Osama bin Laden and other leaders of militant Islamic groups in Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh were among the signers.
The declaration, a translation of which appeared in an article by Bernard Lewis in the November-December 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, began by quoting several militant passages from the Koran and sayings of Muhammad, then continued:
“Since God laid down the Arabian peninsula, created its desert, and surrounded it with its seas, no calamity has ever befallen it like these Crusader hosts that have spread in it like locusts, crowding its soil, eating its fruits, and destroying its verdure [foliage]; and this at a time when the nations contend against the Muslims like diners jostling around a bowl of food.”
The statement continues, condemning the United States for three main reasons:
“First—For more than seven years the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic peoples …
“Second—Despite the immense destruction inflicted on the Iraqi people at the hands of the Crusader-Jewish alliance and in spite of the appalling number of dead, exceeding a million, the Americans nevertheless, in spite of all this, are trying once more to repeat this dreadful slaughter …
“Third—While the purposes of the Americans in these wars are religious and economic, they also serve the petty state of the Jews, to divert attention from their occupation of Jerusalem and their killing of Muslims in it.”
The signatories conclude that these “crimes” amount to “a clear declaration of war by the Americans against God, his Prophet, and the Muslims.” The declaration reminds readers that throughout the centuries, the ulema—authorities on theology and Islamic law—have ruled unanimously that when Muslim lands are attacked by enemies, every Muslim’s personal duty is jihad, a religious conflict that no Muslim can ignore.
Sensitivities over Arabia go back almost 1,400 years to the very beginnings of Islam. Commenting on the declaration, Professor Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a noted authority on the Middle East, writes: “The classical Arabic historians tell us that in the year 20 after the hijra (Muhammad’s move from Mecca to Medina), corresponding to 641 of the Christian calendar, the Caliph Umar decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from Arabia to fulfill an injunction the Prophet uttered on his deathbed: ‘Let there not be two religions in Arabia.’ The people in question were the Jews of the oasis of Khaybar in the north and the Christians of Najran in the south.”
He continues: “… The expulsion of religious minorities is extremely rare in Islamic history—unlike medieval Christendom, where evictions of Jews and … Muslims were normal and frequent … But the decree was final and irreversible, and from then until now the holy land of the Hijaz [the region of Mecca and Medina and sometimes applied to all of Saudi Arabia] has been forbidden territory for non-Muslims … For a non-Muslim to even set foot on the sacred soil is a major offense …”
“Where their holy land is involved, many Muslims tend to define the struggle—and sometimes also the enemy—in religious terms, seeing the American troops sent to free Kuwait and save Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein as infidel invaders and occupiers. This perception is heightened by America’s unquestioned primacy among the powers of the infidel world.”
Professor Lewis’s piece, written three years before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, concludes with these words: “… Some Muslims are ready to approve, and a few of them to apply, the declaration’s extreme interpretation of their religion. Terrorism requires only a few. Obviously, the West must defend itself by whatever means will be effective. But in devising strategies to fight the terrorists, it would surely be useful to understand the forces that drive them.”
Religious affairs writer and historian Karen Armstrong also helps us understand Islamic fundamentalism in her book Islam. She notes that, as the 20th century ended, “some Muslims … have made sacred violence a cardinal Islamic duty. These fundamentalists often call Western colonialism and post-colonial Western imperialism al-Salibiyyah: the Crusade.”
This is a chilling term for Muslims, calling to mind the violent clashes between the forces of medieval Christendom and Islam almost 1,000 years ago. European armies went on a series of crusades to free the Christian holy places from the forces of Islam, frequently committing horrific atrocities during the period. “The colonial crusade has been less violent but its impact has been more devastating than the medieval holy wars,” she notes. Western cultural values have greatly impacted all the countries of the world and are greatly resented by many people.
Karen Armstrong continues: “All over the world, as we have seen, people in all the major faiths have reeled under the impact of western modernity, and have produced the embattled and frequently intolerant religiosity that we call fundamentalism” (2000, p. 180, emphasis added).
Fundamentalist movements are not confined to Islam. Nor are religious clashes confined to Christianity and Islam. Predominantly Hindu India has witnessed conflict between fundamentalist Hindus and minority Muslims.
However, conflict between Christians and Muslims has been a constant theme of history for 14 centuries. This conflict is not confined to the Western world. In recent years Indonesia has witnessed appalling violence as Muslims went on the rampage beheading Christians. The two religions have been fighting a civil war in the African nation of Sudan for more than three decades. The war in Chechnya between Russians and native Chechens is a war between Christian and Muslim. And, of course, the Balkans have been a major flash point between the two religions for generations.
Although Islamic nations have their often-serious internal divisions, typically between Islamic fundamentalists and the more moderate national leaders, no Muslim countries allow Christian missionaries to operate freely or Christians to immigrate and receive citizenship. This has ensured that Islamic nations remain essentially Muslim, with some tolerance for minority religions that predate Islam. In contrast, Western nations have allowed significant immigration from Muslim countries since World War II, and their now-sizable Muslim minorities are complicating Western governments’ attempts to deal with this growing conflict.