Osama's Ideological Challenge

“I invite you to embrace Islam,” says Osama bin Laden in his latest videotape. Most analysts take this as pious window-dressing, but it is actually the most revealing aspect of bin Laden’s statement.

This is because in traditional Islamic law, the invitation to Islam must precede an attack on non-Muslims. Says Muhammad:

When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them….If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya [the poll tax on non-Muslims]. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them. (Sahih Muslim 4294)

Is an attack imminent? There are numerous indications of that – suggesting that one of the primary audiences, at least for this part of Osama’s message, is the Islamic world: by this invitation Osama has attempted to forestall criticism by Muslims.

But there is wider significance to Osama’s invitation to Islam. He offers a cultural critique of the Judeo-Christian West: “you associate others with Him in your beliefs and separate state from religion.” Both of these criticisms focus on Christianity: Islam regards the divinity of Christ as a polytheistic association of a partner with God, and rejects the sacred/secular distinction that is ultimately derived from Christ’s directive to “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Bin Laden charges the West with “manifest polytheism,” criticizing its making laws “in contradiction to [Allah’s] Law and methodology.” This is integral to his invitation to Islam: since Islam is a political and social system as well as a religious faith, to accept it is not merely to change one’s religious affiliation: it would fundamentally alter the nature of Western society.

The call to implement Islamic Sharia law in its fullness is resonating throughout the Islamic world, with severe challenges to relatively secular regimes being mounted recently in Malaysia, Turkey, and Pakistan. Jihadists base their appeal in the Islamic world on the purity of their Islam, and on the proposition that obedience to Allah brings worldly success, as Osama says: “And our holding firm to this magnificent Book is the secret of our strength and winning of the war against you despite the fewness of our numbers and materiel.”

Six years after 9/11, and a year and a half after Donald Rumsfeld observed that “We need to find ways to win the ideological battle as well,” the jihadists’ ideological challenge is not being answered adequately. Osama’s challenge to Christianity and advocacy of Sharia is an opportunity for Western leaders to stress the aspects of Judeo-Christian civilization that Sharia law denies: notably the equality of dignity of men and women and the freedom of conscience. But no Western leader will do this, because it would contradict the multiculturalist dogma that no civilization or culture has any virtues that any others do not possess. The centrality of the jihadists’ cultural challenge to the West, and Western unwillingness to respond to this challenge, is a chief theme of my book Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, but it is getting little attention elsewhere; even conservative media figures are hesitant to discuss the cultural conflict. The ideological challenge that the jihadists are making to the West remains the single most misunderstood aspect of the war on terror. As Osama invites us once again to accept Islam, probably very few Americans would be able to articulate why they wouldn’t want to accept the invitation, and yet talk of Sharia and how it contradicts basic Western understandings of human rights remain taboo.

As Al-Qaeda attempts to follow up on Osama’s invitation, and Europe becomes increasingly riven by strife between Muslims and non-Muslims, it will become clearer why we ignore this aspect of the jihadist challenge at our own peril.