Thinking About Terrorism

July 23, 2011

What gives rise to terrorism? A set of student readings explore this difficult question with profiles of two terrorists and information about their motivations and beliefs.

"The history, culture, and body of beliefs from which bin Laden has shaped and spread his message are largely unknown to many Americans."
—9/11 Commission Report


To the Teacher:

"The history, culture, and body of beliefs" that give rise to terrorism do not get the attention they deserve. The four readings below do deal with these matters and are therefore controversial. The first two offer profiles of Al Qaeda terrorists Kamel Daoudi and Osama bin Laden. The third provides information about their motivations and beliefs and the extent to which they appear to be shared by other Muslims. The fourth reading offers information on U.S. policies in the Middle East. After each reading, there are questions for discussion. Suggestions for classroom activities follow the fourth reading.

Considering the views of Al Qaeda terrorists and examining American policies that have contributed to those views will be anathema to some. But controversy is the lifeblood of democracy, and education demands it.

In addition to the materials here, teachers may also find useful the following, all of which are available on this website:
"Teaching on Controversial Issues", "Islam and the West;" "Oil: Saudi Arabia, the United States & Osama bin Laden;" and several sets of materials on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which include readings on U.S. policies toward it and the U.S. relationship with Israel.


Reading 1:

Profile of Kamel Daoudi, Terrorist

Rarely do we get a glimpse into the minds of people who commit terrorist acts. One such glimpse comes from an essay written in 2002 by 27-year-old Kamel Daoudi from his French prison cell. Daoudi was arrested soon after 9/11 on charges of participating in an Al Qaeda plot to blow up the American Embassy in Paris.

"My name is Kamel Daoudi....I was born in Algeria on the third of August 1974," Daoudi wrote. "My father was working in France to meet the needs of his large family. My childhood, in spite of my poor mother's poverty, was a happy one....In the summer of 1979, when I was about to turn five, my father came to get take us to France."

Daoudi's father was a hospital worker and pushed his son to excel in school, telling him, "You must work twice as hard because you are a foreigner," and beating him with a wooden paddle when he didn't. Soon his father was making enough money for his family to move from a working class section of Paris to a middle class neighborhood.

"In school I was a brilliant student and I was often the only Arab in the class," Daoudi wrote. Daoudi was also two years younger than most of his classmates.
"People were jealous of me because of my good grades but they made fun of me for the way I acted and for my excessive modesty in the eyes of French children. They made jokes about my first name." (In Arabic, Daoudi means "perfection.")

Daoudi made friends with poorer students by doing their homework. "I decided to learn as many languages as possible-English, then Spanish. I took courses in Arabic....Then I went to senior high where I continued with Latin and also learned ancient Greek."

At the Museum of Natural History he was fascinated by the dinosaur skeletons. Influenced by the Indiana Jones movies, he went on imaginary safaris. He thought about an exciting career as a fighter pilot but, because of his poor eyesight decided to study science and engineering. He went to the University of Paris.

By this time Daoudi's homeland, Algeria, was in turmoil. In 1992 its government canceled elections to prevent an Islamist party from winning. A violent struggle between the government's security forces and Islamic groups erupted.
Thousands of Algerians died.

"The West hated us because we were Arabs and Muslims," Daoudi wrote. "France did everything possible to ensure that Algeria would not be an Islamic state. It backed an illegitimate...regime by sending weapons, helicopters, and even the Foreign Legion....The massacres committed by the Algerian army were the last straw for me." Massacres were also committed by the Islamic forces. "I could no longer study serenely....From that moment on I didn't want anything to do with the West."

Daoudi's political views were also influenced by a decline in family income. Daoudi, his parents and three siblings were evicted from their home and had to move to a poor suburb of Paris. "There were only two choices left for me, either to sink into a deep depression, and I did for more than six months at the end of my second year at university, or to react by taking part in the universal struggle....I then understood that the only person worth devoting my life to was Allah." Daoudi began to reeducate himself.

"I had to succeed by acquiring enough political tools so that I could know my enemy well and fight back. I discovered the great contemporary writers of political Islam.... I knew that a victory of Islam over the West was possible. I decided to go to Algiers in the middle of the war.... For four months I saw the situation with my own eyes and experienced...the intervention of the Algerian military security forces. Had it not been for my belief that armed groups had already been infiltrated by the Algerian security services, I would probably have joined up with the partisans who wanted to introduce Islamic law into Algeria.

"France was a major protagonist in this conflict.... I could not accept the fact that the former colonial power was continuing to control my country's destiny when so many women, children and men had been tortured, massacred, raped and assassinated.... The Algerian war, the Bosnian war, the gulf war, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Palestine... óall of these events strengthen my conviction that the Judeo-Christian community influenced by atheism has a visceral hatred of the community of Muhammad.... [Muhammad, an Arabian prophet, was the founder of Islam.] The West hated us because we were Arabs and Muslims....

"I understood...why Muhammad said, 'I came with the sword on judgment day.' My battle was and will be to eradicate all powers that are opposed to the law of Allah [God], the most high, whatever the price may be, because only our creator has the power to make laws and any system based on the laws of men is artifice and lies. This glorious battle will not stop until the law of Allah has been reestablished and applied by a just and honest caliph."

Daoudi became a jihadi.

Jihad is an Arabic word that means "to strive in the way of God." Many Muslims see jihad as referring to a purely spiritual struggle. According to Albert Hourani, author of A History of the Arab Peoples, the duty of jihad was based on a saying from the Quran (Islam's book of sacred writing): "O you who believe, fight the unbelievers who are near you." Terrorists have used the term to provide religious justification for their acts. However, Islamic law forbids harm to non-combatants. Verse 190 in Chapter 2 of Quran reads: "Fight in the path of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits. God does not love transgressors."

Having graduated with an engineering degree, Daoudi ran a government-subsidized computer cafe in a Paris suburb. Later, he was charged by French counterterrorism specialists with using his position to communicate with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Soon after 9/11 he was arrested on charges of participating in an Al Qaeda plot possibly approved by Osama bin Laden to blow up the American embassy in Paris.

In prison, Daoudi concluded his essay: "My ideological commitment is total and the reward of glory for this relentless battle is to be called a terrorist. I accept the name of terrorist if it is used to mean that I terrorize a one-sided system of iniquitous power and a perversity that comes in many forms."

The trials of Daoudi and other suspects, who have been investigated for three years, may begin in 2005.

(Sources: Jonathan Randal, Osama: The Making of a Terrorist and a New York Times reprint of English translation excerpts from Daoudi's French essays, 9/22/02)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do you suppose that many years after his negative early school experiences Daoudi still remembers them?

3. What happened to turn Daoudi against the West?

4. What do you know about the Bosnian war, the gulf war, Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Palestine that could have strengthened Daoudi's growing conviction that "the Judeo-Christian community influenced by atheism has a visceral hatred of the community of Muhammad?"

5. How would you explain why Daoudi became a terrorist? What did he hope to accomplish?


Reading 2:

Profile of Osama bin Laden, Terrorist

Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was a tall man with a pockmarked face and a blind right eye. He never learned to read or write. Born in Yemen, he walked out of his homeland in the late 1920s and ended up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He worked as a porter at the docks; he became a bricklayer; he got a handyman's job at the royal palaces. In the early 1930s he started a small construction company and became a favorite of King Abdulaziz. He built roads and palaces for the king and got the job of repairing and improving the mosques in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, Islam's holiest sites. He became enormously wealthy.

Along the way, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden fathered 54 children by more than 20 different mothers. In 1957, Osama bin Laden became the seventeenth of 24 boys. His mother, Alia Ghanem, came from a Syrian working-class family and may not have been married to Mohammed. She later married another man, and it was in this family that Osama bin Laden grew up. He was only 10 when his father died in a plane crash, leaving behind his construction company and a huge fortune.

Osama's growing up seems to have been normal, though privileged. He played soccer and was a polite and serious student at a school he attended with princes and other members of Saudi Arabia's elite. He developed a reputation of being very religious. One of his half brothers said he "is more religious and had a different mentality from the rest of us." Osama "was concerned about sex, drugs, going abroad and doing wrong things, not attending prayer in mosques, talking dirty." At 17 he married a Syrian woman, Najwa, and moved in with his mother and stepfather.

As a young man, bin Laden was strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in Egypt. An underground group, it wanted to end British colonial rule in Egypt and all Western influences in their country. Its program also included the overthrow of Egypt's secular government and a return to what the Brotherhood regarded as the golden age of Islam's early years.

In Egypt in 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser, a secular nationalist, led an army coup that overthrew King Farouk and the Egyptian monarchy. A conflict soon followed with the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose members were imprisoned and tortured. Some of these Muslim Brotherhood fighters escaped to Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries, where they became teachers. Probably some of these teachers introduced bin Laden to the writings of 20th century Islamic political authors who urged resistance to Western domination and to Muslim rulers subservient to Western interests.

In 1979, a series of coups in Afghanistan brought a communist government to power. It launched radical changes, including land reform and co-education (educating males and females together), that were bitterly opposed by many Afghans. This led to armed revolt against the communist government. The leaders of communist Soviet Union, which shared a 1500-mile border with Afghanistan, feared the revolt would result in a nationalist Muslim government in Afghanistan—and possibly foment rebellion in Muslim-dominated sections of the Soviet Union.

Late in 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to support its communist government. The U.S., the Soviet Union's Cold War rival, was already supporting the Afghan revolt. In an address to the nation, President Carter declared, "This invasion is an extremely serious threat to peaceóbecause of the threat of further Soviet expansion into neighboring countries in Southwest Asia.... [it] threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a stepping-stone to possible control over much of the world's oil supplies." (1/4/80)

Tens of thousands of additional Afghans joined the Afghanistan revolt, as did jihadis from Arab countries. Osama bin Laden was among them. The American Central Intelligence Agency collaborated with the intelligence service of neighboring Pakistan to supply weapons, surveillance information, and training of jihadis. The CIA trained the anticommunist fighters in how to create and use explosives and remote control devices for triggering bombs and mines as well as a variety of methods for killing people and for extracting information from prisoners.

According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, the key leaders of major terrorist attacks later in New York, France, and Saudi Arabia were veterans who learned their skills in the Afghan jihad. Bin Laden was not a fighter but worked as a recruiter of jihadis, contributed some of the fortune he had inherited, raised additional money, and was a chief contractor for a CIA project to build a tunnel under Afghan mountains close to the Pakistan border that was used to cache weapons and for training and medical care.

For ten years jihadi insurgents fought the Soviets in a war that killed and maimed tens of thousands and devastated the country. By 1989 the Soviets had had enough and withdrew their troops. That same year bin Laden met with other jihad leaders to decide on their future and created Al Qaeda (Arabic for "the base"). Its training camps would be in Afghanistan. After the Soviet pullout, there were several years of civil war. Eventually the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, enforcing a very strict interpretation of Islam.

During the Afghan war, Osama bin Laden had been an ally of the U.S. Less than two years later, bin Laden became an enemy of the U.S. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, which borders on Saudi Arabia. Fearing for their own security, Saudi leaders permitted the U.S. to build military bases in their country for the U.S.-led war against Iraq. From bin Laden's point of view, this defiled the country of his birth. He became a harsh critic of the rulers of his native land for allowing the U.S. military presence. Saudi Arabia had become, in bin Laden's mind, "an agent of the U.S."

In 1998 Osama bin Laden delivered a fatwa, or religious edict: "For over seven years [beginning in 1990] the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.

"We—with God's help—call on every Muslim who believes in comply with God's order to kill the Americans....The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the holy mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."

The Saudi government revoked bin Laden's citizenship in 1994. He moved to Sudan for a time, but after American pressure on that country, he left for Afghanistan and established a close relationship with the Taliban regime there. After 9/11 President Bush vowed that the U.S. would get him "dead or alive." But nobody has gotten him yet.

The U.S. government considers bin Laden to be the top leader of Al Qaeda, a loosely-knit network responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Al Qaeda has also been linked to devastating attacks on military installations and apartment complexes in Saudi Arabia, American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen, and other attacks over the past dozen years. These terrorist assaults have killed or injured thousands of people.

(Sources: Jonathan Randal, Osama: The Making of a Terrorist and Mahmood
Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How was the young Osama bin Laden different from his classmates?

3. What role did the Muslim Brotherhood play in influencing Osama bin Laden's ideas?

4. Why did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan? What was the reaction of President Carter and the U.S.? Jihadis? Osama bin Laden?

5. Why did bin Laden become an enemy of his native country, Saudi Arabia? Why did he become an enemy of the U.S.? Specifically, what charges did he make against America? What explanation can you give for each one?


Reading 3:

Al Qaeda's "Body of Beliefs"

"The history, culture, and body of beliefs from which bin Laden has shaped and spread his message are largely unknown to many Americans."
óReport by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9-11 Commission)


Part I: The Importance of Knowing Your Enemy

Most people in the U.S. or any other country agree that terrorism is a great evil, that there is no negotiating with terrorists, that they are killers who should be imprisoned or killed. As Kerry says (and Bush would agree): "The terrorists are beyond reason. We must destroy them." (9/20/04) Similarly, conservative columnist David Brooks writes, "What drives the terrorists to do this? What are they trying to achieve?.... This death cult has no reason and is beyond negotiation. This is what makes it so frightening." (New York Times, 9/7/04)

Is it worth trying to inform ourselves about terrorists and what motivates them? The 9/11 Commission suggests that it is. The fundamental reason is simple enough. If you don't know your enemies, you may unwittingly create more of them. You may even lose opportunities to prevent their emergence in the first place. Among other things, knowing your enemies means:

  • Considering how people whose history, culture, and body of beliefs are different from your own are reacting or are likely to react to your policies and actions. Such consideration may lead you to go ahead with the policies anywayóor cause you to rethink them.
  • Paying attention to what motivates your enemies and what they say and do. In the book Adolf Hitler wrote in prison, Mein Kampf ("My Battle"), he was very clear about how he viewed Jews and his ambitions for Germany. But few people paid attention to those views and ambitions when the book was publishedóor even when Hitler came to power and began to act on them.
  • Recognizing differences among your enemies. A young Palestinian who becomes a suicide bomber for Hamas and blows himself up at a bus stop in Israel is not the same as the young Algerian man who planned to blow up the American embassy in Paris and might have become a suicide bomber for Al Qaeda. A Chechen terrorist who takes children, teachers, and parents hostage in a Russian school is not the same as Osama bin Laden, who led Al Qaeda in its successful plot for the 9/11 attacks. The goal of Hamas terrorists is limited to destroying Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian state. The goal of Chechen terrorists is limited to driving Russia out of Chechnya and establishing an independent Chechen state.But Al Qaeda's goal is far more ambitious than that of Palestinian or Chechen terrorists. In the short run, it aims to seize power in Muslim nations ruled by what Al Qaeda regards as corrupt and infidel leaders. In the long run, it aims to unite all Muslims in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and Eastern Asia into one country.

Part II: What Al Qaeda Believes

From what they have said, written, and done, it is clear that Daoudi, bin Laden, and others in Al Qaeda believe the following.

1. Al Qaeda believes that Westerners hate Muslims and dominate their countries.

This belief has its roots in historical fact. Beginning in the 18th century, Western powers invaded Muslim lands, ruled them as colonies, and often treated the people in them as inferiors. Britain gained control of Muslim lands in India, in what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh, in Egypt, and in the Sudan. France took over Algeria, Tunisia, and southern Morocco. The Netherlands became the colonial power in Indonesia, Italy ruled Libya, Spain controlled northern Morocco and the Philippines (later, the U.S. controlled the Philippines). Germany took control of East Africa, Malaysia, and Portugal (which was later controlled by the Dutch and then the British). Russia dominated the Caucasus and Central Asia.

After World War I and the defeat of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Britain took over Palestine and Iraq. And France gained control of Lebanon and Syria. In the years since World War II, the Western powers have given up or been driven from these colonies.

But as Al Qaeda views it, the West—and especially the U.S.—continues to manipulate and control Muslim lands. A prime example is the United States' unwavering political, military, and economic support for Israel. With U.S. support, Israel oppresses and murders Muslim Palestinians and robs them of their land. The U.S. does nothing when Israel ignores UN resolutions. But when Iraq ignored UN resolutions, the U.S. condemned and then invaded that Muslim country.

The U.S., France, and other Western countries supported the Algerian government when it canceled elections that Islamist parties looked likely to win. Thus, the U.S. condemns undemocratic practices in Muslim countries like Iran, but supports undemocratic practices in Algeria that suppress Muslims.

From Al Qaeda's perspective, the American military presence in Saudi Arabia defiles their holy land. Saudi Arabia's acceptance of U.S. protection and its grant of military bases during the Gulf War was an abomination. Other abominations, Al Qaeda believes, are the $2 billion subsidy the U.S. provides to Egypt each year and the hundreds of millions it provides to Pakistan. These payments, in Al Qaeda's opinion, are America's way of bribing corrupt Muslim leaders to get what it wants in Muslim countries.

In Al Qaeda's view, the U.S. war on and occupation of Iraq is yet another example of the U.S.'s determination to dominate Muslim lands. The U.S. claims that it has "liberated" Iraq, but every day Americans kill not just insurgents but also children and men and women going about their daily lives. Since the U.S. war on Iraq began, probably 20,000 or more Iraqi civilians have been killed and thousands of others injured—some in bombings by Iraqi insurgents, but most in American bombings or other military action. Al Jazeera, the Arab TV network, has covered in detail the war's effects on ordinary Iraqis. It has also provided the Arab world with details about the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere by American forces. On the other hand, from Al Qaeda's view, these U.S. acts have helped Al Qaeda recruit more terrorists by further inflaming the Muslim world against America.

2. Al Qaeda looks to Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb for major insights and a program of action.

In 1928 a young Egyptian school teacher, Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) founded the Society of Muslim Brothers (which also became known as the Muslim Brotherhood). When asked about the Society's purpose, al-Banna wrote that Brothers should "reply that it is Islam, the message of Muhammad." Al-Banna believed that Muslims had fallen away from true Islam, partly because of their own mistakes and partly because of Western domination, which brought with it foreign values like secularism. Al-Banna believed the Quran provided Muslims with a total way of life, but that it needed to be interpreted in the light of modern life.

Al-Banna believed that Egypt should become an Islamic state based on a reformed shari'a, or Islamic law. In Al-Banna's view:

  • only those rulers who opposed foreign colonial rule (like Britain's rule in Egypt) should be regarded as legitimate
  • education and the economy should be based on religious principles
  • females should be educated and allowed to work, but separately from males
  • Western secularism should be avoided.

In its reform work the Society founded hospitals, built factories and schools, fought poverty and social injustice, and offered training in Quranic living.

A later member of the Muslim Brotherhood and also an Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966; his last name is pronounced KUH-tahb), had a more radical vision than al-Banna. Al-Banna was a reformist willing to work within the state system. Qutb thought real reform meant returning to the origins of Islam and remaking Muslim society. This represented a serious challenge to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who jailed and then executed Qutb. But Qutb's books lived after him as powerful teachings to men like Daoudi and bin Laden.

For Qutb, Western colonialism and imperialism were wrong. But even worse was the Western way of life. At its heart was secularism, the separation of church and state. "That was the origin of modern miseryóthe anxiety in contemporary society, the sense of drift, the purposelessness, the craving for false pleasures," Paul Berman writes in his summary and analysis of Qutb's philosophy. ("The Philosopher of Modern Terror," New York Times Magazine, 3/23/03)

In Qutb's view, the only true Islamic life depended upon Allah and Allah's book, the Quran, the source of all true guidance for life. Religion was the issue that stood between the West and Islam. Centuries earlier Christian Crusaders had tried to destroy Islam. They were still trying to destroy it, as were the Zionists (supporters of Israel as a Jewish homeland). Westerners had defeated the Islamic Ottoman Empire in World War I, and in 1924 the Turk, Kemal Ataturk, had abolished what Muhammad himself had established in the 7th centuryóa caliphate. (The word caliph comes from the Arabic word "successor," referring to an Islamic ruler who was a successor to Muhammad. A caliphate, then, would be the Islamic rule of a caliph.)

Qutb burned to restore that caliphate and the glorious Muslim rule of Muhammad and his successors. That meant defeating not only the Western infidels but also degraded Muslims who polluted the Islamic world with false Western ideasómaterialism and greed, capitalism, individualism, moral looseness. Qutb's prescription was for the true believers in Islam to live right now according to Quranic principles. True believers must also accept their obligation to become jihadis, dedicated fighters, Islamic warriors who would do whatever was necessary to create once again a community of believers in a new caliphate. This meant violence and martyrdom. Such jihadis in 1981 assassinated Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian successor to Nasser who had agreed to peace with Israel. They tried in the following year to overthrow Syrian leader Hafiz al-Assad, a secular Muslim. They were fighters in the Afghan jihad. They formed Al Qaeda. They took down the World Trade Center.

3. Al Qaeda believes that Muslims have a religious duty to kill their oppressors, drive them from Muslim lands, and return to Allah's Laws and the kind of government Islam had in its golden years.

Under Muhammad's energizing and powerful leadership in the first part of the 7th century all of Arabia was unified under Islam, which in Arabic means "submission," submission to Allah. By a century after Muhammad's death in 632, his Islamic followers had conquered the Middle East to the borders of India and China, North Africa and Spain. Muslims may have lived far apart from one another, but they formed an unmah, or community of believers who had the right relationship with Allah and with one another. A rich Islamic civilization developed under the caliphates that produced great writers, mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, architects, and medical scholars. Islamic scholars preserved Greek learning that would otherwise have been lost during the Middle Ages and laid the groundwork for the later Renaissance and the scientific revolution possible in Western Europe.

Daoudi, bin Laden, and Al Qaeda believe that it is possible to restore, in one big new Muslim country, the religious, political, social, economic, and cultural unity that Islam once had under the caliphs. But first, Muslims must remove infidel rulers and "destroy the laws, institutions, and social customs that they have introduced, so as to return to a purely Islamic way of life, in accordance with the principles of Islam and the rules of the Holy Law." (Bernard Lewis, "The Revolt of Islam," The New Yorker, 11/19/01)

The Soviets' failure to subjugate Afghanistan in the 1980s and their forced retreat from that country was a demonstration of the power of jihad, bin Laden and his allies believe. Jihadis can now contribute to the defeat of the U.S. in Iraq.

"Al Qaeda has succeeded in several of its main goals," writes Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan. "It had been trying to convince Muslims that the United States wanted to invade Muslim lands, humiliate Muslim men, and rape Muslim women. Most Muslims found this charge hard to accept. The Bush administration's Iraq invasion, along with the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal, was perceived by many Muslims to validate bin Laden's wisdom and foresightedness...."

Part III: To What Extent Do Other Muslims Share Al Qaeda's Beliefs?

It is difficult to make generalizations about the beliefs of the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwideóor even of the lesser number who live in the Middle East. But most Muslims seem to oppose rigid governments of the Taliban variety and to favor leadership that both shows respect for their religion and offers moderate Islamic rule. Only perhaps a few thousand Muslims are Al Qaeda members. Most Muslims are not terrorists and do not want a return to a medieval Muslim caliphate. They do not want to be controlled by the U.S. either, any more than Americans would want to be controlled by Algeria or Saudi Arabia. They know that Western powers once ruled them and believe that the U.S., in particular, now bribes and manipulates Muslim leaders.

Additional Sources:
Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples and
Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Do you think it is important to know something about "the history, culture, and body of beliefs" that motivate Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda terrorists? Why or why not?

3. Why does Al Qaeda and why do so many Muslims believe that the U.S. wants to dominate their countries? that the U.S. is hypocritical? that the U.S. attempts to deceive Muslims about their motivations? How justified are these beliefs?

4. What are similarities in the views of al-Banna and Qutb? What are the differences?

5. Why did Qutb believe that religion was the issue that stood between Islam and the West?

6. What is Al Qaeda's goal? How do most Muslims view that goal?


Reading 4:

U.S. Policies and Terrorism

On 9/11, CNN repeatedly showed film of some Palestinians celebrating. They were only a small minority of Palestinians. But the perverse feelings they expressed were undoubtedly shared by others in the Muslim world. From their point of view, the United States was finally learning what it means to lose thousands of citizens, to watch the destruction of buildings that housed key institutions in its economic life, to suffer an attack on those who work to defend the country. The U.S. was getting a taste of the kind of medicine its own foreign policy and actions have inflicted on others. Such losses are nothing new for Palestinians who, among other Muslims in the Middle East, see themselves as victims of U.S. policies that have resulted in violence against them.

People everywhere, and certainly almost all Muslims, agree that nothingóabsolutely nothing—justifies terrorist attacks on civilians.

But "Simply addressing the security aspects of terrorism... as U.S. policy currently does, confronts the symptoms rather than the cause," writes Stephen Zunes, senior analyst and Middle East and North Africa editor at Foreign Policy In Focus. "The struggle against terrorism cannot be won until the United States also ceases its pursuit of policies that have alienated such large segments of the international community, particularly in the Middle East....The United States is a target of terrorists in large part due to its perceived arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed."

"While terrorism can never be justified," Zunes continues, "it is crucial to recognize that the most effective weapon in the war against terrorism would be to take measures that would lessen the likelihood for the United States and its citizens to become targets. This means changing policies that victimize vulnerable populations in ways that currently result in them holding the United States responsible for their suffering and thus becoming easy recruits for anti-American terrorists." (Stephen Zunes,Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism)

Over the past half century, U.S. political leaders have had a history of supporting unpopular and corrupt rulers in the Middle East. In 1953, President Eisenhower gave the CIA the go-ahead to overthrow Iran's democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh. He had alarmed U.S. leaders by nationalizing Iran's oil industry, among other things. The CIA was successful.

The U.S. then installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Iran's king (or "shah"). Pahlavi reopened Iran's oil fields for international investment and attempted to modernize and Westernize Iran. With the help of his CIA-trained secret police, the Shah was also responsible for torturing thousands of Iranian prisoners. Opposition to the Shah grew for decades. In 1979, he was overthrown by a Shiite Muslim leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who established strict clerical rule that continues to this day.

In the 1980s, under President Reagan, the U.S. provided Saddam Hussein—the same Saddam Hussein the U.S. overthrew in 2003—with weapons and military assistance in Iraq's war with Iran. The U.S. did nothing to stop American and European companies that sold Iraq ingredients needed to make chemical weapons. The U.S. also ignored the Hussein regime's later gassing of its own Kurdish citizens. Iran was the U.S. enemy then, not Iraq.

Today U.S. soldiers occupy military bases all over the Middle East, Central Europe, and Asia, including in these Muslim countries: Kosovo, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Kyrgzstan, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Egypt, and Pakistan. The U.S. also maintains a military presence elsewhere in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Camp Anaconda, a new U.S. base in northern Iraq, is intended to house 20,000 troops. Today the U.S. continues to support autocratic rulers in many Middle East countries.

Changing U.S. policy in the Middle East "will not satisfy bin Laden and other extremists, nor should it," says Stephen Zunes. "The United States should never change any policy for the sake of appeasing terrorists. However, changing policies that are already questionable on moral or legal grounds becomes all the more crucial when doing so could also reduce the threat from terrorism, since it will substantially reduce their potential following and—by extensionótheir ability to do damage."

Should the U.S. reexamine and possibly change any of its Middle East policies? This is not a question that Bush and Kerry have discussed in the presidential campaign. Many Americans care deeply about the issue. But U.S. Middle East policies raise difficult, even painful, and controversial questions. The U.S. and Israel have legitimate concerns about Israel's security. However, there are also legitimate concerns about justice for Palestinians. Is the United States contributing to the subjugation, systematic abuse, and dispossession of Palestinians and their lands, as so many Muslims believe? If so, why? If not, why are many Muslims convinced that it is?

Some of the U.S.'s history in the Middle East—including the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and support for dictators like Saddam Hussein—contradicts American democratic ideals. And the presence of so many American military bases in Muslim countries raises unsettling questions about the uses of American power, militaristic policies, and empire-building.

(For more information and discussion of Middle East issues and policies, please see The Current Israeli-Palestinian Conflict; Israel, Palestine, and the United States, Oil: Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Osama bin Laden and other activities on this website.)

For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What U.S. policies in the Middle East do many Muslims find offensive?

3. Do you know of any examples of U.S."arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed" in the Middle East? If so, what?

4. What explanation do you have for U.S. support for Israel over the Palestinians? for Saudi Arabia's autocratic government? for Egypt's? for Pakistan's?

5. Why does the U.S. have military bases in Qatar? Iraq? Uzbekistan?

6. Why do Zunes, Cole, and Semaan argue that the U.S. needs to reconsider its
Middle East policies and change them? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?

7. Why do you think that Bush and Kerry do not discuss these policies?


Suggestions for Classroom Activities


An Inquiry-Oriented Approach

Introduce "The Terrorism Issue" by asking students: What do you know about Al Qaeda? Where does your information come from? Note responses on the chalkboard without comment. Then ask: What do you think you know about Al Qaeda but aren't sure about? Once again, note responses without comment as a basis for possible later study.

Invite a general discussion of the responses:

  • How accurate are they? How do you know?
  • Do any of them contain misinformation? How do you know?
  • Where are there gaps and uncertainties? How might they be checked?

Then ask students what questions they have about Al Qaeda, and note these questions on the chalkboard without comment. Afterwards, begin an analysis of the questions as suggested in "The Doubting Game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking," available on this website.

When the group has agreed on the wording of those questions that seem most worth pursuing, assign students to inquire into these questions, either in groups or independently. You might assign and discuss the four readings as appropriate.


A Current News Approach

Discuss with students a recent act of terrorism attributed to Al Qaeda.

  • What motivates such terrorist acts?
  • What are Al Qaeda's goals? How do you know?

On the basis of this discussion, use the readings and other classroom suggestions for study of basic issues.


For Further Inquiry

U.S. policies and actions in the Middle East may be unknown or unclear to students. Assign students individually or in small groups to investigate the following questions:

  • What evidence is there to support or oppose the common Muslim view that the U.S. favors Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians?
  • President Bush says that he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state. How do you explain why, despite a number of efforts in recent years, the Palestinians still do not have their own state?
  • The U.S. has had a supportive relationship with Saudi Arabia for more than a half century. Why?
  • Why does the U.S. have military bases in such places as Uzbekistan? Qatar? Pakistan?
  • Why and how did the U.S. support Iraq in its war with Iran during the 1980s?
  • Why does the U.S. give Egypt $2 billion yearly in economic and military aid?

Among other possibilities for further inquiry:

  • What are madrassas and why has Saudi Arabia financed them in the Muslim world?
  • What are the origins of Islam?
  • What is the Wahabi brand of Islam and why does Saudi Arabia support it?

A Constructive Controversy

1. Divide students into groups of four, forming two pairs within each group. Ask each pair to take opposite positions on one of the following questions:


  • Should U.S. policy on Israel be changed? Why or why not?
  • Should U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia be changed? Why or why not?
  • Should U.S. policy on the Middle East be changed? Why or why not?

2. Give students time to prepare their arguments and to consult with their partner. They should also feel free to consult with pairs from other teams.

3. Review or teach active listening skills, particularly paraphrasing and summarizing another's position; open-mindedness; being able to disagree respectfully; consensus-building skills; working together.

4. After students have prepared themselves, the pairs in each group should present their case to the other pair in a clearly stated amount of time and without interruption.

5. Each side should be provided time to challenge the other side's arguments without interruption.

6. The four students should decide which arguments are most valid on both sides and prepare a concise presentation to the class that incorporates the best thinking of the group.

7. After each group's presentation has been made to the class, have the class work toward a statement on U.S. policy that embodies the best thinking of the class as a whole. A consensus is desirable but not essential.

(This activity is based on "Constructive Controversy" developed by David and Roger Johnson.)


For Writing

Assign an essay on the issue each student has studied and discussed. Students should take a position on the issue and support their views with evidence and logic.


For Citizenship

Following the completion of their studies on "The Terrorism Issue," have students write letters on a Middle East issue of their choice to President George Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or their senator or representative.

Have students organize a learn-in for their high school on terrorism. One or more of the questions raised in these materials might serve to focus the learn-in. Speakers might include students, teachers, parents, and public officials. Include discussions and workshops following a session with speakers.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: