Karbala in 1801, slaughtering its
residents. The Taliban, who came out of Islamic seminaries in
Pakistan funded by Saudi Arabia and inspired by its Wahhabi
doctrine,13 actually continued this violent Wahhabi tradition through
their harsh treatment of Afghan Shi´ites.
Looking beyond the adherents of Wahhabism to the wider perspective of
militant Islamists more generally, the Islamic world (Dar al-Islam)
at present may not be under the complete physical occupation of the
West, but it is under a kind of spiritual occupation: "in Sunni
terms, Dar al-Islam has returned to a state of jahiliyya (pre-Islamic
darkness) even worse than the one that preceded the appearance of the
Prophet Muhammad in Arabia."14 This perspective has been associated
with two of bin Laden´s militant Egyptian associates, the Egyptian
Islamic Jihad and al-Gama´at al-Islamiyya.15
The response of militant Islam to this situation is to seek the
overthrow of pro-Western regimes in the Islamic world and to campaign
for the elimination of Western power and influence from the Middle
East entirely. In the seventh century, the first Islamic state arose
on the ruins of the two great empires of that era: the Byzantine
Empire and the Persian Empire. With the collapse of the Soviet Union,
defeat of the U.S. becomes the next logical struggle. It is not
surprising that the handwritten document of terrorist ringleader
Muhammad Atta states: "Remember the battle of the Prophet...against
the infidels, as he went on building the Islamic state."16 Thus, the
organizing principle of militant Islam is anti-Americanism; a pro-
Western regime that is anti-Israel in orientation still remains a
target of militant Islam.
The Organizational Priorities of the Bin Laden Network
An examination of bin Laden´s organizational network further reveals
that the issue of Israel is not a top priority or focus for his brand
of militant Islam. The U.S. Department of State´s Patterns of Global
Terrorism -- 2000 identifies Sunni Islamic extremist groups that have
been linked to Osama bin Laden´s worldwide network: the Egyptian
Islamic Jihad, Egypt´s al-Gama´at al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Movement
of Uzbekistan, and the Harakat ul-Mujahidin, a Pakistan-based group
operating against India in Kashmir. The Islamic Renaissance Party
received support in late 1996 from "militant Arab Afghans" in
Afghanistan as it trained for cross-border attacks on Tajikistan.17
Bin Laden´s organization also became involved in the Tajikistan
struggle.18 Additionally, bin Laden´s network is known to reach
Albania, the Philippines, Chechnya, Indonesia, India, Jordan,
Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Looking at bin Laden´s organizational network, a number of concerns
are evident. First, bin Laden is continuing his struggle against
Russia, even after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
This involves, as noted above, continued support for already existing
Islamic movements in the independent Central Asian states of the
former Soviet Union. It also entails backing movements that are
seeking to dismember parts of Russia itself, beyond the obvious case
of Chechnya, in the Northern Caucasus. Daghestan, which commands 70
percent of Russia´s coast on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, faced a threat
from radical Islamists in 1999.19
Many commentators see Saudi-exported Wahhabism as one of the
principal causes of militant Islamic fundamentalism in southern
Russia. Thus, Hajj Salih Brandt, the Chechen government´s Special
Envoy to Europe, claimed: "[T]he whole political agenda of Wahabbi
Fundamentalism (what the West now calls Islamism)...is a deviation of
Islam taught in Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, sponsored by the
Saudi government and exported from there....Out of it have come
Hamas, the Taliban, Usama Bin Laden, the FIS, Sudan, and now the
gangs roaming Chechnya and Daghestan."20
Consistent with his ideological position, a second concern of bin
Laden´s organization involves directing efforts against the U.S.,
particularly against the American presence in and around the Arabian
peninsula. There is no clear connection between bin Laden and attacks
against Americans on Saudi territory in 1995 and 1996, which appear
to have been the responsibility of Shi´ite organizations like Saudi
Hizballah. However, bin Laden has penetrated Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen,
which control the Red Sea approaches to the Arabian peninsula, as
well as Jordan, which borders Saudi Arabia from the north. In this
context, he has been supportive of the overthrow of pro-American
regimes. A third concern for bin Laden is a focus on achieving Muslim
independence in multi-ethnic states, like the case of Kashmir in
India. Israel and the Palestinians are simply dwarfed by these other
areas of concern and activity.
In fact, Reuven Paz of the Herzliya International Policy Institute
for Counter Terrorism has noted that the bin Laden network has not
connected with militant Islamic movements in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip, despite its mobilization of Palestinians from Lebanon and
Jordan over the last decade.21 The U.S. Department of State noted
only one case of a militant, Nabil Awkil, connected to both Hamas and
Osama bin Laden. Very few other cases have been identified.22 The
head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Malka, has
stated that two attempts by the bin Laden organization to penetrate
into Israel were prevented.23
True, a Palestinian figure from Jordan, Dr. Abdallah Azzam, played a
major role in the formative years of bin Laden´s organization until
he was killed in 1989 by a car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan. However,
Azzam did not focus on the Palestinian issue but rather stressed
Afghanistan´s troubles exclusively.24 In fact, there have been
reports that bin Laden has been criticized for his indifference to
the Palestinian question.25 Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau
chief of the Lebanese daily as-Safir, stated on CNN: "He [bin Laden]
never served the Palestinian cause. He never did anything to help the
Palestinian people. His focus was on Afghanistan and on Chechnya.
Never cared for the Palestinian cause."26
If the Palestinian issue were a high priority for bin Laden, then
efforts to mobilize Palestinian militants and establish a widespread
presence in the territories would have been far more extensive.
Instead, the bin Laden network largely reflects the concerns of an
Afghan-based organization with strong links to Pakistan; hence, its
involvement in the Indian subcontinent, the former Muslim republics
of the Soviet Union, and strategic points around the Arabian
peninsula, especially Yemen.
The Supportive Media Environment in Arab States
One of the surprising aspects of the September attack on the U.S. is
the role of nationals who come from states that are thought to be
friendly to the U.S.: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Evidently,
bin Laden´s anti-Americanism has considerable resonance in the
government-controlled media of much of the Arab world. Even Egypt´s
official media have contributed to this environment. Thus, a
columnist in the state-controlled Al-Akhbar wrote in August
2001: "The conflict that we call the Arab-Israeli conflict is, in
truth, an Arab conflict with Western, particularly American,
colonialism....The U.S. treats the [Arabs] as it treated the slaves
inside the American continent....The issue no longer concerns the
Israeli-Arab conflict. The real issue is the Arab-American
conflict."27 Writing less than a month before the attack on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon, the columnist stated that "The Statue
of Liberty, in New York Harbor, must be destroyed." Unfortunately,
this sort of anti-Americanism is not uncommon in the Egyptian press.
Often, Arab states with close relations to the U.S. permit media
outlets that spread violent anti-Americanism. Qatar´s al-Jazeera
satellite network, that broadcasts to the entire Arab world, carried
a speech on May 23, 2001, by the Mufti of the Palestinian Liberation
Army which praised the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen: "My blessings
to those who carried out the [USS] Cole operation."28
Israel and the Quest for a Coalition
There will be those who might accept the argument that the Israel
issue is not at the core of the current anti-American rage, but
nonetheless they would argue that Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic
progress is necessary to assure the preservation of the anti-
terrorism coalition. Yet this assumption needs careful reexamination
as well. The 1990-91 Gulf War coalition against Iraq was established
in the total absence of an Arab-Israeli peace process. The Madrid
Peace Conference followed the coalition victory against Saddam
Moreover, after the war, the coalition began to disintegrate even as
the peace process appeared to be succeeding. For example, in the fall
of 1994 after the Oslo Agreement and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty,
the coalition did not hold together when Saddam Hussein massed
armored units on the Kuwaiti border (the U.S. and Kuwait acted
Two factors provided the glue to tie the original Gulf War coalition
together: a perceived mutual threat among the coalition members, and
the consensus of the five permanent members of the UN Security
Council. The Arab world did not want to be in a position of defying
what it had always called the main source of international
legitimacy -- the UN. Today, with Russia and China supporting the
U.S. anti-terrorism effort along with Great Britain and France, the
U.S. could assure itself of Arab support by gaining prior approval of
a concert of great powers.
The Real Issue: Anti-American Incitement
Placing Israel and the Palestinian issue in the spotlight of the
current anti-Americanism motivating the militant Islamic groups
connected with Osama bin Laden is simply wrong. It can also lead to a
misplaced emphasis in current U.S. policy options toward the Middle
East. Political pressure on Israel to make concessions under present-
day Palestinian violence could easily compromise Israeli security,
but would not address either the primary or even secondary reasons
behind the rage of militant Islam toward America.
In order to address the hostile environment toward the U.S. in parts
of the Arab world today, anti-American incitement in government-
controlled media should be examined. Eliminating terrorism requires
not only purely military measures, but also diplomatic moves aimed at
making sure that there is no fertile ground for mobilizing more
militant operations. While press freedoms are to be respected,
systematic anti-American incitement of whole populations must cease
in order to create an environment that is not supportive of future
attacks against the U.S. and its citizens. If these governments
already selectively censor criticism of their own regimes in their
state-controlled media outlets, then they can also take measures
against the spread of anti-Americanism through these same official
1. Newsweek website, October 6, 2001, www.msnbc.com/ news/639000.asp?
2. Caryl Murphy, Washington Post, September 16, 2001.
3. Salon Magazine, September 17, 2001.
4. Interview with Peter Jennings, ABC television, September 13, 2001.
5. New York Times, September 26, 2001.
6. Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2001.
7. CNN, Larry King Live, October 1, 2001.
8. CNN website:
9. Al-Quds Al-Arabi, February 23, 1998, www.ict.org.il.
10. The Independent, August 23, 1998.
11. Bernard Lewis, "License to Kill: Usama bin-Ladin´s Declaration of
Jihad," Foreign Affairs, 77:6 (November/December1998):14-19.
12. Interview with ABC News Correspondent John Miller, May 28, 1998.
13. Anton La Guardia, "Saudi Arabia: Why Most Important Arab Ally is
Dithering," Daily Telegraph (UK), October 3, 2001;
news.telegraph.co.uk. Olivier Roy has also noted:
During the last year, [Taliban] Mullah Omar has become more and more
isolated. He has not met with the Taliban government in Kabul,
preferring to seclude himself in Kandahar and rule through a small
inner circle of local clerics and foreign radicals, whose leading
figure is Mr. bin Laden.
Many decisions taken in 2000 and 2001 bear the mark of that puritan
influence: destroying the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, requiring non-
Muslims to wear insignia and arresting foreign humanitarian workers
for Christian proselytizing. The growing influence of "Wahhabis," as
they are called in the region -- meaning that their concept of
religion is based on the puritanism of official Saudi Islam -- has
created a nationalist backlash among many Afghans. Olivier
Roy, "Afghanistan After the Taliban," New York Times, October 7,
14. Emanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern
Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1985, p. 183.
15. Da´a Rashwan, "Islamism in Transition," Al-Ahram Weekly, March 11-
17, 1999, Issue No. 420.
16. Washington Post, September 28, 2001.
17. Olivier Roy, The Foreign Policy of the Central Asian Islamic
Party (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1997), p. 19.
18. Walter Pincus, "Bin Laden Seeks Instability," Washington Post,
September 30, 2001.
19. Rajan Menon and Graham Fuller, "Russia´s Ruinous Chechen War,"
Foreign Affairs, 79:2 (March/April 2000).
20. Hajj Salih Brandt, "Does the West Really Want to Stop this War?,"
Islamische Zeitung -- International.
Additionally, according to Russian General Prosecutor Vladimir
Ustinov, there are 1,500 Islamic religious organizations in the Trans-
Volga federal district. "With direct and indirect support from
abroad, Wahabbis -- the most radical Muslims -- are gradually
expanding their sphere of influence in these organizations."
From "The Wahabbis Reach the Volga," Vek, July 13, 2001, p. 3 -- WPS
Russian Media Monitoring Agency, No. 165, July 16, 2001.
Furthermore, Deputy Minister of National Security of the Azerbaijan
Republic Tofik Babaev maintains that "Over the last years 300
citizens of Azerbaijan had training in the ´Wahabbist´ centers in
Daghestan." Kavkaz-Center News Agency, May 3, 2001, www.kavkaz.org.
21. Reuven Paz, "Palestinian Participation in the Global Islamist
Network," International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism,
Herzliya, April 24, 2000, www.ict.org.il.
22. Amos Harel, "Bin Laden´s Palestinian Connection," Ha´aretz,
September 24, 2001.
23. Semadar Peri and Alex Fishman, "A Special Interview with the Head
of the Intelligence Branch," Yediot Ahronot, September 26, 2001.
24. Robert D. McFadden, "Bin Laden´s Journey from Rich Pious Lad to
the Mask of Evil," New York Times, September 30, 2001.
25. Noted by the editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi, as cited in The New
Republic, October 1, 2001.
26. CNN, October 8, 2001.
27. MEMRI, Analysis No. 71.
28. "Anti-American Statements in the Arabic Media," MEMRI. (JCPA
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