While the world media has been consumed with speculation about the health and whereabouts of jihad leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it has hardly noted at all a challenge he issued just before he was injured. Yet this challenge could in the long run prove to be more potent than the suicide bombings he continues to inspire in Iraq. It came in the form of an audiotape he released on May 20, in which he presents a detailed justification of his operations. His defense unfolds not on prudential, but on theological grounds: making copious reference to Islamic sources, Zarqawi does his best to portray the murderous behavior of his al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers group as legitimate jihad operations that every Muslim should endorse — and cheerfully torpedoes the Leftist dogma that all religions are equal in their capacity to inspire violence.
Since 9/11, American Muslim advocacy groups, influential elements of the government, and the establishment media have gone to great pains to assure us that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by a tiny minority of extremists who hijacked a peaceful religion. We were assured that Osama bin Laden and other jihad leaders were not Islamic scholars, and didn’t have an Islamic leg to stand on. The unquestioned assumption has been that the Islamic justifications they presented for their actions were transparently wrong from the mainstream Islamic standpoint. Soon the moderate mainstream would assert itself, we were told, and Muslims would denounce al-Qaeda and other jihadists, repudiating and isolating them worldwide.
Why hasn’t this happened? Zarqawi’s communiqué suggests one reason why: it is the jihadists, not the moderates, who are reasoning from Islamic sources and presenting detailed Islamic theological arguments. By doing this, Zarqawi has thrown down the gauntlet to moderate Muslims worldwide, in effect saying to them: defend your vision of Islam or get out of the way. On the tape he criticizes them directly: “the wicked scholars have looked the other way and sold their Deen (religion) for a miserable price in this life.” He says that “the defeatists, the unfaithful, and the ill-intentioned people from our own skin, have criticized our operations against the enemies of Allah on the bases that some of these operations results in killing so called ‘innocent civilians.’” Zarqawi asserts that “the Mujahideen carry out their operations under strict adherence to the rules of engagement as set forth by Allah, His messenger, our prophet Muhammad, and his companions.”
“There is no doubt,” Zarqawi says, “that Allah commanded us to strike the Kuffar (unbelievers), kill them, and fight them by all means necessary to achieve the goal. The servants of Allah who perform Jihad to elevate the word (laws) of Allah, are permitted to use any and all means necessary to strike the active unbeliever combatants for the purpose of killing them, snatch their souls from their body, cleanse the earth from their abomination, and lift their trial and persecution of the servants of Allah.”
With its numerous Koran quotations and citations from Islamic scholars, Zarqawi’s tape amounts to a direct frontal assault on the glib and still oft-repeated assertion that the 9/11 attacks are condemned by Islam because Islam forbids the killing of innocent civilians.
It is urgently to be hoped that all those groups that identify themselves as forces for Muslim moderation construct responses to Zarqawi that reason from Islamic principles. For if Islamic moderates convince non-Muslims that Islam is peaceful, those non-Muslims will go home reassured, but that is all: only if the moderates can convince their fellow Muslims of this will there be any weakening of the jihadist initiative. With this audiotape, Zarqawi has seized the intellectual and theological initiative within the global Islamic community, and reinforced the jihadist claim to represent “pure Islam” — a claim that has proved to be a potent recruitment tool among Muslims worldwide, as well as here in the United States. If moderates do not or cannot take that initiative from him, the consequences could reverberate across the world for decades to come.