The Magazine

War Againstthe Infidels

The message behind the beheadings.

Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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. . . brother Hussein was on the stairs and noticed an Italian infidel. He aimed his gun at him and told him to come closer. The infidel came closer. We saw his identifying documents . . . afterwards we would cut his throat and dedicate him to the Italians who were fighting our brothers in Iraq and to the idiotic Italian president who wants to confront the lions of Islam.

Consistently, these Wahhabis describe their enemies, whatever their country or race or politics, as "infidels" or "polytheists." They are particularly joyful at the killing of an Italian, a Briton, and, on June 22, the South Korean Kim Sun-il, whose countries are participants in the coalition in Iraq. But they also kill a Swede and a South African, whose countries took no part in the invasion, and their greatest frisson seems to come from killing Hindus, who, as purported polytheists, are even further down al Qaeda's religious scale than "people of the book" such as Christians and Jews.

The pattern is consistent. It was discernible in the Riyadh massacres of November 8, 2003, when the target was Lebanese Christians. It's why, when BBC correspondent Frank Gardner lay bleeding in the street after being shot by terrorists in Riyadh earlier this month, he could buttress his claim for help by calling out in Arabic, "I'm a Muslim, help me, I'm a Muslim, help me."

Americans, to be sure, are perceived to be the greatest power among the infidels. But at Khobar, after debating the matter, the terrorists spared one American because he was a Muslim, and even apologized to him for getting blood on his carpet. Meanwhile, they happily killed Filipino, Swedish, British, Italian, and South African Christians and Indian Hindus--just as their allies in Thailand are killing Buddhists like the 63-year-old rubber-tapper Sieng Patkaoe, beheaded in late May. Muslims who do not share the extremists' vision are not spared. Al Qaeda's Algerian ally, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, has for several years been beheading Muslims it regards as apostates. Meanwhile Sudan's National Islamic Front, formerly called the Muslim Brotherhood and, like Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian group of the same name, is attempting to starve to death hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Darfur who do not share its vision.

These killings are not about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, though those are grievances. They are not about Israel, though that is another grievance. In fact, most of the Islamist terrorists' victims worldwide are not Americans or even Westerners, but Asian and Middle Eastern Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. For the extremists, the justification for the slaughter is not current foreign policy but rather--as the religious exaltation, even ecstasy, in Al-Nashami's interview shows--an apocalyptic war to purge the world of all but their version of Islam.

Spaniards will not be spared because Spanish troops are gone from Iraq. Europe cannot make its way into the terrorists' good graces by distancing itself from America, any more than the United States can mollify the Islamists by acting through the United Nations or wooing "world opinion." These are fantasies.

Al Qaeda's enemy is anyone who opposes its program for the restoration of a unified Muslim ummah, ruled by a new Caliphate, governed by reactionary Islamic sharia law, and organized to wage jihad on the rest of the world. The lesson of Riyadh, Khobar, and Paul Marshall Johnson is that we can resist this program, in which case, tragically, we may well see more videos of beheadings. Or we can acquiesce to this program and see a great many more beheadings. These are the choices. We are in a war we must win. Everything else is wishful thinking.

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the author of Islam at the Crossroads.