Faith & Reason: Forget Osama bin Laden, the real brains behind al-Qa'ida is back

Islamic terrorism has a serious intellectual underpinning - and it is the mirror image of the Manichean world view of President George W. Bush
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In the Boy's Own paper prose reserved for such matters we were told that the "Number Two to Bin Laden at the top of the al-Qa'ida terror network" resurfaced last week. At least a recent tape of his did. "We tell America one thing: what you have seen so far is nothing but the first skirmishes," said Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a chilling warning for the United States if any of the al- Qa'ida prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are harmed. Given international concern over the legality of their detention, it was not a naïve statement.

Everyone needs a name to flag up a news story and nobody likes things complicated. The point is not to understand but condemn and demonise or idolise. And the one and only name that instantly denotes "Islamic" international terrorism today is Osama bin Laden. But it's the wrong name. Or, at least, the spotlight is misdirected. For the privileged, rich young Saudi Osama brought mainly money and an eager activism to the formation of al-Qa'ida, while the Egyptian al-Zawahiri brought the ideas, the intellectual weight and behind-the-scenes leadership. Money talks of course. Ideas grab hold of people. You can freeze assets. But not ideas.

Dr al-Zawahiri comes from a wealthy and distinguished Cairo family; one grandfather was a rector of the celebrated Islamic University of Al-Azhar. He was politicised at an early age by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when, in six humiliating days, Egypt was crushed on the battlefield. The assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1983 found him active within Egypt's Islamic Jihad, a violent radical movement to create an Islamic state. This cost him torture and a year in jail - though nothing was proved against him. During the Afghan war against the Soviets he took his skills as a surgeon to the guerrilla encampments where he met the "Islamic international brigade" and Osama bin Laden, then funded and supported by the Pakistani Intelligence and the CIA. This was to be the core of al-Qa'ida.

Al-Zawahiri's ideas are no less rooted than his scholarly family pedigree - his thinking was shaped by Egypt's radical Muslim Brotherhoods and the prolific writer Sayyid Qutb, who defined the revolutionary Islamic response to "un-Islamic government", was tried and executed by Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1966. This tradition was tailor-made to fit the Wahabi background of bin Laden whose radical ultraconservative religion - "back to the Koran" and "back to the first Muslim community at Medina" - dominates Saudi Arabia. Both streams of thought can be traced back to the father of Islamic radicalism, Ibn Taymiyya, in the Middle Ages whose Puritan literalism, a stripping of the altars, Christians ought to understand. In the form of Islamic Jihad, Qutb's Manichean creed produced a series of assassination attempts and - probably - the bloody massacre of 57 tourists at Luxor in 1997.

In this tradition the emphasis shifted from what Muslims calls "the greater jihad" - spiritual purification - to the "lesser jihad" of armed struggle. This meant confronting the power of the US, the "Great Satan", in the Arabian peninsula. In February 1998 al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based Arabic newspaper, printed an emergency appeal from the "World Islamic Front". The Muslim world was being stormed by "the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches": in other words the American presence in the Gulf, the Saudi bases and Iraq war, and US support for the Israeli government. It was the religious duty of every individual Muslim to repel the invaders by whatever means possible. Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden led the signatories.

In traditional mainstream Islamic thought - and of course there are different strands - Muslims need the political authority of a Caliph, head of the Muslim community, to wage war. But, in an extreme emergency, a threat to Muslim identity and territorial integrity, no such authority is needed. Groups of individuals may take up arms and fight outside the Islamic heartland. But what under no circumstances is permitted is terrorism. Christians and Muslims hold common views about jus in bello, conduct in war, stemming from shared medieval sources.

Al-Zawahiri, his cohorts and pupils such as bin Laden abandon the great body of contemporary Muslim thought not, as is often said, in their politicisation of Islam, or desire for Muslim principles to prevail in all spheres of life, but in their terrorism. Christians and Jews become targets instead of protected "People of the Book". A Manichean vision of the world dictates that everything outside their perverse interpretation of the Holy Koran is lumped together as evil. The important battle is with the crusaders of the evil empire. As Edward Said says of this Manichean Islamism: "Critical thinking and individual wrestling with the problems of the modern world have simply dropped out of sight."

Thanks to George W. Bush's own brand of Manichean ideas we cannot pretend to be complete strangers to this mindset. There is something in his almost imperial vision that echoes what it opposes. These are ideas, a pathology, we share with Islam. God forbid they are leading to a comparable intellectual and moral catastrophe for Christianity.