“The Orphans of Modernity and the Clash of Civilisations.” Global Dialogue, vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 1 – 16.




Several years ago, I remember seeing a picture of Osama bin Laden that

ominously foretold the tragedy that would come on 11 September. The

picture showed bin Laden, with his typical slothful and even indifferent

look, sitting while gripping his Kalashnikov with neatly organised and

impressive looking books filling the background. What caught my attention

in this picture were the titles of these books. With the help of a

magnifying glass, I was able to figure out the titles, and to my surprise,

and dismay, these were the same titles that I have in my own personal

library. I could just as easily have been looking at a section of my own

library where I keep books on classical Islamic jurisprudence.


There they were - the texts that represent the cream and kernel of the

intellectual tradition of Islamic civilisation. With very few exceptions,

bin Laden's library contained no works by modern writers. Nearly all of

his books were heavy-duty profound works on pre-modern Islamic law and

legal theory. Bin Laden is not a Muslim jurist, and he does not have the

training that would enable him to read or understand these classical

texts. In fact, much of what is actually in these books would condemn

everything bin Laden represents, but he was making a symbolic point. The

point was not simply to claim Islamic authenticity. With his paltry and

rustic furniture, Kalashnikov and tradition-oriented library, bin Laden

symbolised a rebellion against the prevailing paradigms of

post-colonialism and the culture of modernity. His displayed books

co-opted the image of the Islamic tradition - as if the Islamic tradition

was poised there in the background ready to assert itself and claim its

rightful place. However, while the Kalashnikov in his hands appeared to

stand guard over the tradition and protect it, in reality, the Kalashnikov

threatened to marginalise and even completely obscure the books. The

Kalashnikov looked rugged, scratched and used, as if it had been fired and

reloaded time after time. The books looked clean, well organised, new and

most certainly unused. They seemed to be there for largely symbolic, and

superficial, purposes. They were there to legitimate and sanctify, but

otherwise the voice of the books was silent and muted. The only real

power, and true voice, was that of the gun in bin Laden's hands.


Bin Laden's Nihilism


The image portrayed in this picture serves to illustrate some of the

mythologies and symbolic constructs prevalent in the current war against

terrorism. This conflict is plagued with claims about tradition,

authenticity, values, culture and civilisation. Every conflict has its

mythologies based on variant narratives of history and justice, but not

every conflict necessarily becomes one about culture and the making or

unmaking of civilisation. Not every conflict becomes one about alternative

versions of the good or moral life, or about absolutist claims of good

versus evil. But the war against terrorism has become, for many

commentators, as if it were a code expression for a portentous showdown

between civilisations, in which one vision of the good life must defeat or

subdue another such vision. Yet it is doubtful that bin Laden and his

supporters have any particular vision of civilisation or the good life. In

fact, one can say that bin Laden has consistently exhibited a distinct

sense of amoral nihilism.


Unlike Muslim revolutionaries of the past, such as Hasan al-Banna or

Mawdudi, bin Laden has shown no great facility with the written word.

Neither has he shown much interest in systematic thought, even of the

revolutionary type. He does not evince much familiarity with the

constructs or methodologies of Islamic jurisprudence. In fact, bin Laden

considers the vast majority of the Islamic intellectual tradition to be a

bid'a-a deviant and heretical innovation from the true and uncorrupted



Moreover, unlike the national liberation movement leaders of the 1950s and

1960s, bin Laden is not interested in publicly claiming responsibility, or

in his view taking credit, for his attacks. He has consistently refused to

acknowledge his responsibility for the 11 September atrocities. He has

praised them and praised those who carried them out, but has never clearly

confessed the responsibility of his group. Again, he has cited a whole

host of grievances, including the US military presence in the Persian

Gulf, Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, the embargo imposed against

Iraq, the spread of Western culture and consumerism in Muslim countries,

American support of autocratic and non-Islamic governments in the Middle

East, the alleged Shi'ite and Jewish conspiracy to destroy Islam, and the

Western exploitation of Muslim wealth and natural resources. But, unlike

the Palestinian Hamas or Lebanese Hizbollah, for instance, he does not

make a list of demands or articulate specific objectives whose fulfilment

would bring an end to his attacks. Bin Laden's violence has a global and

apoplectic quality to it; it seeks to do nothing less than alter the power

structures of the world. (In the statements broadcast on the al-Jazeera

satellite television channel, bin Laden claimed that a few more strikes

like that which took place on 11 September would cause the economic power

of the United States to collapse.)


Unlike Islamic revolutionaries of the past, bin Laden is not focused on

overthrowing particular Muslim governments, restoring the caliphate, or

even implementing the rule of shari'a (Islamic law) in particular states.

Rather, he and his followers are the orphaned children of

post-colonialism. He employs the technological instruments of modernity;

for instance, in many of his pictures he appears smiling with a cell phone

in hand. But bin Laden and his followers do not see themselves as partners

in the culture of modernity. It is as if the modern world has imposed a

fate upon them that is evil, and this fate must be resisted, even if the

resistance is suicidal or utterly self-destructive. In what way were the

11 September attacks on the United States supposed to shift the balance of

power in the modern world? In what ways were these attacks supposed to

contribute to destabilising, undermining or overthrowing the corrupt

regimes in power in the Middle East? I think there are no coherent or even

rational responses to these questions and, in part, this is why I describe

bin Laden's thought as nihilistic. The point of the attacks was to protest

against modernity by destroying its symbols, to deconstruct what exists

without much thought for what can be constructed in its place, and to draw

attention, in the most negative way, to the plight of Muslims in the

post-colonial age.


Some commentators, most notably the students of Samuel Huntington, have

argued that 11 September represented an episode in the long and protracted

struggle between two different and distinct civilisations-the Western and

the Islamic. Some have even confused civilisational supremacy and

superiority, arguing that Western civilisation is credible and influential

in the modern age because it is superior to Islamic civilisation. These

commentators treat civilisational paradigms and conflicts like beauty

competitions, in which we engage in the presumptuous act of crowning those

of superior beauty. In this article, I will argue that contrary to such

assertions, 11 September is not a symptom of a clash of civilisations, and

that the very paradigm of the clash of civilisations is fraught with

methodological errors which make it a particularly unhelpful way of

understanding the current conflict.


US Policy and Civilisational Conflict


In many ways, the concept of clashing civilisations is one that cannot be

explicitly endorsed by political forces in the United States. President

George W. Bush has emphasised that his administration is not launching a

war against Islam, because Islam is a religion of peace. But quite aside

from the graceful declarations of the US administration intended to

maintain the appearance of religious impartiality and political propriety,

various governmental policies and discourses easily feed into the paradigm

of the clash of civilisations. Aspects of US counter-terrorism measures

either reveal the influence of this paradigm upon American politicians or

lend support to its proponents.


Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, President Bush and his

administration have consistently claimed that they are engaged in a battle

between good and evil. Although such language is employed to galvanise

political support, the symbolism is significant. In the political

symbolisms of President Bush, the good is to be equated with civilisation

and, naturally, the evil is not. President Bush invited the world to

choose sides: one had either to join the forces of good in the world, the

upholders of civilisation and civility, or conversely, be counted among

the evildoers, the dwellers in the darkness of barbarity. Having adopted

this dichotomous worldview, the logical next step was to sort through the

nations of the world and categorise them accordingly. Bush was

perpetuating an old and well-established colonial habit. Colonialism

divided the world into the civilised and the uncivilised, and declared

that the white man's burden was to civilise the world, by force if

necessary. It projected the exact same paradigm upon Islam. Accordingly,

orientalists, who were often in the service of colonial powers, claimed

that Islam divided the world into two abodes. They presumed that Muslims

wished to convert the whole world, by force if necessary, to Islam. In

reality, it was the coloniser, and not the colonised, that had adopted a

missionary or crusading attitude vis-a-vis the other.


The fact that Bush issues repeated assurances of his good will towards the

Muslim world is unremarkable. One does not have to go far back in history

to find similar assurances by colonising powers as they proceeded to

dismantle traditional Islamic institutions and challenge Islamic

epistemologies. Again, orientalists typically insisted that the Islamic

tradition was generally decent, but that it lacked essential features

necessary for rational modernisation. It is not so much that orientalists

deprecated Islam as a religion; rather, they cast serious doubts on the

ability of what might be called "active" or "dynamic" Islam to deal with

rational modernity. Politically, the attempt to privatise and marginalise

religious values and institutions was driven by practical and immediate

interests in combating Islamic resistance to colonialism. Therefore,

anti-colonial Islamists were typically branded as zealots, militants or



Successive American administrations have tended to be suspicious of

politically active Islam. And the current administration's foreign and

domestic policies do evince a discriminatory and unbalanced approach

towards Muslims. At the most basic domestic level, consecutive American

administrations have consistently categorised Jewish and Christian

fundamentalist movements and white supremacist terrorist groups as a low

law enforcement and surveillance priority compared to Islamic

fundamentalist or pro-Palestinian groups functioning in the United States.

A powerful point in case is the anthrax attacks that occurred in the weeks

after 11 September. Once it became clear that neither Muslims nor Arabs

were responsible for these attacks, media interest practically all but

vanished and the governmental resources dedicated to apprehending the

culprits were cut by more than half.


Furthermore, the Bush administration passed into law the "Patriot Act",

which targeted Arabs and Muslims in particular, instituted mass detentions

of them without charge, and froze the assets of many Muslim civil

organisations simply on the basis of speculation that they aided terrorist

attacks against Israelis or because they provided humanitarian supplies to

orphaned children in Palestine. Even when a Christian fundamentalist,

Pastor Jerry Vines, accused the Prophet Mohammad of being "a

demon-possessed paedophile" and Islam of being a terroristic religion,

President Bush reacted by merely noting his disagreement, instead of

expressing outrage or condemning this type of religious bigotry.

Compounding the problem, John Ashcroft, Bush's attorney-general and the

person responsible for implementing the anti-terrorism laws against

Muslims, made the rather ignorant assertion that the difference between

Christianity and Islam is that in Christianity, God sent his son to die

for humankind, but in Islam, God demands that humans send their sons to

die for him. To date, when asked to explain the basis for this claim,

Ashcroft has refused to apologise or even to admit his limited knowledge

of Islamic theology or law.


Double Standards


If one examines the overall context of American policies, it is difficult

to make sense of the morality behind Bush's language of good versus evil.

The United States, for instance, has not taken great exception to the

Hindu fundamentalist government in India and its offensive human rights

record in Kashmir. Neither have we exhibited much concern over the role of

Jewish and Christian fundamentalist organisations in aggravating the

violence in the Middle East. Nevertheless, in what appeared to many Arabs

as a remarkably hypocritical stance, Bush condemned Yasser Arafat's

autocratic administration and declared that a proper Palestinian democracy

is a prerequisite for peace with Israel. Yet Israel, despite its

consistent and systematic brutal mistreatment of the Palestinians,

continues to enjoy unabated American support. The absurdity of our

policies vis-a-vis Arabs and Muslims was underscored when Bush saw fit to

call men strongly suspected of committing war crimes, such as Israel's

prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and Major-General Amos Yaron,

director-general of the Israeli defence ministry, "men of peace".


This kind of attitude was again echoed when the United States refused to

support, and in fact obstructed, international efforts at investigating

Palestinian allegations of massacres committed by Israeli troops in the

Jenin refugee camp and elsewhere.1 George Galloway, the British Labour

member of Parliament, captured the sentiment felt by many Arabs and

Muslims when he told the House of Commons:


People being crushed by falling masonry and steel or incinerated by fire

from an aerial attack, look, sound, and smell exactly the same whether

they are in Beirut, the West Bank, Baghdad, or Manhattan. Arabs and

Muslims believe, and they are right to believe, that we do not consider

their blood as valuable as our own-as our policy in decades of our history

makes abundantly clear.[2]


In order to understand the basis of this belief, we do not have to go far

back in history. The humanitarian tragedy caused by the US-led sanctions

against Iraq is staggering. The results of the sanctions, which include

the deaths of one million Iraqi children, have been described as

genocidal, yet various British and American administrations have shown

only extremely guarded concern. The problem is further compounded by the

complicity of Washington's client states, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,

Qatar and Bahrain. The not entirely indefensible perception of people such

as bin Laden is that these client states are not sovereign. They seem to

play the role of British and American dependencies from the colonial age,

being led by obscenely wealthy, insulated and autocratic elites who are

well-protected by the US military.


The United States has reportedly transported dozens of individuals

suspected of having connections with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist

organisation to countries such as Egypt and Jordan for the explicit

purpose of having them tortured in order to extract information. This

practice, known as "rendition", is a violation of all civilised

international treaties and conventions, not to mention all norms of

morality and decency. It is impossible to overstate the impact of reports

such as this on the credibility of the United States in the Middle East,

especially when Washington insists on the language of good against evil as

a justification for its policies. Reports regarding the conditions under

which prisoners are being held at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay,

Cuba, are similarly detrimental to the standing of the United States.


Closer to the issue of the clash of civilisations, the Bush administration

appears to have entered into a symbiotic relationship with so-called

experts on the "Islamic threat". The culture of these experts evinces a

clear suspicion of any manifestations of an active socio-political Islam.

It also tends to be uncritically supportive of any party that might be

ideologically opposed to the Islamists, such as Israel. The writings of

these experts are plagued by anxieties about such things as a Muslim

"fifth column" in the West, sleeping Muslim terrorist cells, and a

volatile, yet at times dormant, system of belief that they call political

Islam. After 11 September, these so-called experts have suddenly been

propelled into prominence, where they repeatedly address Senate hearings,

attend White House meetings, and appear on virtually every major

television or radio programme. Their tracts fill the chambers of senators

and representatives, and the offices of the intelligence community in the

United States.


Reportedly acting upon the advice of such experts, President Bush has

demanded that Muslim countries revise their educational curriculums, and

especially the way Islamic theology and law are taught so as to combat

bigotry and hate and make the world safe from terrorism. For all practical

purposes, Bush also called for the abolition of the madrassa (Islamic

school) system in the Muslim world. But considering everything that the

Bush administration has said about the madrassas and their role, what is

shocking is the ignorance of American politicians and their terrorism

experts about the historical and sociological function of the madrassas.

For what it is worth, as someone who spent a good part of his life

receiving instruction in the madrassas of Egypt, I can attest that the

American administration's proclamations on this subject are, to say the

least, overbroad generalisations that are factually incorrect.


But besides the issue of accuracy, the Bush administration's statements in

this regard are awfully reminiscent of the systematic effort by colonial

powers to dismantle traditional Islamic educational institutions in the

eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as part of their "civilising mission"

in the Muslim world. Significantly, colonial powers focused their critical

gaze upon the perceived deficiencies of Muslim society while consistently

overlooking their own domestic social failures, such as the

disenfranchisement and subjugation of women. As an ex-governor of Texas,

Bush must be well aware of the type of racism and bigotry that plagues our

own educational systems, so it is odd that his administration should focus

on the production of hate in the Muslim world instead of focusing on

racism, which arguably has become an endemic American ailment, or on

dealing with the prejudiced and inaccurate way that Islam is taught in US

public schools.


War against Islam?


President Bush's colourful language about the "axis of evil" and the

"crusade" against terrorists has highlighted the markedly absolutist

character of American conceptions of the "other". The absolutist and

polarising policies of the US administration post-11 September have led

some commentators to speak of a "clash of fundamentalisms"-the

fundamentalism of bin Laden against that of Bush.[3] They hold that the

current war against terrorism is being waged by two equally reactionary

and fanatical forces, each labouring under a dogmatic and essentialised

worldview. This argument, however, is flawed because it is inaccurate to

equate the morality of bin Laden's and Bush's worldviews. Regardless of

how some aspects of the war against terrorism might be reminiscent of

colonialism, the type of theology that drives bin Laden is founded on a

total disregard of any standards of civility or principles of humanity.

Nevertheless, in some important respects, the rhetoric we employ in the

war against terrorism, when coupled with a paradigm of clashing

civilisations, does have the effect of perpetuating religious bigotry and

of dehumanising the "other", however that "other" is defined.


Following 11 September, there has been a virtual avalanche of publications

expressing unrestrained animosity to Islam as a religion and Muslims as a

people. Two particularly sinister works that attempt to demonise all

politically active Muslim individuals or organisations are Steven

Emerson's American Jihad: The Terrorists among Us (New York: Simon and

Schuster, 2002), and Daniel Pipes's Militant Islam Reaches America (New

York: W. W. Norton, 2002). Both these works brand all American Muslims who

are critical of Israeli policies as potential terrorist threats.


I have no qualms in describing what took place on 11 September as the

undoing of all that is civilised or decent. By any legal or moral measure,

what took place was an act of immoral barbarism that exhibited a suicidal

and destructive psychosis. The issue that concerns me here, however, is

not the assessment of the immorality of the 11 September attacks; rather,

I am interested in assessing the morality and civility of our discourse in

response to the attacks.


There are several aspects of our anti-terrorism policies that contribute

to a symbolic leap from a declared "war against terrorism" to a "war

against Islam". Initially, it is important to keep in mind that the moment

we intimate that we in the West are civilised and Islam is barbaric, we

effectively equate Islam and terrorism. The civilised West and uncivilised

"other" is a frame of mind that is inherent in the very idea of the clash

of civilisations because no one, not even Huntington and his supporters,

truly believes the claim that the purportedly "clashing civilisations" are

equal in moral merit or ethical value. Logically, it is possible for the

good to clash with the good, but the socially constructed imagination will

find this a theoretical possibility difficult to accept. If two

civilisations are clashing, the natural assumption will be that one is

good and the other is bad, and that we, whoever the "we" might be, are

necessarily the good. In social psychology, this is often referred to as

the binary instinct of "us" versus "them".


In the current conflict, this is especially pertinent because the US

administration has solidified a dichotomous view of the world by

intimating that the world can be divided into good or evil, without

nuances or in-betweens. Since the US administration has asserted our

goodness, then, by definition, whomever we clash with must necessarily be

evil.[4] This is all the more so when we adopt paradigms such as the axis of

evil or rhetorical concepts such as "rogue states". Such terms run counter

to the idea of specific and individual liability and fault, and

significantly contribute to the idea of collective and generalisable

fault. Effectively, what this type of language connotes is that there are

bad nations of people, and not just guilty individuals. Again, at the

symbolic and emotive level, this type of language contributes to an

environment in which bigotry and prejudice thrive. At the heart of bigotry

and prejudice is the willingness to generalise about a people and to

consider these generalisations incontrovertible and unassailable. When our

leadership presumes itself capable of generalising about whole nations,

branding them as evil, we set a normative example that supports the

creation of binary categories and, in short, the flourishing of hate

literature of the type we have witnessed recently.


If our response to criminal behaviour is less than principled, all we

accomplish is to contribute to the diluting of the standards of justice

and morality. Such dilution, in turn, contributes to the thriving of

unprincipled and opportunistic hateful discourses on Islam in which the

paradigm of the clash of civilisations is exploited. Hate speech, like

terrorism, is a form of barbarism, and we do not make a very convincing

case for the civility of our culture if we respond to the barbarism of

terror with the primitiveness of binary categories.


Methodological Problems. My argument thus far has focused on the social and

political impact that the paradigm of the clash of civilisations could

have when considered in the context of our current policies towards

Muslims and of the history of colonialism. Nevertheless, the fact that

this paradigm might have unfavourable implications or have been exploited

by some does not address the coherence of the theory itself. Regardless of

its implications, the theory could be historically grounded in facts that,

unpleasant as they may be, must be acknowledged. There is already a large

body of literature on the historical validity of this paradigm, and I am

not going analyse this literature here. But there several methodological

difficulties that ought to be considered when thinking about cultural

values and the role they purportedly play. The first point pertains to

what I will call "claims of lineage", the second pertains to "claims about

the other", the third relates to "the enterprise of meaning" and the

fourth addresses what I call "competence".


Claims of lineage. Proponents of the notion of the clash of civilisations

seem to rely on an unfounded claim about the specificity and purity of

particular values. Accordingly, they are willing to classify particular

values as squarely Judaeo-Christian while others are Islamic. It is as if

values have a genealogy that can be clearly and precisely ascertained,

which then can be utilised in classifying what properly belongs to the

West and what belongs to the Islamic "other". But the origin and lineage

of values are as much a socio-historical construct as are claims about

racial genealogical purity. Considering the numerous cultural interactions

and cross-intellectual transmissions between the Muslim world and Europe,

it highly likely that every significant Western value has a measure of

Muslim blood in it. Like racial categories, civilisational categories

ought to be recognised as artificial political constructs that do not

necessarily fit comfortably with socio-historical realities.


Claims about the "other". Often the attempt to identify one's own

civilisation and distinguish it from the "other" has much more to do with

one's own aspirations than the reality of the "other". Put differently,

descriptions of the "other", whoever the "other" may be, often tell us

much more about the author of the description than the subject of the

description.[5] For instance, when Westerners attempt to describe Islamic

civilisation and what it represents, there is a real risk that the

constructed image of the civilisation will only reflect the aspirations

and anxieties of those Westerners. Thus, if those Westerners aspire, for

example, to achieve a greater degree of democracy, or are anxious about

their own shortcomings vis-a-vis women's rights, it is likely that they

will invent an image of the Muslim "other" as the exact antithesis of

their own aspirations. By constructing the other as the exact antithesis,

one is then able to be more satisfied and secure about one's own cultural

achievements. The colonial images of the orient-its exoticness, mystique

and harems - had much more to do with the anxieties and fantasies of the

Western coloniser than they did with the sociological reality of the



The enterprise of meaning. There is a further problem with approaches that

focus on civilisational paradigms and conflicts. Values, and their meaning

in culture, are not constant or stable. They are continually shifting,

evolving and mutating in response to a variety of influences and

motivators. For instance, concepts such as shura (government by

consultation), the caliphate, or enjoining the good and forbidding the

evil have had very different meanings and connotations from one century to

another and one culture to another in Islamic history. Even when one is

considering divinely revealed values, such values acquire meaning only

within evolving and shifting contexts. When one speaks of Islamic justice,

for instance, one is really speaking of various interpretive enterprises

that existed at different times in Islamic history, which gave the notion

of justice in Islam a variety of imports and connotations.[6] And when

commentators speak of a civilisational conflict between the West and

Islam, there is a further creative and inventive process engaged in by the

commentators themselves. Since meaning is the product of cumulative

enterprises that generate communities of meaning, a student of Huntington,

for instance, cannot speak in terms of an Islamic notion of justice or an

Islamic notion of human liberty. The most that this student can do is to

speak of prevailing meanings within specific communities of

interpretation. Thus, the student would have to speak in terms of a

Mu'tazali notion of justice or an Ash'ari notion of justice, for example.


Competence. Put simply, who is competent to say which of the competing

communities of meaning becomes the legitimate and credible representative

of the values of a civilisation? Here, I am not interested in the problem

of the dynamics of power and authority within a particular system of

thought. Rather, my concern now takes us back to the question of the

invention and construction of the "other". It is imperative to keep in

mind that when students of Huntington claim that Islamic civilisation

stands for a particular proposition, they are effectively endowing a

certain interpretive community with the power of representation. They are

engaging in choice-making by selecting what, in their minds, is the

community that best represents Islamic civilisation. For example, the

interpretive community to which someone like Mohammad 'Abdduh belongs may

assert "y". Meanwhile, bin Laden and his interpretive community may assert

"x". By claiming that Islamic civilisation stands for "x" but not "y",

Huntington's students are making a choice about representation. Again,

this choice might have much more to do with the choice-makers, i.e.,

Huntington's students, than with the actual dynamics of Islamic societies.


These various cautionary points are intended to emphasise that claims of

civilisational conflict are fraught with conceptual pitfalls. Such claims

must necessarily reduce complex social and historical dynamics into

essentialised and artificially coherent categories. They are also likely

to degenerate into powerful vehicles for the expression of prejudice. As

such, they tend to promote misunderstandings and conflict. It is no wonder

that when one examines the arguments of Western proponents of the clash of

civilisations, one finds that these proponents invariably ascribe most of

what they perceive to be good and desirable to the West, and most what of

they find distasteful or objectionable to Islam or Islamic civilisation.

As a means of maintaining an air of impartiality and objectivity, these

proponents often condescendingly assert that the values of the "other",

foreign and unacceptable as they might be for Westerners, ought to be

respected. What for Westerners might be considered egregious violations of

human rights must be considered bearable for Muslims because Muslims have

a distinctly different set of social and cultural expectations from the

Judaeo-Christian West. (In my view, this is the gist of Huntington's

argument about the wrongfulness of believing in universal Western values.

See his Clash of Civilizations, pp. 308-12.)


The effect of the doctrinal commitment to the paradigm of clashing

civilisations only serves to obfuscate the real dynamics that are, in

fact, taking place in Islam. There are significant tensions within

contemporary Islam that are bound to impact materially upon the world

today. Bin Laden's terrorism is not simply the product of a system of

thought that he single-handedly invented. Rather, his violence is an

integral part of the struggle between interpretive communities over who

gets to speak for Islam and how.


Despite the practice of waving the banner of Islamic authenticity and

legitimacy, Muslims such as the Taliban and bin Laden are far more

anti-Western than they are pro-Islamic. Their primary concern is not to

explore or investigate the parameters of Islamic values or the historical

experience of Islamic civilisation, but to oppose the West. As such, Islam

is simply the symbolic universe in which they function. Their protest is

framed in Islamic terms because they are Muslim, but it is not the case

that they protest because they are Muslims. Bin Laden emerged from what

can appropriately be described as a state of civilisational dissonance-a

state of social schizophrenia in which the challenge of modernity and

alienation from Islamic historical experience play the predominant roles.


A Siege Mentality


The real challenge that confronts Muslim intellectuals is that political

interests have come to dominate public discourse to the point that moral

investigation and thinking have been marginalised in modern Islam. In the

age of post-colonialism, Muslims have become preoccupied with the attempt

to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness and a frustrating sense of

political defeat, often by engaging in sensational acts of power

symbolism. The normative imperatives and intellectual subtleties of the

Islamic moral tradition are not treated with the analytic and critical

rigour they rightly deserve, but are rendered subservient to political

expedience and symbolic displays of power. Elsewhere, I have described

this contemporary doctrinal dynamic as the predominance of the theology of

power in modern Islam, and it is this theology that is a direct

contributor to the emergence of highly radicalised Islamic groups such as

the Taliban or al-Qaeda.[7] Far from being authentic expressions of

inherited Islamic paradigms, or a natural outgrowth of the classical

tradition, these are thoroughly a by-product of colonialism and modernity.

Such groups ignore the Islamic civilisational experience, with all its

richness and diversity, and reduce Islam to a single dynamic-that of

power. They tend to define Islam as an ideology of nationalistic defiance

of the other, a rather vulgar form of obstructionism vis-a-vis the

hegemony of the Western world. Therefore, instead of Islam being a moral

vision given to humanity, it becomes constructed into the antithesis of

the West. In the world constructed by these groups, there is no Islam;

there is only opposition to the West.


This type of Islam that the radicalised groups offer is akin to a

perpetual state of emergency in which expedience trumps principle, and

illegitimate means are consistently justified by invoking higher ends. In

essence, what prevails is an aggravated siege mentality that suspends the

moral principles of the religion in pursuit of the vindications of

political power. In this siege mentality, there is no room for analytical

or critical thought, and there is no room for seriously engaging the

Islamic intellectual heritage. There is only room for bombastic dogma and

a stark functionalism that ultimately impoverishes the Islamic heritage.


While national liberation movements such as that of the Palestinian or

Algerian resistance resorted to guerrilla or non-conventional warfare,

modern-day terrorism of the variety promoted by bin Laden is rooted in a

different ideological paradigm, a theology that can be described as

puritan, supremacist and thoroughly opportunistic in nature. This theology

is the by-product of the emergence and eventual primacy of a syncretistic

orientation that unites Wahhabism and Salafism in modern Islam.




The foundations of Wahhabi theology were set in place by the

eighteenth-century evangelist Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). With a

puritanical zeal, Abd al-Wahhab sought to rid Islam of all the corruptions

that he believed had crept into the religion-corruptions that included

mysticism and rationalism. Wahhabism resisted the indeterminacy of the

modern age by escaping to a strict literalism in which the text became the

sole source of legitimacy. Wahhabism exhibited extreme hostility to all

forms of intellectualism, mysticism and sectarianism within Islam. The

Wahhabi creed also considered any form of moral thought that was not

entirely dependent on the text a form of self-idolatry, and treated

humanistic fields of knowledge, especially philosophy, as "the sciences of

the devil".


According to the Wahhabi creed, it was imperative to return to a presumed

pristine, simple and straightforward Islam, which was believed to be

entirely reclaimable by a literal implementation of the commands and

precedents of the Prophet, and by a strict adherence to correct ritual

practice. Wahhabism also rejected any attempt to interpret the divine law

from a historical, contextual perspective; in fact, it treated the vast

majority of Islamic history as a corruption of, or aberration from, true

and authentic Islam. The dialectical and indeterminate hermeneutics of the

classical jurisprudential tradition were considered corruptions of the

purity of the faith and law. Furthermore, Wahhabism became very intolerant

of the long-established Islamic practice of considering a variety of

schools of thought to be equally orthodox, and attempted to narrow

considerably the range of issues upon which Muslims may legitimately

disagree. Orthodoxy was narrowly defined and Abd al-Wahhab himself was

fond of creating long lists of beliefs and acts which he considered

hypocritical and whose adoption or commission would immediately render a

Muslim an unbeliever.


Wahhabi ideology was resuscitated in the early twentieth century under the

leadership of Abd al-Azis ibn Sa'ud, who adopted the puritanical theology

of the Wahhabis and allied himself with the tribes of Najd, thereby

establishing the nascent beginnings of what would become Saudi Arabia.

Importantly, the Wahhabi rebellions of the nineteenth and twentieth

centuries were very bloody because the Wahhabis indiscriminately

slaughtered Muslims, especially those belonging to the Shi'ite sect. This

led several mainstream jurists to describe the Wahhabis as a fanatic

fringe group. Interestingly, the Wahhabis introduced practices into Islam

that were quite unprecedented and which considerably expanded the

intrusive powers of the state. For instance, the Wahhabis introduced the

first reported precedent of taking roll call at prayers. They prepared

lists of the inhabitants of a city and called off the names during the

five daily prayers in the mosque. Anyone absent without a sufficient

excuse was flogged. Perhaps the most extreme form of Wahhabi fanaticism

took place recently, on 11 March 2002, when the mutawwa'in (religious

police) prevented schoolgirls from exiting a burning school in Mecca, or

from being rescued by their parents or firemen, because they were not

"properly covered". At least fifteen girls are reported to have burned to

death as a result.[8]


Saudi Arabia aggressively promoted Wahhabi thought around the Muslim

world, especially after 1975, with the sharp rise in oil prices. In the

1950s and 60s, Saudi Arabia was coming under considerable pressure from

republican and Arab nationalist regimes, which tended to consider the

Saudi system archaic and reactionary. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia finally

possessed the financial means to address its legitimacy concerns. The

Wahhabis either had to alter their own system of belief to make it more

consistent with the convictions of other Muslims, or they had to spread

aggressively their convictions to the rest of the Muslim world. They chose

the latter option.




Wahhabism, however, did not spread in the modern Muslim world under its

own banner, but under that of Salafism. It is important to note that even

the term "Wahhabism" is considered derogatory to the followers of Abd

al-Wahhab since Wahhabis prefer to see themselves as the representatives

of Islamic orthodoxy. According to its adherents, Wahhabism is not a

school of thought within Islam, but is Islam itself, and the only possible

Islam. The fact that Wahhabism rejected the use of a school label gave it

a rather diffuse quality and made many of its doctrines and methodologies

eminently transferable. Salafism was a far more credible paradigm in Islam

than Wahhabism; in many ways, it was an ideal vehicle for Wahhabism.

Therefore, in their literature, Wahhabi clerics have consistently

described themselves as Salafis (adherents of Salafism), and not Wahhabis.

Salafism is a creed founded in the late nineteenth century by Muslim

reformers such as Mohammad Abduh, al-Afghani, al-Shawkani, al-San'ani and

Rashid Rida. Salafism appealed to a very basic and fundamental concept in

Islam, namely, that Muslims ought to follow the rightly guided precedent

of the Prophet and his companions (al-salaf al-salih). Methodologically,

Salafism was nearly identical to Wahhabism except that Wahhabism is far

less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinions. In many ways,

Salafism was intuitively undeniable, partly because of its epistemological

premise. The founders of Salafism maintained that on all issues Muslims

ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur'an and the

sunnah (precedent) of the Prophet. In doing so, Muslims ought to

reinterpret the original sources in light of modern needs and demands

without being slavishly bound to the interpretive precedents of earlier

Muslim generations.


As originally conceived, Salafism was not necessarily anti-intellectual,

but like Wahhabism it did tend to be uninterested in history. By

emphasising a presumed golden age in Islam, the adherents of Salafism

idealised the time of the Prophet and his companions, and ignored or

demonised the balance of Islamic history. Furthermore, by rejecting

juristic precedents and undervaluing tradition as a source of

authoritativeness, Salafism adopted a form of egalitarianism that

contributed to a real vacuum of authority in contemporary Islam. According

to Salafism, effectively anyone was considered qualified to return to the

original sources and speak for the divine will. However, unlike Wahhabism,

Salafism was not hostile to the juristic tradition or the practice of

various competing schools of thought. In addition, Salafism was not

hostile to mysticism or Sufism.


Importantly, Salafism was largely founded by Muslim nationalists who were

eager to read the values of modernity into the original sources of Islam.

Hence, Salafism was not necessarily anti-Western. In fact, its founders

strove to project contemporary institutions such as democracy,

constitutionalism or socialism onto the foundational texts and to justify

the paradigm of the modern nation-state within Islam. In this sense,

Salafism, as originally conceived, betrayed a degree of opportunism. Its

proponents tended to be more interested in the end results than in

maintaining the integrity or coherence of the juristic method.

By the mid-twentieth century, it had become clear that Salafism had

drifted into stifling apologetics. Salafist apologists responded to the

intellectual challenges of modernity by adopting pietistic fictions about

the Islamic traditions; such fictions eschewed any critical evaluation of

Islamic doctrines and celebrated the presumed perfection of Islam. A

common apologetical device was to argue that any meritorious or worthwhile

modern institution was first invented and realised by Muslims. Thus, Islam

liberated women, created a democracy, endorsed pluralism, protected human

rights and guaranteed social security long before these institutions ever

existed in the West. The main effect of apologetics was to contribute to a

sense of intellectual self-sufficiency that often descended into moral

arrogance, producing a culture that eschewed self-critical and

introspective insight, and embraced the projection of blame and a

fantasy-like level of confidence.




Wahhabism proceeded to co-opt the language and symbolisms of Salafism in

the 1970s until the two had become practically indistinguishable. Both

theologies imagined a golden age in Islam; this entailed belief in a

historical utopia that is entirely retrievable and reproducible in

contemporary Islam. Both remained uninterested in critical historical

inquiry and responded to the challenge of modernity by escaping to the

secure haven of the text. And both advocated a form of egalitarianism and

anti-elitism to the point that they came to consider intellectualism and

rational moral insight to be inaccessible, and thus corruptions of the

purity of the Islamic message. These similarities facilitated the Wahhabi

co-optation of Salafism. Wahhabism, from its very inception, and Salafism,

especially after it entered its apologetic phase, were infested with a

kind of supremacist thinking that prevails until today. To simplify

matters, I will call this unity of Wahhabism with the worst that is in

Salafism, "Salafabism".


Salafabism took things to their logical extreme. The bonding of the

theologies of Wahhabism and Salafism produced a contemporary orientation

that is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism and frustration. The

syncretistic product of these two theologies is one of profound

alienation, not only from the institutions of power in the modern world,

but also from the Islamic heritage and tradition. The consistent

characteristic of Salafabism is a supremacist puritanism that compensates

for feelings of defeatism, disempowerment and alienation with a distinct

sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the nondescript

"other"-whether the "other" is the West, non-believers in general, or even

Muslim women. Instead of simple apologetics, Salafabism responds to the

feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising and arrogant

symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims, but even more so

against fellow Muslims.


Salafabism anchored itself in the confident security of texts. But so far

from respecting the integrity of the text, Salafabism is abusive of it. As

a hermeneutic orientation, it empowers its adherents to project their

socio-political frustrations and insecurities onto the text. Elsewhere, I

have described the dynamics of Salafabism vis-a-vis the text as thoroughly

despotic and authoritarian. Religious texts consistently become as whips

to be exploited by a select class of readers in order to affirm

reactionary power dynamics in society.[9]


The adherents of Salafabism, unlike the apologists, no longer concerned

themselves with co-opting or claiming Western institutions as their own.

Under the guise of reclaiming the true and real Islam, they proceeded to

define Islam as the exact antithesis of the West. Apologetic attempts at

proving Islam's compatibility with the West were dismissed as inherently



Salafabists argued that colonialism had ingrained into Muslims a lack of

self-pride or dignity, convincing them of the inferiority of their

religion. This has trapped Muslims into an endless and futile race to

appease the West by proving Islam's worthiness. According to this model,

there are only two paths in life: the path of God (the straight path) and

the path of Satan (the crooked path). In attempting to integrate and

co-opt Western ideas such as feminism, democracy or human rights, Muslims

have fallen prey to the temptations of Satan by accepting ungodly

innovations (bida', sing. bid'a). Islam is the only straight path in life,

and must be pursued regardless of what others think and of how it impacts

on their rights and wellbeing.


Salafabists insist that only the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic

law define morality. This legalistic way of life is considered inherently

superior to all others, and the followers of any other way are regarded as

infidels (kuffar), hypocrites (munafiqun) or iniquitous (fasiqun). Lives

that are lived outside the divine law are inherently unlawful and

therefore an offence against God that must be actively fought or punished.


Osama bin Laden


Bin Laden, like most extremist Muslims, belongs to the orientation I have

called Salafabist. Although raised in a Wahhabi environment, bin Laden is

not strictly speaking part of that creed. Wahhabism is distinctly

introverted: it primarily asserts power over other Muslims. This reflects

its obsession with orthodoxy and correct ritualistic practice. Militant

puritan groups, however, are both introverted and extroverted: they

attempt to assert power over both Muslims and non-Muslims. As populist

movements, they are a reaction to the disempowerment most Muslims have

suffered in the modern age at the hands of harshly despotic governments

and interventionist foreign powers. Fuelled by the supremacist and puritan

creed of Salafabism, these groups' symbolic acts of power become

uncompromisingly fanatical and violent.


The existence of this puritan orientation in Islam is hardly surprising.

All religious systems have suffered at one time or another from absolutist

extremism, and Islam is no exception. There were extremists such as the

Qaramites and Assassins, for example, whose terror became their very

raison d'etre, and who earned unmitigated infamy in the writings of Muslim

historians, theologians and jurists. After centuries of bloodshed, these

two groups learned moderation, and they continue to exist in small numbers

in North Africa and Iraq. The essential lesson taught by Islamic history

is that extremist groups are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they

are marginalised and eventually treated as a heretical aberration from the

Islamic message.


The problem, however, is that the traditional institutions of Islam that

historically acted to marginalise extremist creeds no longer exist. This

is what makes the events of 11 September so significant for the future of

Islam. Those events symbolise the culmination of a process that has been

in the making for the past two centuries, in the same way Salafabism has

become the culmination of Salafism, Wahhabism, apologetics and Islamic



It would be inaccurate to contend that the fanatic supremacist groups fill

the vacuum of authority in contemporary Islam. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban,

despite their ability to commit highly visible acts of violence, are a

sociological and intellectual marginality in Islam. However, such groups

are in fact extreme manifestations of more prevalent intellectual and

theological currents in modern Islam, chiefly Salafabism. It is true that

bin Laden is the quintessential example of a Muslim created, shaped and

motivated by post-colonial experience. But bin Laden is also

representative of prevailing realities in contemporary Islam. Much of what

constitutes Islam today was shaped as a defensive reaction to the

post-colonial experience, a reaction in the form either of uncritical

cheerleading on behalf of what was presumed to be the Islamic tradition,

or of an obstinate rejectionism of what was presumed to be the Western

tradition. As such, bin Laden is the child of a profound dissonance and

dysfunctionalism experienced vis-a-vis both the Islamic heritage and

modernity. In my view, bin Laden, like the whole of the Salafabist

movement, is an orphan of modernity, but his claim to an authentic lineage

in Islamic civilisation is tenuous at best.


After 11 September and the bloodletting that followed, the question is:

Now that we have witnessed the sheer amount of senseless destruction that

the children of this orientation are capable of producing and the type of

world they are capable of instigating, will Muslims be able to marginalise

Salafabism and render it, like many of the arrogant movements that

preceded it, a historical curiosity? In this regard, the paradigm of the

clash of civilisations helps neither Muslims nor non-Muslims in

understanding the modern Islamic experience. Moreover, to the extent that

this paradigm invents an Islamic authenticity at odds with the West, it

simply aggravates the siege mentality and defensive orientations in the

Muslim world. In past decades, when Muslim intellectuals attempted a

critical engagement with their tradition and a search for the moral and

humanistic aspects of their heritage, they were invariably confronted by

the spectre of post-colonialism; their efforts were evaluated purely in

terms of whether they appeased or displeased the West, and accepted or

rejected by many Muslims accordingly. The fact is that the paradigm of the

clash of civilisations, by promoting an essentialised and binary view of

the Islamic and Western historical experiences, serves only to empower

puritan orientations within modern Islam, such as that of the Salafabists

and their child, bin Laden.






[1] For evidence of the occurrence of war crimes in Jenin and other

Palestinian refugee camps, see "Physicians for Human Rights Forensic Team

Preliminary Assessment: Jenin, April 21-23, 2002", report by Physicians

for Human Rights (Boston and Washington, D.C.), available at



[2] "MP Warns of Creating '10,000 Bin Ladens'", Guardian (London), 14

September 2001.


[3] See, for example, Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades,

Jihads and Modernity (London: Verso Press, 2002).


[4] Huntington's claim that his clash of civilisations paradigm is a

value-neutral, objective fact of history is disingenuous. Of course it is

not value-neutral, and it has a powerful emotional impact that results in

the delegitimising of the other.


[5] For an analysis of this process of projection and construction of an image of Islamic law, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, "Islamic Law and Ambivalent Scholarship: A Review of Lawrence Rosen, The Justice of Islam: Comparative Perspectives on Islamic Law and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).”  Michigan Law Review, vol. 100, no. 6, May 2002, pp. 1421– 1443.


[6] For a detailed study of the role of authorial enterprise, communities

of interpretation, and Islamic law, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in

God's Name: Authority, Islamic Law, and Women (Oxford: Oneworld Press,



[7] Khaled Abou El Fadl, "Islam and the Theology of Power", Middle East

Report 221 (winter 2001), pp. 28-33.


[8] See "Saudi Police 'Stopped' Fire Rescue", BBC news report, 15 March

2002 [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1874471.stm]. I

confirmed this incident in a conversation with the father of one of the

girls who was killed. Saudi Arabia initially said it would investigate,

but a day later it denied that the incident had occurred.


[9] My two books, And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and

Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses (Lanham, Md.: University Press of

America, 2001), and Speaking in God's Name, are primarily concerned with

this phenomenon.