In the months and years following Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist group that carried out the attacks on the United States was seen, at least by some Muslims, as somewhat heroic. That terrorist group, the Islamic fundamentalist collective known as al-Qaida, and its leader, Osama bin Laden, had reacted to what it and many other Muslims considered to be U.S. oppression and occupation in the Middle East. In striking the Pentagon and World Trade Center, al-Qaida hit directly at the heart of the enemy Americans in their government and financial centers.
Bin Laden, whom U.S. forces killed in early May of this year, was a Muslim fundamentalist who saw the world in terms of a basic dichotomy between believer and infidel. In his rhetoric, he stressed what he saw as the oppression of the Muslim world by the unbelievers of the West.
“Osama bin Laden succeeded in articulating widespread grievances, so for a while at least there was a certain perception of bin Laden as a hero, standing up to the imperialists,” says University of Maine anthropologist Henry Munson, who has since the early 1980s studied fundamentalism and religion as they relate to violence, politics and nationalism. “You had that perception even among some Arabs who would have been horrified at the thought actually of living under a government led by bin Laden.”
A decade after the day bin Laden-directed zealots hijacked four airplanes, felled the World Trade Center, and killed thousands in the worst-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Islamic fundamentalism is still thriving in the Middle East in the form of groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Munson stresses that each is very different, with very different agendas, although they all endorse states based on Islamic law. It’s difficult to predict the roles they will play, especially as we look at the region through the lens of recent pro-democracy movements and as the fallout from bin Laden’s death continues to be assessed.
“The Islamic movements often articulate resentment of foreign domination in terms of a basic dichotomy of us versus them, or believer versus infidel, but it is a mistake to ignore the nationalistic and social grievances these groups exploit,” Munson says. “Trying to weaken these movements by military means is often counterproductive in that it increases the very resentment of foreign domination — and occupation — that drives some Muslims to support such groups.”