In Libya, French President Jacques Chirac is being compared in the official state newspaper with Saladin, the legendary Muslim military leader who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century, recapturing Jerusalem for the Muslim world. In Russia, the Iraqi ambassador reports that thousands of Muslims are flocking to Iraq to join the jihad, or holy war, against the Crusaders of the West. Throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, imams and scholars are issuing fatwas, or religious edicts, saying that it is the obligation of every Muslim to take up arms to defend Islam. Muslim men, mainly young men, are heeding their call.
While much is unknown about the geopolitical dice President George W. Bush is about to roll, one thing is as clear as the moustache on Saddam Hussein’s despotic face: However much the White House claims a war with Iraq does not represent a war against Islam, throughout the world that is precisely how it is seen. It is being portrayed in the starkly religious language of the Crusades, pitting Christianity against Islam in a holy war. And this cannot be blamed entirely on our enemies.
North of London, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the head of Al-Muhajiroun and one of the U.K.’s leading Islamists, tells Salon that the war hasn’t even started yet and young men are flocking to Iraq to fight the United States. Bakri says that he himself knows individuals who have sneaked into Iraq from Iran, Syria, Turkey and Jordan — “the gate to Iraq is open,” he says — because “imams in the mosques, the scholars, and the muftis have called for jihad.” While the governments of various Arab countries stay mum on the pending Iraq war, “they let their own religious institutions call for jihad,” Bakri says, rattling off a list that includes the muftis of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Salafi mufti in Kuwait. Mujahedin, or religious holy warriors, “from Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, those who were fighting in Afghanistan — all of them are there. Many people from Yemen, many Egyptians have entered — you [in the U.S.] are just facilitating this atmosphere for mujahedin.”
Bakri says that the religious justifications for taking up arms against the West in Iraq are well-known to most Muslims. “The Koran says, ‘All believers, if you see disbelievers attacking you, stand firm together and fight them back and don’t sell your Muslim brother.’ More than that, the Prophet Mohammed said, fight to defend your own homeland … your own brother.”
Imams all over the world are also citing the Hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, Bakri claims, citing a passage from al-Bukhaaree, in the Book of Trials, that supposedly foresees Iraq being at war for 12 years under corrupt rulers when “the People of the cross will gather together to attack you … Massacres will be everywhere.” Marius Deeb, a professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who specializes in Islam and politics, says that Bakri is citing a passage that applies to the Byzantine era — “Iraq has been around for a long time, after all” — but that it isn’t meant to be a prophecy, though certainly some might use it that way.
But that’s exactly how many Muslims see it — as the Crusades, Part 2. Last November, a consortium of scholars and intellectuals all over the Arab world posted a statement on a Web site stating that the “U.S. administration’s insistence on using force against Iraq and attacking countries of the region brings to the minds crusade campaigns and colonialism … That dreadful era invited Jihad and legitimate resistance and ended with the defeat of the evil forces of the invading crusaders.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the extremists to build their base,” says Richard Murphy, senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, President Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. “Because now the television will be filled with Western missiles, Western aircraft, and Western soldiers operating inside an Arab country.”
“The irony is that the Iraqi leadership has been the most secular of all in the Arab world,” Murphy says. “Saddam has been merciless in killing off the religious leaders of Iraq over the years. But there is a market for the accusation that the U.S. is back as a colonial power, as a ‘crusading’ power.”
These calls are no doubt having an effect on recruitment for Muslim causes hostile to the West. On Saturday, Al-Jazeera correspondent Diyar al-Umari broadcast a report about a slough of non-Iraqi volunteers who had come to a training camp near Baghdad to prepare to carry out urban warfare suicide missions against American soldiers. Abu Izz al-Din, a Syrian preacher, said that Iraq’s jihadis would defeat American arms. “No nation can attain the weapon of martyrdom seekers, regardless of the technological and scientific advancement they might have,” he argued. “The weapon of martyrdom seekers is special to the Muslim nation. We will be able to confront them with this weapon, Allah willing.”
Another man, Abu Abd al-Rahman, told Al-Jazeera that he left his wife and children in Egypt, and surreptitiously sneaked into Iraq. “You are well aware of what is happening against Iraq,” he told al-Umari. “This is clearly an injustice against an Arab, Muslim country.”
Such divisive cultural language has had an unsettling way of appearing in discussions about modern geopolitical battles. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, President Bush himself said “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” To those looking warily at the West as heirs to the brutal Crusades, this was resonant — so resonant that after the Pentagon heard objections from the Muslim community that “Operation Infinite Justice” would offend Muslims because they believe only Allah can mete out infinite justice, the Pentagon changed the name of the operation to “Enduring Freedom.”
It was of little consequence. Bush’s comments fit in nicely with the remarks, made around the same time by Osama bin Laden, of events having “divided the whole world into two sides,” those being “the side of believers and the side of infidels.”
“He said the ‘crusade,’” Bakri says. “Tony Blair said ‘my Christian conscience is clear.’ You must understand, the religious obligations, they carry whether in the West or in the East.”
“That was a mistake,” Ali S. Asani, a professor of Islamic studies at Harvard University, says of Bush’s use of the c-word, “and even though he retracted that and said ‘That’s not what I meant,’” it was spread all over the world.
Other U.S. religious leaders, however, stepped up for a little holy war of their own. In November 2001, the Rev. Franklin Graham told NBC Nightly News that Muslims pray to “a different God” and that Islam “is a very evil and wicked religion.” In June 2002, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Jerry Vines, drew applause when in a speech at the SBC Pastors’ Conference he called the Prophet Mohammed a “demon-possessed pedophile.” In September 2002, television evangelist Pat Robertson told Fox News Channel that Mohammed “was an absolute wild-eyed fanatic. He was a robber and a brigand.” Islam, Robertson said, is “a monumental scam.” In October 2002, the Rev. Jerry Falwell told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he thought “Mohammed was a terrorist.”
“He — I read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and — and — non-Muslims, that he was a — a violent man, a man of war,” Falwell said. “Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses. And I think that Mohammed set an opposite example.”
These remarks do not end at the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. Indeed, they always make news around the world, passed on by those imams who agree with the Christian leaders’ apparent longing for Armageddon.
And combined with other news items, especially when taken out of context, it all paints a rather ugly picture. Every story that could be used to paint a portrait of a new Crusade — allegations of racial profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans; reports that the FBI is conducting surveillance against mosques; the fact that only one of the 25 countries whose visitors have to register with the U.S. government is non-Muslim — “all these things get transmitted around the world through relatives, friends and especially the Internet,” Asani says. “Aside from what’s happening with Iraq, there’s a perception that Muslims are being targeted in the U.S., which has added more fuel to this perception that this is a war against Islam.”
Last November, Asani recalls, “the Canadian government issued a travel advisory to Canadian Muslims thinking of traveling in the U.S.,” encouraging those born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria to avoid it altogether. “That got reported around the world,” he says, at the same time that the State Department launched its public diplomacy campaign, a videotape about Muslims in America.”
Not surprisingly, many of these recent Muslim religious calls to war are emanating from Iraq. Last Thursday, according to the Iraqi News Agency, 30 prominent Iraqi Muslims issued a fatwa calling for jihad. Dr. Shaykh Abd-al-Malik Abd-al-Rahman al-Sa’di, writing on behalf of his group, wrote that “the U.S. administration and its evil and infidel allies … seek destruction, hegemony and a ban on freedoms in our Arab and Islamic world. They also seek to plunder its resources and undermine its existence and independence.” President Bush, he wrote, has pledged “another Crusade,” like the ones from the last Gulf War and the creation of Israel in 1948, “to destroy the Muslim countries and their resources.”
A day later in Baghdad, the imam at Umm al-Maarek, or Mother of All Battles mosque, Abdel-Razzaq al-Saadi told worshipers and those watching his sermon on Iraqi state television that it is “the obligation for Iraqis and others now to threaten U.S. interests everywhere and set them ablaze.” An imam at the Khadamiya mosque in Baghdad, according to New York Newsday, implored his followers last Friday to “be beside Islam before everything. And this is our great day to become martyrs. We should stand with President Saddam Hussein, God keep him, in this great day. This is not President Saddam Hussein’s war. This is a Muslim war.”
On Wednesday, Abbas Khalaf — the Iraqi ambassador to Moscow who rushed back from Baghdad due to the pending U.S. attack — announced that “the jihad has already begun,” telling Agence France-Presse that his embassy had received 7,000 requests from fellow Arabs and Muslims to travel to Iraq to come to its defense.
But these calls are from all over the Arab and Muslim worlds — and often from voices once thought somewhat moderate. In his address to the United Nations in November 2001, President Bush cited Cairo’s Al-Azhar University as an authority, saying that “the Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, the world’s oldest Islamic institution of higher learning, declared that terrorism is a disease, and that Islam prohibits killing innocent civilians.” But on March 10, Al-Azhar University’s Islamic Research Academy issued a statement that “according to Islamic law, if the enemy steps on Muslims’ land, jihad becomes a duty on every male and female Muslim … because our Arab and Islamic community will be facing a new Crusade targeting our land, honor, faith and nation.”
Since that statement, Al-Azhar has backed off that statement a bit. The Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, issued a statement two days later saying that “the phrase of ‘new Crusade,’ which was mentioned in the statement, was interpreted by some as declaring war between Islam and Christianity. No doubt, this understanding was not correct.”
Yet calls for jihad are being voiced in other Arab countries with which the U.S. is allied. Sheikh Hamza Mansour, the leader of Jordan’s largest and best-organized political party, the Islamic Action Front, repeated that call. “Under U.S. occupation, no one will restrict their actions to peaceful means,” Mansour said. “Everyone will call for resistance by all the means they can muster.”
Al-Jazeera reported on Thursday that a spokesman for the extremist Indonesian Defense Front pledged that “if the U.S. attack against Iraq takes place, we must fight a jihad. Every Muslim must destroy all the U.S. interests in all parts of the world.” Habib Rizieq, the chairman of another Indonesian Islamist party, the Front Pembela Islam, said to the Australian Associated Press that “when the attack happens the allies will face thousands of new Osama bin Ladens who will destroy U.S. interests around the world.”
Last week in Kandahar, security was stepped up after political pamphlets called “Shabnamey” Pashtun — meaning “night letters” — were distributed calling for a jihad against American soldiers in Afghanistan. Locals told a reporter with Agence France-Presse that the night letters were tied to the Iraq situation.
Past enemies, of course, are doing what they can to stoke anti-U.S. fervor. Moammar Gadhafi, ruler of Libya, warned of terrorist attacks on America should the U.S. attack Iraq. Gadhafi told a French newspaper that “the day America launches a war, it should expect the worst.” According to a translation provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Al-Jumhuriya, the official newspaper of the Libyan regime, referred to the French president as “Chirac Al-Ayoubi” — a reference to legendary Muslim military leader Saladin, or Salah al-Din Al-Ayoubi, who defeated the Crusaders in the Battle of Hittin.
In February, Mullah Mohammad Omar, former leader of the defeated Taliban now in hiding, was said to have faxed a statement to media outlets from inside Pakistan saying that the Taliban “considered the possible U.S. attack on Iraq as a continuation of the crusades against Muslims and an onslaught on Islam,” the Iran Press Service reported. “The order also urged Afghans to take part in a jihad against U.S.-led coalition forces based in the country.”
But for the most extreme elements — namely al-Qaida — former Ambassador Murphy says, “this is a God-sent recruiting opportunity since their claim to fame is portray themselves as the first line of defense for Islam.”
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 served as a wake-up call for moderate Muslims, Asani says. The attacks encouraged those with “more progressive and pluralistic interpretations of Islam” to challenge those leaders whose “exclusive interpretations of Koranic verses are promoting this ‘clash of civilizations’ perspective.” Unfortunately, Asani says, “all those dialogues have now been sidelined and those exclusive voices that look at the world in a good vs. evil kind of categorization are actually seeming to get the upper hand now.”
But it’s clear that the war in Iraq will be used by all sorts of Islamist groups — and others. In some countries, both Islamist organizations and those who oppose them — sometimes oppressively — are using the pending war for political purposes. Last week National Security Service spokeswoman Chinara Asanova of Kyrgyzstan reported that a local extremist organization, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement, was calling for jihad should the U.S. attack Iraq. The governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which are allied with Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, have been criticized for using the war on terror to justify their various methods of silencing Islamic dissidents.
While some imams said similar things in 1991, Murphy points out that Desert Storm was much simpler to negotiate. “It was so much easier for Bush 41 than it is for Bush 43 to avoid this charge because clearly a Muslim state had aggressed on a fellow Muslim state.” The weaker state, Kuwait, asked for help, as did Saudi Arabia, which also felt threatened by Saddam’s invasion, so the U.S. could justify its presence. “This president Bush has a much more complicated job,” Murphy says, “to get through this minefield of accusations that he’s leading an anti-Islamic war.”
Ironically, says professor Deeb of Johns Hopkins, in many ways it is the Bush administration’s diplomatic stumbling that has made these calls for jihad, in his view, “not very strongly voiced.”
Because so much of Europe opposes this military campaign, as does the Vatican and the Anglican Church, many Muslims around the world “don’t see the West in terms of all of Christiandom as against them. People know that the vast majority of Europeans — even the people in Britain, Spain, and Italy — are against the war, that it doesn’t reflect what the people want. And that gives a good message to the Muslims, that not all the West are against them. Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham are against them, but I don’t think they mind that.”
Anecdotally, there seems to be some truth to Deeb’s theory. Habib Rizieq, the Indonesian Islamist who pledged “thousands of new Osama bin Ladens” after the Iraq attack, told a reporter that he was aware of the recent British parliamentarian Robin Cook’s resignation from Tony Blair’s Cabinet in protest of the pending war, as well as antiwar gatherings in Australia. “Not all [Western] citizens are bad,” he said. Thus, before his group goes on a killing spree of Westerners in Jakarta, “we will give them warning for their safety to leave Indonesia immediately.”
“I know President Bush will not thank all of them for being against the war, but in a way they did him a service, making it less of a ‘civilization war,’” Deeb chuckles.