11 September 2001>News Stories>Bin Laden Stirs Struggle on Meaning of Jihad
Bin Laden Stirs Struggle on Meaning of Jihad

John F. Burns . NYTimes . 27 January 2002

Throughout the Muslim world, a theological debate is being waged over Osama bin Laden's vision of jihad. Above, a protester held a copy of the Koran during a rally in Indonesia last fall.

AZHAKHEL BALA, Pakistan, Jan. 20 — Little in the manner of Ijaz Khan Hussein betrays the miseries he saw as a volunteer in the war in Afghanistan.

Mr. Khan, a college-trained pharmacist, joined the jihad, or holy war, like thousands of other Pakistanis who crossed over into Afghanistan.

He worked as a medical orderly near Kabul, shuttling to the front lines, picking up bodies and parts of bodies. Of 43 men who traveled with him to Afghanistan by truck in October, he says, 41 were killed.

Now with the Taliban and Al Qaeda routed, have Mr. Khan and other militants finished with holy war?

Mr. Khan, at least, said he had not.

"We went to the jihad filled with joy, and I would go again tomorrow," he said. "If Allah had chosen me to die, I would have been in paradise, eating honey and watermelons and grapes, and resting with beautiful virgins, just as it is promised in the Koran. Instead, my fate was to remain amid the unhappiness here on earth."

Jihad literally means striving. The Prophet Muhammad gave Muslims the task of striving in the path of God. Whether that striving is armed or a personal duty of conscience is a question causing consternation in the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, and that question goes to the heart of President Bush's war on terrorism.

In the Muslim world, it seems that Osama bin Laden is now a fractured idol, and many Muslim scholars criticize him. Yet he also remains appealing to others, almost as a political Robin Hood.

"Osama bin Laden is not a theologian, or a jihadist in the traditional sense of the term; he's a political activist," said one critic, Olivier Roy, a French scholar who has written several books about Afghanistan. "He has Islamized the traditional discourse of Western anti-imperialism. So a lot of Muslims support him, not because they see him as a true warrior for Islam, but because they hate America, and he's the only man in the Islamic world that they see fighting the Americans. He's like Carlos the Jackal converted to Islam."

In mosques and Islamic seminaries from Morocco to Indonesia, moderate Muslims have been scouring the Koran to demonstrate that a true vision of jihad can never be squared with Sept. 11, even while expressing how aggrieved Muslims may be with America over issues Mr. bin Laden has identified in his videotapes, like Israel's treatment of Palestinians, the presence of American troops in the Arabian peninsula and the United States' role in maintaining sanctions against Iraq.

"Don't make the mistake of thinking that Osama bin Laden is the true face of a billion Muslims, or the true voice of the Koran," said Dr. Safir Akhtar, a research scholar at the Islamic University in Islamabad, a Saudi-financed institution that has long been a magnet for young militants from around the Islamic world.

"He may have a special appeal through his religiosity," Dr. Akhtar said, "and his spartan way of life, and he has certainly drawn deeply from Muslims' deep sense of frustration, but people think of him more as an adventurer than as an Islamic leader, and they know from their own studies that his sense of jihad is deeply flawed."

Conversations with ordinary Muslims in Pakistan tend quickly to turn to their disillusionment with the inglorious figure Mr. bin Laden has cut since Sept. 11 — as he counseled future jihadis that "this world is an illusion," valueless beside paradise, and posed for the videotapes with a Kalashnikov and a camouflage jacket, while avoiding the hazards of combat himself. Moreover, many of Islam's most militant theologians now rebuke Mr. bin Laden, who suggested in the videotapes that he cast himself in the mold of Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the 12th century.

From Cairo, Beirut and Tehran, and a dozen other centers of fervent Islamic belief, pioneers of Mr. bin Laden's kind of jihad — violent, anti- Western, above all anti-American and anti-Israeli — have called him a coward and an enemy of Islam.

No example is starker than that of Sheik Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah, spiritual leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Party of God, for 25 years a scourge of Israel and the United States with its suicide bombings and other terror attacks in Lebanon and Israel. After a 1983 truck bombing of a United States Marine barracks near the Beirut airport killed 241 servicemen, American officials accused Sheik Fadlallah of having ordered the attack, an allegation he returned when he blamed the Central Intelligence Agency for a 1985 car bombing outside his Beirut home that killed 75 people.

But Sheik Fadlallah, now 66, has been relentless in his condemnation of the attacks in America.

He preaches that they were "not compatible with Shariah law," the Koranic legal code, nor with the Islamic concept of jihad, and that the perpetrators were not martyrs as Mr. bin Laden has claimed, but "merely suicides," because they killed innocent civilians, and in a distant land, America. In an interview with a Beirut newspaper, Al Safir, Sheik Fadlallah again accused Mr. bin Laden of having ignored Koranic texts.

"There is no concept of jihad as aggressive combat," he said, quoting verses of the Koran that Islamic theologians have argued over for centuries. In misreading these texts, he said, Mr. bin Laden had relied on "personal psychological needs," including a "tribal urge for revenge."

An Egyptian-born theologian, Sheik Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, with a history of anti-American militancy even longer than Sheik Fadlallah's, expresses a similar view. From his base in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, the 75-year-old sheik has issued Islamic fatwas, or decrees, on issues like the need for Muslims to boycott McDonald's restaurants, and on husbands' right to beat their wives as long as they do not draw blood.

But on the Sept. 11 attacks, he has used language similar to that of Mr. Bush and other American politicians.

"Islam, the religion of tolerance, holds the human soul in high esteem, and considers the attack on innocent human beings a grave sin," said. "Even in times of war, Muslims are not allowed to kill anybody save the one who is engaged in face-to-face confrontation with them.

"Killing hundreds of helpless civilians," he added, "is a heinous crime in Islam."

To many Western scholars, Mr. bin Laden stands out not for the liturgical context, but for drawing on the wellspring of anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world.

Another French scholar, Gilles Kepel, said Mr. bin Laden drew his views from a deadly mixture of the fundamentalist, aggressive form of Islam known as Salafism that he knew as a student in Saudi Arabia and the heady, but misleading, experience he had when he arrived in Afghanistan in the 1980's to join the last stages of the jihad against Soviet occupation troops.

"By 1989, the jihadists thought that they had destroyed the Soviet Union, and that militant Islam was a force that could prevail against any enemy, forgetting that what really drove the Russians out of Afghanistan was the Stinger antiaircraft missiles given to them by the United States, which neutralized Soviet air power," Dr. Kepel said. "This led them to believe that they could triumph everywhere."

That has not been the case. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for just five years. Islamic militancy has been violently suppressed in Egypt and Algeria, has crested as an influence in Sudan, and has achieved little in Chechnya and Kashmir.

In Pakistan, clerics who saw the country as following in the Taliban's rise have instead witnessed the nation's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, starting a broad-based crackdown on Islamic militancy.

Yet there are legions of young men who seethe with resentment at America and its power, and long after Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda have faded into history, they seem likely to form a ready pool of recruits for messianic leaders.

In Pakistan, that is evident in any one of the hundreds of Islamic schools and seminaries that flourished around Peshawar, the frontier city, in the wake of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Although they are under notice now from General Musharraf that they will no longer be allowed to operate as thinly disguised recruiting camps for holy war, their courtyards still teem with angry young men who say they will one day find a way to strike back at America for all it has done in Afghanistan, and for America's "crimes" against Muslims.

At one such institution, the Markaz-e-Islami seminary near Peshawar, a visitor stopped recently to read a painted signboard inscribed with 140 names of Pakistanis who have died as "holy warriors" in Afghanistan and Kashmir since 1993.

A bearded young man named Nurullah, introducing himself as a student, pointed to a fresh board nearby that has been prepared for the names of the latest martyrs, men who died fighting with the Taliban after Sept. 11, and said, "Jihad will continue until doomsday, or until America is defeated, either way."