- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Osama bin Laden, the man who since September 11 has struck brought fear in the hearts of millions, is now running scared. The master terrorist is afraid; he is very afraid.

What frightens bin Laden today are not American B-2 super-stealth bombers capable of dropping tons of high explosives on him from unseen heights, nor the tens of thousands of troops and legions of intelligence officers looking for him since September 2001. He knows how to cope with them. What frightens bin Laden today is the ballot box.

Al Qaeda’s leader seems particularly concerned over the prospects of pending elections in two Arab countries — the Palestinian Authority and Iraq — both scheduled this month.

In an audiotape released last Dec. 27, bin Laden makes it clear that Muslims under no circumstances should take part in these elections. Rather, they should fight the concept. He adds that “shedding the blood” of Iraqi military, security and national guardsmen “is permitted.”

Al Qaeda’s leader explains that participating in the elections is apostasy because the Iraqi constitution is “a ‘Jahiliyya,’ one made by man.” And, because “the elections are ordered by America.” Anyone voting in the Iraq or Palestine “commits apostasy against Allah,” warns bin Laden. “Muslims must beware of these kinds of elections. They must unite around the Jihad warriors and those who resist the occupiers.” It is true America is behind the Iraq elections, but in the PA?

Closer analysis of bin Laden’s latest directives that aired on a number of Arab satellite television channels, and on numerous Western stations reveals something quite significant.

The hour-long tape (translated into English by the Middle East Media Research Institute) reflects a feeling that elections, and the possible germination of the early seeds of democracy, would marginalize bin Laden’s philosophy purporting to place political Islam over any other form of government.

Adherents of political Islam are traditionally called Islamists. That would support the theory bin Laden believes he can reconstitute the caliphate, a united political-military-religious entity created after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. It also gives more clarity to his referring to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the man taking credit for much of the mayhem in Iraq, as the “amir” or prince of al Qaeda in Iraq. The caliphate was governed by the caliph, the ruler who governed after the Prophet’s death with the help of his legitimately appointed representatives, the amirs. Zarqawi has consistently targeted Iraqi voting officials.

Lisa Anderson, a leading scholar on the Middle East and North Africa at Columbia University, points out in “Political Islam,” a book edited by John Esposito, that “rejection of the West and things associated with the West” is fairly consistent behavior on the part of the Islamist movements.

Ms. Anderson quotes Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd from an interview he gave to Kuwait’s As-Siyassa in 1992, in which he said: “The prevailing democratic system in the world is not suitable for us in this region. We have our own Muslim faith, which is a complete system and complete religion. Elections do not fall within the sphere of the Muslim religion.”

Many Muslims would take umbrage at that last allusion to an incompatibility between Islam and democracy. Ask Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, with Islamist roots, came to power through the electoral system. But bin Laden’s thinking is not outside the norm of strict Wahhabi philosophy — often wrongly termed as “fundamentalism.” It is not fundamentalism; it is political Islam, or Islamism.

Islamism, as preached by bin Laden and the Wahhabis, is simply incompatible with Western democracy. In most countries where political Islamists advocate elections, many observers believe it likely to be “one man, one vote, one time.” When they get to power, they try and keep it — as per the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is also why the Algerian army nullified the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991 and declared a state of emergency the following March.

While no more than two or three minutes of the tape made it on the airwaves, in the full hour-long tape bin Laden calls for holy war rather than elections. In his latest tirade, bin Laden seems to have become the strongest supporter of Samuel P. Huntington’s theory that a clash of civilizations is under way between Islam and the West.

“The conflict with the West,” says bin Laden, “is a fateful war between unbelief and Islam, between the army of Muhammad, the army of belief, and the people of the cross,” or Crusaders.

Bin Laden calls it a “Third World War started by the Crusader-Zionist coalition against the Islamic nation.” He lashes out at Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, current Palestinian leader and presidential hopeful Mahmoud Abbas (calling him a Bahai) and urges attacks against the oil infrastructure in Iraq (and now Saudi Arabia.)

Bin Laden realizes a successful election in the Palestinian territories would begin an irreversible process. He also knows that democracy — no matter how weak — is bound to grow, diminishing his chances at emerging as the leader of the “Umma” “the community of believers.”

All signs now indicate the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq will be so half-baked and plagued with violence that the results may well be questionable. However, a successful Jan. 9 election in the PA is beginning to really frighten bin Laden.

That’s all the more reason Israel, the United States and the international community must give the PA every support so it can pull off fair and equitable elections. It will be the start of something positive in the Middle East.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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