Coptic Christians, al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower

By Dennis Gruending

Sayyid QutbEarly on the morning of January 1 Coptic Christians were leaving Saints Church in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria after celebrating midnight mass. A suicide bomber waiting outside set off explosives that killed 21 people and injured almost 100 others. The attack also led to concern in Canada as Eastern Rite Christians prepared to celebrate their Christmas on January 7. More than 100 Canadian-Arab Coptic Christians had been named and threatened on an al-Qaeda affiliated website, allegedly for “defaming” Islam and attempting to convert Muslims. Despite the threats, most churches went ahead with services, although there was talk of added security by the RCMP and private firms. Back in Alexandria, Egyptian authorities were uncertain if foreign al-Qaeda operatives had slipped into the country or if the suicide bombing was the work of homegrown Islamic extremists.

Killing enemy combatants in wars is bad enough but killing unsuspecting civilians as they worship, ride buses or subways, travel on airplanes or eat restaurant meals is unspeakable. How can anyone or any ideology – religious or secular – justify these acts? The Quran does contain numerous exhortations to violence, and the same can be said of the Old Testament. But the general thrust of both books is that killing another human being is a great crime and that killing yourself (suicide) is also a crime. The Quran says that Muslims shall not kill anyone except as a punishment for murder.

Sayyid Qutb

Recently, I read The Looming Tower, a book by American writer Lawrence Wright (2006) that provides an insight into how the sacred tenets of Islam have been turned on their head by fundamentalist extremists. Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker and his Pulitzer-prize winning book tells the story of the plot devised by al-Qaeda to attack the World Trade Center and other American targets on September 11, 2001. Wright says that the intellectual justification for suicide attacks and the mass murder of civilians began with Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb and it continues with one of his acolytes, the Egyptian doctor Ayam al-Zawahiri, who in turn has been a mentor to Osama Bin Laden. This is an over-simplification, of course, but let’s follow the trail.

Sayyid Qutb was a frail Egyptian writer and civil servant who actually studied briefly in the United States between 1948 and 1950. He was attracted to American literature and films but he was even more repelled by what he saw as the country’s materialism, its racism, and the frank sensuality displayed by American women. He was also profoundly angered by American support for the creation of Israel, and shared the humiliation of Arabs over their loss in a war with Israel in 1948. “I hate Westerners and despise them,” he wrote.

Qutb’s central preoccupation, says Wright, was modernity: “Modern values – secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism – had infected Islam through the agency of Western colonialism.” Only Islam, Qutb believed, “offered a formula for creating a just and godly society.” He saw Islam as a complete system with laws, social codes, economic rules and its own methods of government. This is theocracy but interestingly Qutb saw it being ushered in by a vanguard that was quite similar to that in Marxist-Leninism, which Qutb hated. Wright says Qutb began to write rationalizations for killing non-Muslims and waging war with the West. He believed that the struggle was between Islam and Western materialism and eventually Islam would prevail. Christianity was the religion of the Americans and the West and it was the archenemy. This was a scenario for a clash of civilizations long before Samuel Huntington used the phrase in the United States.

When he returned to Egypt in 1950, Qutb had resigned from the civil service and became, for the first time, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been created in the 1930s. He was jailed after the attempted assassination of President Nasser in 1954. Qutb had said, in effect, that leaders such as Nasser were apostates who had turned against Islam and were thus the legitimate targets of violence. This was his rationale for ignoring the strict censure in the Quran against Muslims killing other Muslims, and it was a turning point. Qutb was freed from prison in 1964 but was rearrested in 1965, accused of plotting to overthrow the state. He was hanged in August 1966 and he seemed to welcome his fate. He was considered by many to be a martyr, another idea that was to have great influence in the Muslim world. Qutb became in death perhaps the most influential Islamist intellectual of the 20th century.

Ayam al-Zawahiri

Qutb’s ideas went beyond where the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to go but were popular among more radical organizations, which organized in clandestine cells. Nasser died in 1970 and succeeded by Anwar al-Sadat. In 1981, a radical Islamist group called al-Jihad assassinated him. They considered him, too, to be a traitor to Islam because he led a secular government and negotiated a peace treaty with Israel. Ayam al-Zawahiri, then a young medical student, was one of the key figures in the Islamist resistance in Egypt. His uncle had been a friend and aide to Sayyid Qutb and young Zawahiri was embittered and radicalized by Qutb’s execution. Zawahiri’s mission became one of overthrowing the secular Egyptian government and replacing with a theocracy, but he has been unable to live in his country for much of his adult life. His main contribution to the terrorist cause was to come after 1986 when he became an intellectual mentor to the Osama Bin Laden. Zawahiri remains a key leader in al-Qaeda today and likely lives in Pakistan.

Osama Bin Laden

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve in 1979. Bin Laden became a major financial backer for the Afghan resistance. A Saudi whose father had made billions in construction and other industries, Osama had always been serious and devout and was influenced by Wahhabism, a militantly fundamentalist brand of Islam that has long existed in the Arabian peninsula. He contributed his own wealth toward the Afghan war effort but also acted as a conduit for money from a Saudi government adamantly opposed to Soviet expansionism. The Americans, locked in their decades long cold war with the Soviets, also provided money, arms and advisors, much of it routed through the Saudis. It was an odd and perilous alliance – radical Islamists who despised all that the West stood for and the United States, clandestinely supporting a war against the Soviets.

Bin Laden devoted his attention to the Arabs recruited to fight in Afghanistan, providing financial support for them and setting up military camps to train them. Author Wright says that many of those young men came to see themselves as borderless warriors empowered by God to defend the entire Muslim people. They believed in jihad and they had been convinced that there was no greater glory than martyrdom in its service. “Under the spell of the Afghan struggle,” Wright says, “many radical Islamists came to believe that jihad never ends.”

Bin Laden and Zawahiri

By 1986, Dr. Ayam al-Zawahiri was working in a clinic in Peshawar, Pakistan and Bin Laden began to visit him there. Wright says, “Each man filled a need in the other.” Zawhiri needed money for his Egyptian project and Bin Laden, an idealist given to causes, sought direction.” They collaborated in the jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan, but by the time the Soviets began a staged withdrawal in May 1988 Zawahiri, Bin Laden and others were discussing where to go next with their jihad. They formed al-Qaeda even though they were not precisely sure what direction it would take. Wright says that by this time Bin Laden was beginning to speak in “epic tones.”

Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1989 where he became increasingly critical of the regime and of the U.S., particularly after the Gulf War in 1990 and the stationing of American troops in his country. He moved to Sudan in 1992 after Islamists staged a military coup there against the democratically elected government. He engaged in business and further intrigue. The core of his al-Qaeda group followed him and continued to be financially supported by him, working in his burgeoning enterprises. Bin Laden and others came to view Christian America as the ultimate enemy of Islam, much as Qutb had done in the 1950s.

In June 1995, Islamic militants directed by Zawahiri tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek when he arrived in Khartoum for a state visit. Mubarak escaped and came down hard on al-Jihad and other militant groups. As payback, Zawahiri recruited suicide bombers to drive a truck filled with explosives into the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Sixteen people were killed and 60 wounded.

Slaughter of innocents

Some of Zawahiri’s followers were guilt ridden by the death of innocents in the bombing, most or all of them Muslims. “In responding to these objections,” Wright says, “Zawahiri created the theoretical framework to justify the Islamabad bombing and similar al-Qaeda attacks that followed.” There were no innocents in the embassy, according to Zawahiri. They all worked for the Egyptian government and must be considered supporters of the regime. He agreed that some children and also true believers had died, but in an emergency the rules against killing innocents must be relaxed. The bombers, he said, had sacrificed themselves in the cause of God. Anyone who gives his life for the faith is not to be regarded as having committed suicide but rather of submitting to heroic martyrdom. Such people will gain extraordinary rewards in paradise. “With such sophistry,” Wright says, “Zawahiri revised the language of the Prophet and opened the door to universal murder.”

Bin Laden was kicked out of Sudan in May 1996 and he moved permanently to Afghanistan, the only state that would have him. It was there that the bombing of September 11, 2001 was conceived and the spiral of violence continues. The U.S. and its allies invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq and the wars in those countries continue still. Attacks either planned by al-Qaeda or inspired by its ideology and tactics have occurred in many countries.

Not all of the victims are Westerners or Christians. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most powerful province, was shot dead early in January by his bodyguard. Taseer’s crime in the eyes of his assassin was to have opposed a blasphemy law in Pakistan that has been widely used to persecute Christians and other minorities. Some religious scholars in Pakistan and at least one of Pakistan’s main political parties have applauded the assassination.

Hope for the future

This is a dismal state of affairs. The withdrawal of Western armies from Iraq and Afghanistan and a resolution to the interminable conflict in Israel and Palestine would remove major root causes of conflict. But it is hard to believe that would satisfy Bin Laden, Zawahiri and so many others who appear committed to war without end. One must hope that moderate Muslims – and there are many — will prevail in the competition for hearts and minds that is affecting their communities.

3 thoughts on “Coptic Christians, al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower

  1. What I find kind of chilling is the parallel between Islam extremists and our own Christian extremists in Canada and in the USA. I don’t see much difference between them, especially not much that I would consider faith-based. Power-based for sure.

    Now what I am wondering is this: within the last generation or so, there has been a growth of extremism in the world and I’m not sure I know exactly why. Is there something missing in the society today that wasn’t missing 30 years ago?

    What combination of social, political or economic factors have fostered and created public displays of and an acceptance of extremism in the Christian and Islam worlds?

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comments. You raise a complex set of questions. I would be pleased to have comments from others in reply to yours.


  2. Cliff: I’ll tell you what’s changed; it’s the distribution of the rewards of participating in our society. Given that approximately 20% of all income flows to 1% of our population, when thirty years ago that number was 7% flowing to the same 1%, an ever growing number of people are being shut out of meaningful participation in our society and culture. For example… when I was a kid, my parents could afford to do things like take us to movies, go see plays, and so on… but I, making approximately the mean income in Canada (and way way higher than the median income), cannot.


  3. Cliff Boldt has raised an interesting question. I don’t know the whole answer, though I expect it includes multiple factors. But presuming, for the sake of debate for a moment, that the premise is true, that public displays and public acceptance of extremism have grown in societies over the past 30 years, one variable I wonder about is whether and how a change in the role that media plays in societies has contributed to an increase in public displays and acceptance of extremism.

    One of my observations has been that the (corporatism dominated) media tends to portray evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists (which are overlapping but differing populations) of Canada but particularly of the USA as politically, economically, socioeconomically, and socially right leaning.

    The tendency contrasts with the fact that probably still by far most of those two populations in Canada tend to be mostly apolitical, to cast their votes across the spectrum with respect to political, economic, and socioeconomic positions (when they do vote), and to widely vary with respect to their social views.

    In the USA, the two populations are less apolitical and more politically involved, there being a historically different relationship between faith and politics in the USA, compared to that relationship in Canada.

    However, the USA has a huge number of individuals, churches, and organizations who tend to be centre and left in their political, economic, socioeconomic, and social views. (ie. ABC, the American Baptist Convention, which at least used to list its policy positions online, comes to mind, as does Sojourners, the politically influential, countrywide coalition headed by Jim Wallis in Washington, DC.)

    Many of the Afro Americans who and other USA citizens who are evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists tend toward the political (etc.) centre and left in the USA and have supported the American civil rights movement.

    Yet most consumers of Canadian media would think that people of christianity related faith in the USA, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists, tend to be (politically, economically, socioeconomically, and socially) centre-right or right wing in their leanings.

    Presumably, the corporate media thinks it has an interest in this over generalization, the stereotype, the wide brush.

    Perhaps the media industry’s inaccurate depiction has significantly either contributed to increased public displays of and increased public acceptance of extremism, from North Americans of faiths related to christianity, or contributed to a perception of such an increase.

    An interesting question, Cliff.



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