Why do they hate us?
Americans have been asking this question for nearly six years now, and for six years President Bush and his accomplices have been offering the same tired response: "They hate us for our freedoms." With every passing year, that answer becomes less convincing.
Part of the problem has to do with the question itself. Who exactly are they? Are we referring to al-Qaida and its cohorts? Are we talking about Iran, Syria, and the other nation-states whose interests in the Middle East do not properly align with America's? Or perhaps we mean Hamas, Hezbollah, or the myriad religious nationalist organizations across the Muslim world that share neither the ideology nor the aspirations of global, transnational groups like al-Qaida, but that have nevertheless been dumped into the same category: them.
But what is most surprising about this question is how little interest anyone seems to have taken in examining the answers that are already on offer in multiple languages, through various media outlets, and on the Internet, from the very they who allegedly hate us so much. A spate of books has appeared over the last year, gathering the words of America's enemies. The first and best of these is Messages to the World, a collection of Osama Bin Laden's declarations translated by Duke University professor Bruce Lawrence, in which Bin Laden himself dismisses Bush's accusation that he hates America's freedoms. "Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example?"
Now comes a second, more complete collection, The Al Qaeda Reader, edited and translated by Raymond Ibrahim, a research librarian at the Library of Congress. Unlike Lawrence, Ibrahim includes writings from both Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. And while both volumes provide readers with a startling series of religious and political tracts that, when taken together, chart the evolution of a disturbing (if intellectually murky) justification for religious violence, Ibrahim's collection is marred by his insistence that his book be viewed as al-Qaida's Mein Kampf.
The comparison between the scattered declarations of a cult leader literally dwelling in a cave and the political treatise of the commander in chief of one of the 20th century's most powerful nations may be imprecise, to say the least. But Ibrahim's point is that we can learn about al-Qaida's intentions by reading their words, that a book like this can help Americans better understand the nature of the anger directed toward them.
In the most general sense, this is certainly true. But whether a hodgepodge of interviews, declarations, and exegetical arguments can be read as a sort of jihadist manifesto is debatable. While these writings provide readers with page after page of, for example, arcane legal debates over the moral permissibility of suicide bombing, they do not really get to the heart of what it is that al-Qaida wants, if it wants anything at all. Al-Qaida's nominal aspirations—the creation of a worldwide caliphate, the destruction of Israel, the banishing of foreigners from Islamic lands—are hardly mentioned in the book. It seems the president of the United States talks more about al-Qaida's goals than al-Qaida itself does. Rarely, if ever, do Bin Laden and Zawahiri discuss any specific social or political policy.