Attack on America: An Islamic Scholar's Perspective—Part 2

Brian Handwerk and Zain Habboo
for National Geographic News
September 28, 2001

In an interview with National Geographic, Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki discusses the relationship between Osama bin Laden and the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, mainstream Islamic beliefs and how they differ from those of groups such as the Taliban, and attitudes in the Middle East toward the United States.

Can you please differentiate between Osama bin Laden and the Taliban? Many Americans seem to view them as a single entity.

Osama bin Laden is a Saudi who went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet Union. At that time, Taliban wasn't in existence. Taliban comes from the word "students"—that is what it means. These are students of religious schools in Pakistan. These Afghan refugees, when they went to Pakistan, they enrolled in religious schools. When the Civil War continued in Afghanistan [after the defeat of the Soviet Union], Taliban was formed as a force that would go in and unify the country. Members of Taliban were former fighters, who used to fight the Russians, or students who came from these religious schools in Pakistan. They were successful in taking over more than 80 percent of the country, and they did bring peace to the areas where they lived.

Now, to what extent [Osama bin Laden] has any coordination or relationship with the Taliban is not known. But I think that the reason the Taliban is defending him is that not only do they think that he didn't do this, but also in their tribal customs—remember that the Taliban are predominantly Pashtun—it is a shame to hand over somebody who sought your protection. These are tribal rules that go back centuries. If someone comes to you and says, "I want to be under your protection," you do not give that person up even if you end up sacrificing your life. So it's a tribal custom that they have. So this is how this alliance came about, but it's something that is fairly recent. Plus, I think they're grateful to him for his assistance in the war against the Russians.

The Taliban themselves, as a movement, they have come out very strongly in their condemnation of what happened in the U.S. They do not approve of this terrorism. But the issue here is that they cannot give up this person who sought their protection. It's not that they approve of what he is doing. But I think that Osama bin Laden did approve of what happened, and reports that I've heard are that he said, "I did not do it, but I'm not against it." So you can see that there's a difference of opinion. They're not really in alliance.

What are the differences between conventional Islamic beliefs and those of more radical groups such as the Taliban or al Qaeda?

The Islamic religion is pretty detailed. There is a lot of text both in the Koran and in the tradition of the prophet. This text is interpreted differently, because as human beings our understanding is based on two elements: our knowledge and our experience. I think that the experience of people is a very important element in how they understand events and how they understand their religion. That's why you would find Muslims who are following the same religion, but their understanding and approach to events could be quite different. I'm not even talking about groups—I'm talking about different countries. American Muslims had a different approach than African Muslims, who are different from Southeast Asian Muslims. The Arabs, who constitute 18 percent of the Muslims worldwide, are as different as night and day in some of their practices. The Arabian peninsula is quite conservative, North Africa or Egypt is quite liberal.

[Since] very early on in Islamic history there has been a conservative view and a liberal view, and this can go back to the actual students of the prophet. Among the students of the prophet, after he died, there was a conservative view and a liberal view on matters of law. So I think this explains different views in terms of practicing the religion. Now, when we're talking about Taliban as a political group, that's something completely different. People will find all different ways to justify their political views based on religion. In terms of interpreting Islamic law, there is a conservative view and a liberal view, and both are accepted to a certain extent. Obviously there are extremes that are outside of the circle.

We've seen images from the Middle East of flags being burned and U.S. leaders being burned in effigy. Would you say these actions represent a minority opinion, or do many people in the region feel that way?

A minority of the people would go that far. But the feeling that America is against us, I would say, is a majority. The people feel that America is against us because of the support of these governments, the support of Israel, and the embargo on Iraq. The embargo on Iraq had a devastating effect on the people. The Israel issue has been going on for 50 years. This hatred against America is a new phenomenon—it did not exist 10 or 20 years ago, before the Gulf War especially. This feeling wasn't there. In fact, the U.S. was seen as an ally of the Muslim world in its fight against Communism. The U.S. was the ally of the mujahidin in Afghanistan, in their struggle against the Soviet Union. So the Gulf [War] was a turning point that brought this discontent to the area. What really ticked off Osama bin Laden was [the presence of] U.S. soldiers in the Holy Land. Before that he never spoke against America.

The Islamic population in the U.S. is growing daily, yet some fundamentalist Muslims—like the Taliban—seem to feel that their faith is incompatible with Western society. Why?

Well, for people who are not living in the U.S., the only perception they get of the U.S. is through the media, through the news, through movies. Yes, they might say that our religion can never be compatible with the West, because what they see in the media they see as a moral bankruptcy. But for Muslims who are living in the U.S., we still have conservative views in terms of morality and family values, but we see things that are very compatible with Islam, like freedom and tolerance. So, I understand why they might feel the two are incompatible, because they are seeing only one side of the story. I mean, Hollywood is not giving a good example of America at all, it's not promoting the right image.

I'm sure that what I'm going to say next is going to be difficult for people who have lost loved ones, but I say that [military] force [as a response to the attack] would only suppress terrorism, but justice could eradicate it. The reason why this happened is that there are some people who went through a miserable life. So we need to strive as human beings to improve the situation of everybody on the planet, not just look at ourselves, our particular nations or ethnic groups. We should strive for the betterment of all of humanity, because when you have a wide gap between human beings, this is what happens. When there are people who have freedom and people who don't, people who are extremely wealthy and people who are destitute, you get into these conflicts.

An Islamic Scholar's Perspective—Part 1




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