A lot of ink has been spilled since 9/11 trying to argue that bin Laden doesn’t really care about Palestine. But that’s always been silly — nobody knows what he “really” cares about, and it doesn’t especially matter since he talks about it a lot and presents it as a major part of his case against the United States. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement surely would not convince bin Laden or al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements to give up their jihad — but it would take away one of their most potent arguments, and one of the few that actually resonates with mass publics. ~Marc Lynch
One of the reasons there has been a consistent effort to deny that Bin Laden has any “real” interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that such an interest, sincere or not, suggests jihadist groups are fueled by U.S. and allied policies, or at least that they successfully exploit U.S. and allied policies for propaganda purposes. Washington would then be faced with at least one of two unpalatable truths. Either our policies are correct and necessary, but strategically disastrous in their effects on Arab and Muslim public opinion and jihadist recruiting, or they are and incorrect and unnecessary while also being strategically disastrous. Washington would then have to decide if it wants to live with perpetual, low-level conflict occasionally exploding into major military campaigns every decade, or if it wants to make enough policy changes (and push our allies to make similar changes) to reduce that conflict to a bare minimum.
For most of the last decade, our preference in and out of government has been to deny that U.S. and allied policies had anything to do with jihadist attacks and their ability to recruit and win sympathizers. This acknowledgement would be to “blame the victim,” so that even if it were the correct analysis it was politically incorrect to say it out loud. Instead we have been treated to a whole host of explanations for why jihadist violence exists and why it tends to be directed at the U.S. and our allies. The lamest of these has been rather popular, namely the claim that “they hate us for our freedom,” or modernity or secularism or whatever it is that the person making the argument finds worthwhile about the West and sees lacking in Muslim countries. Then, of course, there is the trusty appeal to the enemy’s insanity. Unlike us, they are not really rational, and so their actions cannot be explained by referring to anything so mundane and normal as political grievances.
Finally, there is the religious essentialist argument that jihadism is what Islam requires at its core, and therefore there is no way to weaken it without some dramatic transformation of the entire religion. This last argument has won more sympathizers because the people trying to challenge it inevitably go to the opposite extreme and simply ignore or dismiss past Islamic conquests as having nothing to do with Islam. If the essentialist argument really held up, however, Algerians would still be attacking France, Central Asian Muslims would still be warring against the Russians, and Saudis would have been attacking American targets long before the 1990s. We do see cases where separatist movements involving Muslim populations’ breaking away from non-Muslim states become intertwined with and dependent on jihadist groups, because these are the groups providing assistance and because they lend an extra religious and ideological veneer to the conflict that wins the separatists more sympathy abroad. As a general rule, when the cause of the political grievances has disappeared, violent resistance also disappears.
Anti-jihadists like to invoke one or more of these arguments. I am reminded again of a quote from George Kennan in which he described the flaws of the popular anticommunism of his day. His words apply to popular anti-jihadism almost perfectly:
They distort and exaggerate the dimensions of the problem with which they profess to deal. They confuse internal and external aspects of the communist threat. They insist on portraying as contemporary things that had their actuality years ago [bold mine-DL]….And having thus incorrectly stated the problem, it is no wonder that these people consistently find the wrong answers.
Even when anti-jihadists are willing to acknowledge that Al Qaeda uses the grievances of Muslim populations in Iraq or Palestine for propaganda purposes, they will usually hold that changing policy or addressing those grievances to minimize the effectiveness of the propaganda is a form of capitulation. We are supposed to be engaged in “global counterinsurgency,” but we must take little or no account of the stated motivations of jihadists and the reasons why many millions more sympathize with their immediate goals while often deploring the means they use.
The Palestinian cause generates remarkable reactions in Western anti-jihadists. For most of them, it is an article of faith that Palestinians, or at least the organized factions that speak for them, are just about as bad and hostile to “the West” as Al Qaeda itself, and so there is no point in attempting to make any deal with them. As far as they are concerned, the correct response is to back Israeli policies to the hilt, and to throw up as many obstacles to anyone here at home who would attempt to use U.S. influence to change those policies. The Bush-era habit of lumping together every Islamic revolutionary, militant and terrorist group under some catch-all term of “Islamofascism” made it easier to lump all these causes together, which is oddly enough exactly what jihadists would like, and once they were lumped together they could be that much more easily demonized together.
On the whole, it seems that the more sympathetic to or at least understanding of Palestinian grievances a Western observer is, the less willing he is to endorse standard anti-jihadist arguments. Likewise, the more one agrees with anti-jihadist arguments, the more reflexively hostile to Palestinian grievances one tends to be. When most Western anti-jihadists hear that Bin Laden has tied the Christmas bomber attack to the cause of Palestine and specifically to the treatment of Gaza, or when they learn that the bomber who killed the seven CIA operatives claimed that the Gaza operation early last year had driven him to jihadism, the conclusion they draw is not that there was and is something wrong with U.S. and Israeli policies with respect to Palestinians. There is no sudden revelation that the inexcusable blockade of Gaza is politically unwise as well as morally wrong.
On the contrary, the support Bin Laden expresses for the Palestinian cause makes that cause seem to most Western anti-jihadists to be that much more indistinguishable from Al Qaeda’s goals and therefore that much more antithetical to Western interests. This might very well be another purpose in Bin Laden’s exploitation of Palestinian grievances: to harden Western audiences against Palestinian claims even more by linking his cause to Palestine, which will make Americans in particular less interested in supporting an administration that tries to exert pressure in support of a peace settlement. Bin Laden would like to appropriate the Palestinian cause, which Palestinians definitely do not want, and most Western anti-jihadists would like nothing more than to let him have it. So while Lynch is right that resolving this conflict would deprive jihadists of one of their great sources of effective propaganda, our own anti-jihadists will do their utmost to thwart all efforts to that end.