US, Al-Qaida and the Arab Revolt

By M. Shahid Alam

On December 24 2004, I wrote an essay, ‘America and Islam: Seeking Parallels,’ for which I received much heat from Zionist and right-wing bloggers in the United States.

The article made the point that the leaders of al-Qaida believe that they have to carry their war to the home ground of the ‘far enemy’ – the United States, Israel and Western powers – in order to free the Muslim world from foreign domination. This anyone can verify from the numerous communiqués of al-Qaida.

To say this is not to endorse the terrorist methods that al-Qaida employs. This was my moral position then: and it is my moral position now. At the same time, we should not shrink from recognizing that the total wars waged by many states, including the United States, since WWII differ from the methods of al-Qaida only in the infinitely greater scale of the destruction they wreak upon civilians.

The article made another critical point. It argued that al-Qaida, in some measure, reflects the political and moral failings of Muslim societies. If Muslims had shown more spine in resisting local tyrannies through non-violent means, their courage would have scotched the violent extremism of groups like al-Qaida.

This is how I argued this point in my 2004 article:

Above all, the question that the hijackers of 9-11 pose to their Islamic compatriots is this: “What have you risked to oppose your own tyrants, your own ruling cliques, tribes and sectaries, who are so easily co-opted by foreign powers, who have worked so treacherously to enslave their own peoples, who sell off their national treasures, and who have secretly worked with Israel to complete the dismantling of Palestinian society?”

“We engage in this violence against the United States,” they say, “because you force us to, because you have failed to act against the American surrogates in your own countries. Because you have failed to act politically and with courage, we send you this message of horror, of shame. We advertise your shame before the world. We announce the failure of a billion and a half people – keepers of the Qur’an and heirs to a moral civilization – to overthrow the craven ruling classes who commit treachery against their own societies, their own history, every day that they cling to power.”

“Mobilize now,” they repeat, “and we will join again your political struggle at home – in the Islamic lands stretching from Mauritania to Mindanao, from Bosnia to Borneo, from Jerusalem to Jakarta, from Tangier to Tanzania, and from Karachi to Kasghar. If you are willing to struggle, to fight, to secure your own homes, your own societies, your enemies cannot bind you through surrogates. America and Israel will have to fight you in your lands. Is America ready to fight a billion and a half people in their own streets, their own squares, their own backyards?”

“God,” the hijackers taunt, “does not change the condition of a people unless they want to change it themselves.”

Some ten years later, the Arab peoples are answering al-Qaida’s taunt. Arab peoples, leaderless and unarmed, have risen against their tyrannies. They have already overthrown two tyrants – in Tunisia and Egypt. Their revolt is spreading to other Arab countries: and if they are not rolled back, it will spread to other corrupt tyrannies in the world.

At no time has al-Qaida been more marginal than it is now. What young man will now answer their call to launch terrorist attacks against local tyrannies or their foreign backers? The attacks of al-Qaida gave the United States the excuse it needed to launch its ‘global war against terror’ – to invade, occupy and destroy two Muslim countries and launch attacks against many more.

This must worry the US and Israel a great deal. Very rapidly, their concocted rationale for waging wars against Muslims lands will lose its credibility with Americans.

The US and its allies must be working overtime to stop the Arab revolt in its tracks, to prevent it from spreading to Jordan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the United States and its allies will work – and no doubt are working – to save as much of the old regime as possible. In Egypt – at the moment – the US has supported a coup that will allow the military generals, all of them Mubarak loyalists, to ‘manage the transition.’ Will the Egyptian people stand for this? If they want the generals out, will they succeed? Will the US support the people or the generals?

No doubt the US and Israel have a strong interest in opposing the Arab revolt: the latter more than the former.

At the same time, sober heads in the US understand the risks of neutralizing the surge of people power in the Arab world. Pushing back this revolt, or encouraging the military to cheat the Arab peoples of the fruits of their victory, will hand the victory to al-Qaida.

Angry and frustrated, some Arabs will want to oppose their tyrannies by violent means. Others may swell the ranks of al-Qaida, convinced that they cannot defeat the ‘near enemy’ unless they first weaken the resolve of the ‘far enemy.’

Israelis, however, see the Arab revolt as a disaster. It threatens to bring down the Arab tyrannies that have worked with Israel to keep the Palestinians down. Israel will lobby the United States mightily to stand against the Arab revolt.

At this juncture, the United States faces a clear choice between the Arab peoples and al-Qaida. Can we hope that this time the United States will choose wisely?

– M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave, 2009) and Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (Macmillan, 2000). He contributed this article to

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