Anne's Diary

What is al-Qaeda?

Very often we vilify a single person, who stands for everything we hate. We've certainly done this with Osama bin-Laden. While I don't think he's a good guy in any way, I've realized that I don't really understand what his organization is all about. Jason Burke, who has written a new book (which is only available in the U.K. for now) called "Al- Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror," says we shouldn't blame ourselves for not spotting al-Qaeda sooner and reminds us that, despite fighting two wars in the Middle East, we really don't know what al-Qaeda is. Burke says, "Western intelligence officials have been criticized for being slow to recognize al-Qaeda. This is unfair. In his first few years?bin-Laden was at least as interested in [horticulture] and road construction as in creating an international legion of Islamic militants?Nor was he connected to the raft of attacks, including [the first one] on the World Trade Center?His involvement in Somalia and the famous 'blackhawk down' episode was marginal?"

Burke talks about the "al-Qaeda hard core," which consists of "the few dozen associates who had stayed with bin-Laden since the late 1980s." He says, "A second element of 'al- Qaeda' involves the scores of other militant Islamic groups around the world which have, or had, some kind of relationship with bin-Laden or figures connected to him." But these groups were not all created by bin-Laden and are not all under his control.

Burke says, "?Bin-Laden does not have the power to issue orders that are instantly obeyed. He is not the commander in chief of an army. Bin-Laden does not kidnap young men and brainwash them. Both the young men who flocked to Afghanistan to seek military and terrorist training and the leaders of more established groups who were happy to link themselves with bin-Laden's group did so of their volition."

In the West, what we want to know is why there?s a "huge swathe of largely young men who are sufficiently motivated to want to devote substantial proportions of their lives and energies to the most extreme form of Islamic militancy?They are committed to a certain way of thinking about the world, of understanding events, of interpreting and behaving."

Burke writes that thirty years ago, aware of the decline of the Middle East in scientific and political importance, leaders began trying to modernize Islamic thinking in order to bring it more in line with modern Western ideals. When this failed to solve all their problems, and Islamic countries still felt inadequate compared with Europe and the U.S., the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Zealots began advising people to stop copying the West and to start living according to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. For them, the world was arranged according to good versus evil (with the West as evil). They reclaimed their superiority by opting out of the race.

Those feelings are present right here in the U.S today, since we've never been able to solve our problems of poverty, crime or unemployment (although we must remember that things have gotten better?something our Islamic counterparts forgot).

When I was growing up, educated people believed in tolerance and the expression of many different viewpoints. Now even seemingly sophisticated college grads grab my arm at dinner parties to tell me why their religious and political beliefs are right and everyone else's are totally wrong. Anyone who thinks exactly like they do is "good"?if not, they're "evil." This tendency goes all the way up to top Bush government officials.

As Burke says of the Middle East, "?The extremists are no longer perceived as the 'lunatic fringe.' Instead they are seen as the standard bearers. And their language is now the dominant discourse in modern Islamic activism?This is the genuine victory of bin-Laden and our greatest defeat in the 'war on terror.'"

If we want to win the war on freedom, we must not only wage war with military weapons (and make no mistake about it, that's what it will take), we also need to take a stand against the indoctrination and small-mindedness that's sweeping through America. Otherwise, we may win the battle abroad, but we'll lose it here at home.

To read Jason Burke's excellent article in its entirety, 11581,996 509,00.html,click here.

NOTE: This Diary entry, previously published on our old site, will have any links removed.

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