Today’s videotape from Al Qaeda may be something more than business as usual, not because the spokesman is Adam Gadahn, AKA Azzam the American, but because the message contains a formal invitation to convert or submit: “We invite all Americans and believers to Islam, whatever their role and status in Bush and Blair’s world order. Decide today, because today could be your last day.”
I happen to be reading Wahhabi Islam by Natana J. Delong-Bas and found a footnote that informs me that not only Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, eponymous founder of the school of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, but a consensus of Islamic scholars insist that the enemy must be summoned to Islam before the initiation of war. In this context, the Gadahn statement strikes me as just the kind of formal nicety that zealots somehow think will have the same meaning for non-believers as it does for them. Since it is now September and two obvious days for an attack are approaching, Labor Day and 9/11, I’m waiting with some trepidation for what happens next.
By the way, just in case the world doesn’t come to an end, let me say a word about Wahhabism because so many people have been influenced by works like Stephen Schwartz’ Two Faces of Islam that trace contemporary militant Islam back to Abd al-Wahhab, a late 18th Century religious leader, even though, as Delong-Bas notes, Wahhab’s uncompromising and rather austere version of Islam does not emphasize holy war on the infidels for the unsurprising reason that the Arabia of his day wasn’t threatened by non-Muslim outsiders. Wahhabism in its later incarnations may have become identified with more fire-breathing versions of the faith—the ferocious Islam of medieval Ibn Taymiyya and the modern Siyyid Qutb, both of whom were responding to external threats—but the original movement was rather like one of the Protestant Great Awakenings, a movement of internal reform, not a call for aggressive war. That doesn’t mean that Wahhabism, even in its early form, wasn’t rather alarming. It was. It just wasn’t more alarming than the contemporary competition and, more to the point, Wahhab’s opinions don’t have very much to do with what people do in his name in 2006. As I never tire of repeating, religions don’t have any bones. They can become anything.