I wrote this article just a few days after 9/11 (though it had to wait until the first quarter of 2002 to be published in the RTB magazine Facts for Faith). As this month marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this piece.
Extremist Muslim leaders like the late Ayatollah Khomeini and now the infamous terrorist Osama bin Laden are fond of referring to the United States as “the great Satan.” In the Bible the name “Satan” refers to the powerful angelic creature who stands as the evil enemy of God. To identify America as Satan raises several important questions. Do all Muslims agree with this radical assessment of America? What do Muslims like bin Laden actually mean when they make this accusation? How could anyone come to view America this way? And is there any objective rational justification for such a viewpoint?
Historically, the monotheistic religion of Islam is the youngest of the great world religions, emerging six centuries following the rise of Christianity. Presently considered by some scholars as the fastest growing religion in the world, Islam’s strong intellectual tradition includes notable contributions in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and literature. In fact during the early Middle Ages, Islamic culture experienced an intellectual and cultural renaissance through its revival of classic literature while Europeans lived in both intellectual and literal caves.
Traditionally, Islamic culture has maintained a high degree of literacy. As with the Jewish and Christian traditions, one must be literate to read the sacred book, which for Muslims is the Qur’an. With great irony, the present-day rise of Islamic fundamentalism disregards this need for literacy, thereby threatening Islam’s place as a contributor to Western civilization.
Today’s Islam is not a purely monolithic religion. Certainly not all the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Muslims think alike, just as not all the world’s estimated 2 billion Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants) think alike. Historically, Islam is divided into two major branches. Sunni Muslims (almost 80% of Islam) represent traditional or “orthodox” Islam and emphasize the written traditions (Qur’an, Hadith). This branch seeks a consensus of Islamic thought.
The Shi’ite Muslims (almost 20% of Islam) represent Islam’s largest minority sect and emphasize individual authorities called Imams over consensus. The major dispute between these two branches historically centers on the issue of religious authority. The question of who should be considered the legitimate successor to Muhammad (AD 570–632), also known as the prophet of Allah (literally translated “the God”), lies at the core.
Islam involves moderates and extremists on both political and religious grounds. The Sunnis historically distinguish between civil and religious authorities; however, the Shi’ites combine the two roles of mosque and state. One reason for the current growth of Islamic fundamentalism may be that many Islamic countries, as totalitarian theocracies, deny their people basic civil rights—such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. Thus, Islamic fundamentalist propaganda deeply shapes the view of America held by many millions of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. Many Muslims around the world therefore lack an objective view of America.
Bin Laden, though a Sunni Muslim by birth (born in Saudi Arabia), possesses an extremist mentality. His terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda, blends a radical political agenda with a militant approach to Islam. They promote a platform designed to bring about a jihad (“holy war”) against so-called enemies of Allah. In this scheme, America stands as enemy number one—the “great Satan” who must be destroyed.
What could possibly generate such hatred toward America? Why would anyone call for an attack killing thousands of American citizens, mostly civilians, in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and on United Flight 93? The following dogmas motivate Al-Qaeda’s desire for a holocaust within the boundaries of the United States.
- Zionism promotes the establishment of an Israeli state. Bin Laden incites anger with the view that Western colonial and imperialist powers (the United States and Great Britain) took Islamic land away from Palestinians and gave it to Islam’s enemy, the Jews. The Israelis espouse different religious beliefs and simply represent an extension of a greater evil, that evil being America.
Extremist Muslim beliefs regarding the Israeli-American relationship take two different forms. In one interpretation Muslim extremists hate America because America helps Israel. The other explanation declares that Muslim extremists hate Israel because Israel is America’s puppet. This agenda characterizes Israel as a demon and America as the great Satan.
- Viewed as a colonial/imperialist nation, America flexes its power and imposes its will and political ideas on innocent Islamic people. America unduly exercises economic and political influence on autonomous Islamic nations and thus weakens their Islamic identity and independence.
- Al-Qaeda views the West, and particularly America, as embracing a decadent philosophy of life, especially in the area of moral values. They fiercely resent the West’s permissive view of sexuality. In addition, followers of bin Laden deplore American democracy and the freedoms it offers, especially the freedom and equality afforded to women.
- Bin Laden recognizes Islam’s decline as a world power. He wants to restore militant Islam to a place of dominance on the world scene. However, his organization knows that against America’s military might, they are stymied. In light of this frustration, they choose terror, the only effective tactic they can conceive.
These four dogmas reflect a tortured interpretation of the facts and a fractured and inadequate worldview. Imaging America as the great Satan conveniently ignores America’s remarkable altruistic actions over the past hundred years.
America entered World War I in 1917, not for colonial or imperialist purposes, but to defend democracy. The United States’ involvement proved a determining factor in the allies’ ultimate victory. President Woodrow Wilson sought not the spoils of war, but rather to promote democracy among America’s former enemies.
Prior to entering World War II, America sent millions of dollars worth of weapons and goods to England and the Soviet Union in the Lend-Lease policy to aid them in the war against Germany. The United States then entered World War II in 1941 to counter the tyranny and oppression of the Axis powers—Germany, Japan, and Italy. Again this action proved the decisive factor in the Allies’ victory. Following World War II, America emerged as an undisputed superpower. With more than eleven million men in arms, a three-ocean navy, and the only nuclear weapons on Earth, if America had indeed pursued imperialist goals it could have oppressed and devoured virtually any nation.
Instead, through the Marshall Plan, America spent billions of dollars rebuilding Western Europe and restoring Western Germany to positions of political and economic stability. The same type of aid went to Japan. America gave billions of dollars, shared technology, provided a market for Japanese goods, and defended Japan from potential enemies.
Germany and Japan both became thriving democracies. In the past twenty-five years, these nations have risen to the status of industrial giants, competing with America in terms of GNP. Surely America sees that its best interests lie in rebuilding former enemies, enabling them to become viable alternatives to totalitarianism and ensuring no need to fight them again. But what would Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden have done in America’s position?
America has shown a great deal of goodwill specifically toward Islamic countries in the last twenty years. The United States helped Afghanistan defend against the raw aggression of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s. America drove Saddam Hussein’s invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and protected a vulnerable Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War during the early 1990s. In Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, America intervened by sending goods and military forces to protect Muslims.
Though admittedly far from perfect, America is a decent and generous country. In light of this goodness, if America is indeed the great Satan, then the Devil has converted.