He is not simply concerned with fighting the United States. He also wants to get rid of regimes that he regards as apostate in the Muslim world: his targets include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Shiite Iran. He is not fighting democracy or freedom per se. He simply wants the United States out of the region, and is fighting a war against what he regards as American imperialism.

Only a small minority of Muslims would support Osama's full program, but most of the middle classes would share his dislike of "American Imperialism" There are many business people and professionals, who believe the United States now controls the region, economically and politically, and they deeply resent this. Because much of this opposition is mainstream, this creates conditions sympathetic to the radicals. People in the mainstream do not like American foreign policy, and even though they utterly deplore the events of September 11th, they continue to believe that America and the West has no concern for their welfare or their views. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the United States regards their needs and concerns as unimportant.

Fundamentalism, I said earlier, is nihilistic because it denies crucial and sacred values of the faith. The ideology of Qutb and bin Laden is unIslamic, because Islam condemns violence, aggression and killing, and, like Judaism, holds that to kill even one person is in a sense to kill the whole world. The Quran will permit only a war of self-defense. It holds that killing is always a great evil, but that sometimes it is necessary to fight in order to preserve decent values. This is similar to the mainstream Western ideal of the just war: in World War II the allies deemed it necessary to fight Hitler.

Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
No, it does not. Fundamentalism is most likely to tip over into violence in a society at war or in conflict. The Middle East, which has seen violent conflict for many years, is an obvious example.

But even some Muslim fundamentalists have confined themselves to welfare campaigns. They have opened clinics, taught the people about labor laws, built their own factories where workers have better conditions, and offered free education. Their aim has been to bring some of the benefits of modernity to the people in an Islamic context that makes sense to them. In Egypt, student groups have tried to better the lot of women students, guard them from sexual harassment. Because the universities are often hopelessly overcrowded and ill equipped, they have provided lecture hand-outs and study sessions in the mosques, where people can read quietly, which they cannot always do in the noisy and overcrowded halls of residence. They will take over a lawn or a shady spot on campus and use it as an impromptu mosque, for prayer.

The focus for the most groups has been making Islam more of a presence in the secular world. They have held Islamic study camps, where people study the Quran, pray, and renew themselves spiritually. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish fundamentalists devote their attention to studying Torah and Talmud and preserving true values in a Godless world. Sometimes in Israel they may stone the cars of Israelis who ignoring the Sabbath rules or attack one of their own number whose behavior seems lax. But in general, they are not violent. And the vast majority of American Protestant fundamentalists, as I said above, do not commit acts of violence: they confine their "battle for God" to amending text books, which teach evolution or liberal values, or for school prayer.

  • How do Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism differ?
  • What kind of Muslim is Osama bin Laden?
  • Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
  • What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
  • Why don't top Muslims reprimand terrorists?
  • Why are there so few Islamic democracies?

    What responsibility does Islam bear for these acts? What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
    The word Islam, which means "surrender," is related to the Arabic salam, "peace." When the Prophet Muhammad brought the revealed scripture called the Qu'ran ("recitation") to the Arabs in the early 7th century C.E., one of his main purposes was precisely to stop the kind of indiscriminate killing we saw on September 11th.
  • At the time the Arabian Peninsula was in crisis. The tribal system was breaking down, and the various tribes were locked into a murderous cycle of vendetta and counter vendetta. For a weak tribe, or a man who lacked powerful protection, survival was nearly impossible. The Prophet himself suffered several assassination attempts, and when his religious and social message ran him afoul of the establishment of Mecca, the small Muslim community was persecuted. Things got so bad that the Muslims had to migrate to Medina, some 250 miles to the north, and there they were subject to attack by the Meccan army, the greatest power in Arabia.

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