Many Americans seem to think that bin Laden is just a violent cult leader. But the truth is that he is tapping into a minority Islamic tradition with a wide following and a deep history. -Michael Doran, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University
What does Osama bin Laden want, and why does he want it? These questions can best be answered by studying the development of this tradition of Islamic extremism in the Middle East, especially since World War II. Although these fundamentalist groups preach a theology which values the earliest traditions of Islam, it remains nevertheless a very modern movement which has achieved broad popularity, especially among like-minded thinkers who have created what has become known as Islamism.
Many devout Muslims are aghast at the idea that their faith is being used to justify terrorism, yet they must understand that bin Laden and the people like him are not simply strange aberrations: they are, instead, a natural extension of extremist theology which has been in development since at least the 1930s, and in some cases well before that.
Bin Ladens personal history can be easily found on the internet. Born to a rich Saudi family, he became in the 1980s the prime financier for an organization that recruited Muslims from mosques around the world for the war in Afghanistan. When he returned after the war, he founded an organization to aid that wars veterans, many of whom went on to fight elsewhere (like Bosnia) and/or comprised the basis of his al-Qaeda terrorist group.
So what is it that bin Laden wants today? His basic argument is that Muslims in the Middle East are currently suffering from political, social and economic deprivation for the simple reason that their governments have not fully implemented sharia, or Islamic law. Because their rulers have failed to do this, bin Laden no longer considers them to be truly Muslim.
So, he would claim, rather than living in Islamic states, Muslims in the Middle East are really living in jahiliyya, an Arabic term used to describe pre-Islamic paganism, ignorance and barbarism. Muslims are forbidden to make war on each other, but they are allowed to make war on non-Muslims who are persecuting them thus current rulers are made open to attack. But they arent the only targets, because these leaders are not solely responsible for the current state of affairs.
On the contrary, Muslims are victims of a centuries-long Crusade by Jews and Westerners which has been driven by the goal of undermining and eventually destroying Islam. They colonized Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam, those lands under Muslim administration), divided it up into nation-states, and even left people there to rule over the Holy City of Jerusalem (Israel).
Some Westerners, including former President Clinton, have argued that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremists. Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise, especially to Islamic extremists. The relations between Islam and Christianity, both Orthodox and Western, have often been stormy. Each has been the others Other. The twentieth-century conflict between liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninism is only a fleeting and superficial historical phenomenon compared with the continuing and deeply conflicted relation between Islam and Christianity.
This is not to say, of course, that this is a conflict simply against the religion of Islam. Western leaders are correct in that they have not launched an armed conflict against a religion. But Muslim leaders are correct in that an attack is being made against a cultural, historical and political civilization centered around the religion of Islam.
Currently, Westerners are perceived as attempting to impose their own secular values which are at odds with fundamental and traditional Islamic values and practices. They claim altruistic motives, but Muslims see the real purpose as trying to undermine their faith. Thus, the West must be resisted and attacked. Some think that because the West is the bigger enemy, it should be attacked first, whereas others believe that the local rulers, being the closer enemy, should be the top priority.
Such would bin Laden argue, yet none of this originates with him. All reports indicate that he isnt much of an original thinker he is neither a religious scholar nor a political philosopher. Instead, he has tapped into a fully-formed tradition which has given him all the ideological tools he needs to both explain current problems and offer a solution. Muslims in the Middle East can accept these arguments because the ground has already been prepared by centuries of development.