Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, has heard President Bush’s message on freedom, and feels the itch to debate the point.
Liberty as construed by the Americans, he said, was based on “usurious banks, giant companies, misleading media outlets and the destruction of others for material gain”.
Real freedom was “not the liberty of homosexual marriages and the abuse of women as a commodity to gain clients, win deals or attract tourists,” al-Zawahiri added.
We say liberty, but we mean exploitation; we say freedom, but we mean immorality. Much of this is cant propelled by a great loathing of American power and success. The half-ideas propounded by al-Zawahiri have an old if dishonorable lineage, and by no means originate in religion, much less in Islam. They go back to nineteenth-century Europe – primarily to Germany, which before plunging into two world wars basked in what Germans believed was the superiority of its idealism, compared to the mongrel materialism of the New World.
But al-Zawahiri is a medical doctor, an accomplished killer, and no fool. Let us grant the sincerity of his beliefs, even when expressed in confused jargon. If we parse his words and decipher his meaning, a fascinating moral perspective emerges.
When the President uses the word freedom, he identifies it with opportunity. The multiplication of choices allows us to find a way to excel. This is the basic American proposition, the Jeffersonian faith: that we must be free to pursue happiness, because we will find virtue and honor in the chase.
The faith of Ayman al-Zawahiri is the exact obverse, a looking-glass version of Jefferson’s assumptions about human nature. Freedom here is temptation, and we must, absent divine intervention, succumb. If given free choice between satisfying greed and lust on the one hand, or living a modest and decent life on the other, it is al-Zawahiri’s notion that no sane person would choose the latter. We must be forcibly driven to goodness, by the moral police if necessary. Virtue comes only from submission: that is what the word Islam means.
In his views about freedom, al-Zawahiri merely expresses a commonplace among Islamic theocrats. When Ayatollah Khomeini called the U.S. the “Great Satan,” most Westeners assumed he meant we were a great evil: no doubt he meant that, but he meant above all that we were the great tempter.
To my simple American mind, that is a very strange line of reasoning: that one should be abominated because one gives people what they most deeply want. Yet on this point will turn the moral contest we – in our own bit of confused jargon – call the war on terror.