Misunderstanding al Qaeda
What you weren't told about their targets in Saudi Arabia.
Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By PAUL MARSHALL
AMERICAN REACTIONS to the recent bombing of a foreign workers' compound in Riyadh reveal multiple misreadings of the Arab world and--more dangerously--of both al Qaeda and the Saudis.
The media seem to equate Arab with Muslim and, along with some in the administration, think that al Qaeda's war is against Americans and Westerners per se, rather than against all "infidels," a group al Qaeda defines idiosyncratically and expansively as anyone who is not a strictly observant Muslim. Both mistakes are compounded by reliance on the Saudis' distorted account of the attack.
The November 8 bombing took place in a Lebanese Christian neighborhood of Riyadh, and of the seven publicly identified Lebanese victims, six were Christian. Lebanon's newspapers are replete with photographs of Maronite Catholic and Greek Orthodox victims. Daleel al Mojahid, an al Qaeda-linked webpage, praised the killing of "non-Muslims." The Middle East Media Research Institute quotes Abu Salma al Hijazi, reputed to be an al Qaeda commander, as saying that Saudi characterizations of the victims as Muslims were "merely media deceit."
If so, the media fell for it. Reuters described the bombing as against "fellow Muslims," the Los Angeles Times as "against Muslims," the Washington Times called the victims "innocent Muslims," the San Francisco Chronicle "Muslim civilians who happened to be in the wrong place," and the New York Times "expatriates from other Muslim countries."
Others used vaguer terms. The BBC said the "bombing killed Arabs and Muslims," as did the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. In the Wall Street Journal, David Pryce-Jones pronounced the dead "exclusively Arabs and Muslims." While perhaps strictly correct, this circumlocution hides the fact that the victims included Arab non-Muslims and Muslim non-Arabs.
The effect of this mischaracterization is to link Arab to Muslim, ignoring the large numbers of Christian Arabs from Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere who work in Saudi Arabia (and Israel) and have long been targeted by Islamic extremists, including by the Saudi government. (At the time of the bombing, two Egyptian Christians, Sabry Gayed and Guirguis Eskander, were in a Riyadh prison for holding a worship service, even though Prince Sultan had ordered them released.)
Similarly, media coverage of the October 4 suicide attack on Maxim, a restaurant in Haifa, noted that one co-owner was Jewish, but described the other simply as "Arab." Commentators wondered why Palestinian terrorists were killing "Arabs." But the second co-owner was actually a Lebanese Catholic, as were many of those killed. The term "Arab," while playing into America's obsession with ethnicity, hides the religious dimension that is central to the worldview of al Qaeda, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
Similar puzzlement over attacks in Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia, as well as over the targeting of the U.N. and Red Cross in Iraq, reflects a focus on nationality and ethnicity that misses the terrorists' own obsession with "infidels" and once again ties the attacks exclusively to anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism.
The New York Times associated the bombed compound in Riyadh with "Western lifestyles and foreign influence." The BBC speculated that the attackers "thought that among the residents were Americans." Pryce-Jones wondered whether, finally, "somebody is evidently even more eager to destabilize Saudi Arabia than to kill Americans or Westerners."
However, every day in every way, al Qaeda reiterates that its target is "infidels," wherever they live, including Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and the vast majority of the world's Muslims, who reject the extremists' vision of a restored caliphate under a reactionary version of Islamic law. Bin Laden's October tape, aimed at Muslims, described his enemy as "the Romans . . . gathered under the banner of the cross," but it also denounced Muslim "infidels and heretics." (At the same time, of course, al Qaeda is happy to form tactical alliances with others who do not share its vision, whether Shiites in Iran or secularists like Saddam Hussein.)
For years, one of al Qaeda's major components, Egypt's Islamic Jihad, led by bin Laden deputy Zawahiri, massacred Christians and moderate Muslims in Egypt. The Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, which has openly declared itself a bin Laden ally, has killed over 100,000 Muslims, often by disemboweling them. The Sudanese National Islamic Front, formerly known as the Muslim Brotherhood, has killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the Nuba mountains and elsewhere, as well as nearly 2 million non-Muslims.