On the heels of the one-year milestone of Osama bin Laden’s death, the U.S. government recently released a series of letters and messages bin Laden sent to colleagues and subordinates around the world. Among other things, the documents reveal bin Laden to have been a man who became increasingly isolated and irrelevant to Muslims due to his ceaseless bloodshed and the growing power of the Arab Spring protest movement.
Reading between the lines, the documents reveal something else from which all of us can benefit – the power of seeing Muslims as partners – rather than as obstacles – in combating violent extremism. The effects of this vision manifest themselves through the documents in at least two important ways, but the overarching point is this: It is time to underscore the vital, positive role American Muslims play in contributing to not just U.S. national security, but to the diverse religious and cultural fabric of our nation, of which we are so proud.
Learning from bin Laden’s documents can positively affect our messaging as our nation fights to push back on al Qaeda’s narrative. Bin Ladin understood that words impact perceptions, and therefore knew that his choice in language had the power to create realities for his benefit. Throughout his violent career, bin Ladin sought to push the narrative that the West was at war with Islam. When U.S. officials used religiously-laden terms such as “violent Islamist terrorism,” “Islamo-fascism,” and the like, they unknowingly played into this narrative and strengthened the impact of the terrorist’s message.
This dynamic changed significantly during the Obama administration. In one letter, bin Ladin complained that President Obama altered his terminology in order to hammer home the fact that America is not at war with Islam. For this reason, bin Ladin was considering changing al Qaeda’s name to something that would demonstrate “strong ties to the word Islam or Muslims” so that “it would be difficult for Obama to say that” America is not at war with Islam.
In fact, this change in tone from our public officials was initiated back in May 2007, when American Muslim community leaders met with then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to improve the Bush administration’s public messaging around the war. Out of their recommendations came a guidance document called “Terminology to Define the Terrorists.” As if using near-prophetic foresight, one of the recommendations noted:
What terrorists fear most is irrelevance; what they need most is for large numbers of people to rally to their cause. There was a consensus that the [US Government] should avoid unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as… spokesmen for ordinary Muslims. Therefore, the experts counseled caution in using terms such as, “jihadist,” “Islamic terrorist,’’ “Islamist” and “holy warrior”….
Bin Ladin’s private communications confirm that these recommendations undermined his plan to exploit the spreading fear that all or most Muslims were somehow involved in or supportive of terrorism.
A second contribution from bin Ladin’s letters document the importance of Muslims in turning the tide against al Qaeda. The documents clearly reflect bin Laden’s concern with the rising tide of opinion against him due to his wanton killing of his fellow Muslims. While one can argue that his trail of destruction damaged his reputation, that’s only part of the story. Muslim scholars and community leaders around the world also played a key role in the de-legitimization of bin Ladin by denying him a mainstream religious platform to justify his killings.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Muslim religious leaders were extremely vocal and critical in condemning and countering terrorism in the name of Islam. They issued numerous fatwas (religious opinions) and public statements opposing political violence and condemning terrorism.
Theologically, one of the most damaging statements to bin Ladin’s ideology came in 2010 when a group of highly-respected Muslim scholars met in Mardin, Turkey, to refute one of al Qaeda’s most important religious justifications for violence, a 14th-century religious opinion supposedly calling for constant warfare against non-Muslims. Embarrassingly for bin Ladin, the statement pointed out that the justification he cited didn’t exist; it was based on a misprint of the medieval text.
For years, many have questioned, to varying degrees, the willingness and ability of Muslims, including those who proudly call America their home, to effectively confront violent extremism. Now more than ever, a year after bin Ladin’s death, his personal documents revealed his personal frustrations at failing to ignite a total war between Muslims and the West and his understanding of how repugnant his ideology of death had become to Muslims around the world. Again, we must underscore the vital role Muslims play in contributing to U.S. national security.
The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once said, “Know your enemy and know yourself.” In our current struggle against violent extremism, we would humbly add, “Know your allies.” From helping to improve public messaging to denying bin Laden a religious platform, Muslims are, and continue to be, an important part of the solution to effectively combating violent extremism – even as they are an important part of the diverse fabric of America.
The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance, a national, non-partisan grassroots organization that celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights, promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy, and uniting diverse voices to challenge extremism. He also serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana, and hosts the radio show, “State of Belief.”
Salam Al-Marayati is President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and serves on the Faith Based Task Force under the Homeland Security Advisory Council, convened by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.