The reality, however, is that Al Qaeda has no such aspirations, and the only way Al Qaeda can be a player in an epic clash of civilizations is when we make them one through our own actions and rhetoric. This was one of the key points made by Larry Wright (author of the seminal work on Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower) when he spoke at the Miller Center last year. According to Wright, Al Qaeda has virtually no policy platform or objectives. What drives young men to Al Qaeda is not a desire to accomplish any particular end, but a deeply seated sense of cultural humiliation by the West. This is the same factor that creates rioting and violence in response to perceived Western insults against Islam like the Mohammed comic, or the Koran in the toilet story. Al Qaeda holds out no promises of accomplishment or conquest, it promises recruits one thing: the opportunity to die as martyrs fighting the West.
A review on Slate last week of Raymond Ibrahim's Al Qaeda Reader confirms Wright's account. The reviewer, Reza Aslan writes:
While these writings provide readers with page after page of, for example, arcane legal debates over the moral permissibility of suicide bombing, they do not really get to the heart of what it is that al-Qaida wants, if it wants anything at all. Al-Qaida's nominal aspirations—the creation of a worldwide caliphate, the destruction of Israel, the banishing of foreigners from Islamic lands—are hardly mentioned in the book. It seems the president of the United States talks more about al-Qaida's goals than al-Qaida itself does. Rarely, if ever, do Bin Laden and Zawahiri discuss any specific social or political policy.Ultimately Aslan came to the same conclusion Wright did:
What al-Qaida does lay out, however, are grievances—many, many grievances. There is the usual litany of complaints about the suffering of Palestinians, the tyranny of Arab regimes, and the American occupation of Iraq. But again, legitimate as these complaints may be, there is in these writings an almost total lack of interest in providing any specific solution or policy to address them. Indeed, al-Qaida's many grievances against the West are so heterogeneous, so mind-bogglingly unfocused, that they must be recognized less as grievances per se, than as popular causes to rally around. There are protests about the United Nations' rejection of Zimbabwe's elections, the Bush administration's unwillingness to sign up to the International Criminal Court, and America's role in global warming. (To quote Bin Laden: "You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases, more than any other country. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries.") Zawahiri's many complaints include the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, which he calls "a historical embarrassment to America and its values," as well as the United Kingdom's anti-terrorism laws, which "contradict the most basic principles of fair trial." There is even a screed against America's campaign-finance laws, which, according to Bin Laden, currently favor "the rich and wealthy, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts."
Most Americans would agree with many of these complaints. And that's precisely the point. These are not real grievances for al-Qaida (it does not bear mentioning that Bin Laden is probably not very concerned with campaign finance reform). They are a means of weaving local and global resentments into a single anti-American narrative, the overarching aim of which is to form a collective identity across borders and nationalities, and to convince the world that it is locked in a cosmic contest between the forces of Truth and Falsehood, Belief and Unbelief, Good and Evil, Us and Them.
In this regard, al-Qaida has been spectacularly successful, thanks in no small part to the assistance of the divisive "Clash of Civilizations" mentality of our own politicians. In fact, far from debunking al-Qaida's twisted vision of a world divided in two, the Bush administration has legitimized it through its own morally reductive "us vs. them" rhetoric.
Because, if we are truly locked in an ideological war, as the president keeps reminding us, then our greatest weapons are our words. And thus far, instead of fighting this war on our terms, we have been fighting it on al-Qaida's.Keep this in mind next time some talking head tries to sell you on Al Qaeda's quest for a new Caliphate. Far from thwarting Al Qaeda, these pundits, through their rhetoric, are giving Al Qaeda exactly what it wants.