Sometimes teaching history can be really difficult. Sometimes your own personal memories and experiences make it hard to present history in an unbiased, dispassionate, and constructive way. That was the struggle I faced this week as my eighth grade Junior Historians began discussing the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
It's a complicated story and history to clearly articulate. And furthermore, it's an even trickier story to tell without becoming entangled in regional, religious, and political biases. My personal memory cannot and does not have a role in how my students investigate this, or any event.
But it is so vital for my Junior Historians to understand the complexities of global terrorism in a world that is so shaped by its existence and threats to democratic society. My middle and high school education barely touched upon the Vietnam War, and was heavily loaded on WWII story lines. Growing up in a Cold War world, the historical context of the second great war was prescient and important. But as time marches on, the world post-WWII is less and less relevant to the kids born after September 11th, 2001. They were born into the post-Cold War, "New World Order" where technology has made the world more flat, more connected, and by proxy, a more expansive and diverse network that can be reached by extremist groups' propaganda.
You can't just "arrive"at 9/11 or bin Laden's fatwa without the proper historical context. Over the past five weeks we have traced the origins of the Middle East in reading excerpts from Power, Faith, and Fantasy, examining the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the creation of Israel, the ensuing Middle Eastern wars and crises, as well as the United States's entanglements in Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Below is the text of the 1998 fatwa issued by Usama bin Laden. In it, he outlines his argument for Muslims to target and kill Americans and their allies - both military and civilian. While there is no possible justification for killing three thousand civilians, the fatwa is a well reasoned, historically supported argument that points students to the mindset of the man who would lead Al Qaeda to commit mass murder.
The students were asked to read over the text, identify keywords, and write down at least five questions that they had about the text for homework. Questions were varied in complexity and scope:
- What does he mean by "plundering its riches"?
- What is an "ulema"?
- What's a "paper statelet"?
- Who has the authority to issue a fatwa (did bin Laden)?
- Why does he call to kill civilians (not just military)?
- Why is this directed at the United States specifically?
- Why does bin Laden see America in the Middle East as a "crusade"?
Our investigation and discussion was then driven by their questions. As we discussed we annotated the document to put clear historical references into his vague statements and connected his arguments to what we had learned. That night students were also presented with John Miller's May 1998 interview with Usama bin Laden and our conversation continued on day two with further insight and reasoning given to the fatwa.
Of course, the danger in sharing this fatwa without context or proper scaffolding, is that students could empathize with bin Laden or somehow perceive that the United States's actions directly caused the 9/11 attacks. Stressing that justification and reasoning are two very different ideas is key in staving off those erroneous assumptions.
Overall, the students came away with a better understanding of the extreme Islamist perspective of America in the Middle East and in turn helped them to better understand the 1998 embassy bombings as well as the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Much like Dr. King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech is utile as a summary of the Civil Rights movement to 1968, bin Laden's 1998 fatwa is an invaluable document in exploring and understanding how and why Al Qaeda attacked on 9/11.
Shaykh Usamah Bin-Muhammad Bin-Ladin
The Arabian Peninsula has never -- since Allah made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas -- been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. All this is happening at a time in which nations are attacking Muslims like people fighting over a plate of food. In the light of the grave situation and the lack of support, we and you are obliged to discuss current events, and we should all agree on how to settle the matter.
First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.
… if the Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel's survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.
On that basis, and in compliance with Allah's order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, "and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together," and "fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah."
We -- with Allah's help -- call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.
Almighty Allah also says: "O ye who believe, what is the matter with you, that when ye are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah, ye cling so heavily to the earth! Do ye prefer the life of this world to the hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life, as compared with the hereafter. Unless ye go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place; but Him ye would not harm in the least. For Allah hath power over all things."