Religious war?

Scholars debate the role of religion in bin Laden's campaign against the West.

"THESE EVENTS have split the whole world into two camps—the camp of belief and the camp of disbelief." That was the way Osama bin Laden, in a televised speech broadcast immediately after the American attack on Afghanistan, described the impact of decades of Western intervention in Arab lands. The declaration underlined bin Laden's starkly religious worldview, one that calls into question some explanations for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that overlook religion and concentrate on American foreign policy or Third World poverty.

We posed the question to several University of Washington experts on the Near and Middle East: Is it all about religion?

Robert Stacey, chair of the history department, has studied the conflict between Islam and Christianity as a specialist in medieval European history.

All three religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—have a conception of the holiness of particular lands and a conception that unbelievers should not reside in them. When Christians captured Jerusalem in 1090, they slaughtered the entire Muslim and Jewish populations of the city and then refused to let any Jews or Muslims live there.

Jews and Christians have moved away from this ideology. Islam continues to retain it. One of bin Laden's big points has been the presence of foreign troops in Arabia—the land of Mecca and Medina. That is the Holy Land, and no unbeliever should set foot in it. When bin Laden divides the world into two camps of belief and disbelief, he is saying that unbelievers must be expelled from Islamic lands: Arabia, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I don't expect bin Laden much cares what happens on the North American continent.

Bin Laden's division of the world into two camps is quite a departure from Islamic tradition, which splits the world into three camps: unbelievers; dhimmis, the people of the book, Christians, and Jews; and Muslims. When the Muslim army captured territory, pagans had to convert to Islam. Dhimmis were not expected to. In fact, [dhimmis] had certain obligations in that they paid special taxes. As long as [dhimmis] didn't proselytize, they were tolerated.

Robert Burrowes is a specialist on Yemen at the Jackson School of International Studies.

Yemen is illustrative of the extent to which most of what I call revolutionary political Islam, particularly in the last couple of decades, really is tied to Afghanistan. It was the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan that led to the call for militant Islamists to come to Pakistan, train, and then go fight in Afghanistan. And this was largely a CIA and Saudi conceived, designed, organized, funded project—it was a Cold War project.

What happens when the Cold War ends is that the U.S. and the Saudis end their support, and the chickens come home to roost. These Arabs, now called Afghani Arabs or Arab Afghanis, from Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia itself (like bin Laden), the Sudan, even from the Philippines, Indonesia—these people began to filter back. The Arabs from all these different countries, who by this time had become more militant Islamists, were a peer group. They had interacted with one another, and they had learned how to fight.

A significant portion came from Yemen, but a much larger group filtered back into the Arab world by way of Yemen because the government was so weak, the borders were so porous. This, I think, explains why you had in the mid-1990s militant Islamic activity.

A doctoral student in Soviet history fluent in Russian, Robert Smurr serves as an interpreter in the U.S. Army Reserves and has worked for six years as a trekking guide in Central Asia.

In my travels, when I've talked to people, to the last one they say that it's not about belief or religion whatsoever. Particularly in the region I've been traveling, in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, [where] we had some incursions [by Islamic militants] and had to ultimately get escorted out of the country and cancel our trips. The people who are involved in fighting these militants said it's entirely about money, opium, trying to get to a Russian market with their opium so that then they can get it to Western Europe. The people that I've been working with in Kyrgyzstan, where these incursions have been taking place, have found caches of opium as well as caches of weapons way, way up in the mountains, high away from anybody and everything.

The guys that I work with [believe that these militants] are using religion as a cover for developing and furthering their cause—to make money. If people only knew how poor most of the people in this region were.

So this Hydra has a lot of heads.

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