When trying to explain the Islamists' global campaign of mass murder, both liberals and conservatives, despite their fierce mutual disagreements, make the same underlying mistake. People on the anti-war left believe that Al Qaeda attacked us because we're imperialist, or because we're racist, or because we don't do enough for Third-World hunger (yes, there are people who actually believe the hunger argument; most of them are Episcopalians). By contrast, many people on the pro-war right, especially President Bush, believe that the Islamists hate us for our freedoms, opportunities, and overall success as a society. In other words, the left believes that the Islamists hate us for our sins, and the right believes that they hate us for our virtues. Both sides commit the same narcissistic fallacy of thinking that the Islamist holy war against the West revolves solely around ourselves, around the moral drama of our goodness or our wickedness, rather than having something to do with Islam itself.
A very different perspective on the Islamist challenge comes from Mary Habeck, a military historian at Yale University. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation on August 13, Habeck said that the various jihadist groups base their war against non-Moslems on the Islamic sacred writings, particularly the Sira, which, unlike the Koran, tells the Prophet’s life in chronological sequence. Using Muhammed as their model, the jihadis live and think and act within paradigms provided by the stages of Muhammed’s political and military career. According to Habeck, this internally driven logic of Islam, and not any particular provocation, real or imagined, by some outside power, is the key to understanding why the jihadis do what they do.
The first stage or paradigm is Muhammed’s early life in Mecca, a non-Islamic society where no Islamic way of life is possible, and where Moslems are powerless and oppressed. The second paradigm is the hejira, the escape from Mecca to Medina, a new place that is more pure and where a true Islamic society and state can be founded. After this Islamic state is formed, the third paradigm kicks in. This is jihad, organized violence against non-Moslems for the purpose of building up the wealth and power of the Islamic community and bringing the world under a single Islamic state. Jihadists conceive and rationalize their own activities in terms of these paradigms. Thus when Osama bin Laden left Saudi Arabia for Sudan, and when he later left Sudan for Afghanistan, he saw those journeys as corresponding with the hejira, leaving a corrupt land, where he was powerless, for a more pure Islamic place from which jihad could be waged.
In addition to the three stages in the growth of the Islamic community culminating in jihad, there are three basic approaches to waging jihad, called collectively the Method of Muhammed, that various Islamist groups respectively adopt toward the ultimate goal of establishing the world-wide rule of Islam. The jihadis' choice of method depends on whom they see as their immediate enemy in that larger struggle; each jihadist group, moveover, is defined by which of these methods it adopts. The first method is to fight the Near Enemy prior to fighting the Far Enemy. The Near Enemy is anyone inside Islamic lands, whether it is an occupier or someone who has taken away territory that used to be Islamic. The second method is to fight the Greater Unbelief—the major enemy, which today is the United States—before the Lesser Unbelief. And the third method is to fight the Apostates first, and then the other Unbelievers. Apostates are false Moslems, people who call themselves Moslems but aren't, a group that includes secularist Moslems such as Saddam Hussein as well as Shi’ites, who are considered heretics.
It is these notions, deeply embedded in the jidadis’ reading of the life of Muhammed, and not determined by what is happening in what we think of as the real world, that determine their major strategic directions and whom they choose to kill. For example, the terrorists who murdered 190 people in Madrid on March 11, 2004 did not target Spain because of its involvement with the U.S.-led Iraqi reconstruction; the group had been planning the Madrid attack for two years, going back to before the American invasion of Iraq. They attacked Spain because it was the Near Enemy—a formerly Islamic land that they hoped to win back for Islam. Similarly, regarding the all-important question whether the Wahhabist Osama bin Laden would have been willing to work with the secularist Apostate Saddam Hussein in an attack on America, Habeck says it is entirely possible, because bin Laden believes that his primary enemy is the Greater Unbelief, the United States, and therefore in the short term he would cooperate with an Apostate such as Hussein. Then, after America had been finished off with Hussein's help, bin Laden with the enhanced power and prestige gained from that victory could redirect the jihad back at Hussein and other Moslem Apostates.
The key point is that, while specific actions by the West might provoke the jihadis to greater attacks, their fundamental strategic and military decisions are not determined by anything done by the United States or Europe or by other major enemies of Islam such as the Hindus, but rather by which Method of Muhammed each jihadi faction follows, and each of these strategies has its own internal rationality, though it is not a rationality that makes sense in non-Islamic terms.
The same is true for Wahhabism itself, says Habeck. Wahhabism began in the 18th century when there was no Western colonial power in the Islamic world; it was not set off by any Western intrusion into the Moslem lands. Similarly, the contemporary Islamist idea that America is the center of all that is evil in the world, making America the “Greater Unbelief”, was conceived by a Moslem scholar between 1948 and 1951 when he was residing in the United States. This was decades before the U.S. had any large-scale involvement with Israel, and decades before its culture spiraled downhill, though, from the point of view of that visiting Moslem, America was already quite decadent at that point and ripe for destruction.
What is most striking in the Method of Muhammed is the utter absence of any transcendent notion of morality. Unlike in traditional Western religion and philosophy, where God or the Good is the measure of human actions, in Islamism (which after all is simply a pure form of Islam) the measure of human actions is the shifting power tactics and military strategies of a desert brigand and war leader.
Lawrence Auster is the author of Erasing America: The Politics of the Borderless Nation. He offers his traditionalist conservative perspective at View from the Right