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World Trade CenterLet’s compare the biblical instructions concerning Holy War in the Old Testament with the instructions given to Mohamed Atta, the leader of the  attacks of 11 September 2001. The instructions can be found in biblical passages such as Num 21:1-3; Deut 2:30-35; 3:3-7; 7:1-2; Josh 6:17-21; 10:28; 11:10-11; 1 Sam 15:1-33 and in the Observer.

There are a number of significant comparisons between the instructions Al Qaeda gave to the 9/11 bombers and the instructions Yahweh gave to Israel. Here are some of the main points of comparison which struck me as I compared the two:

1. Both Yahweh and Al Qaeda stir up their warriors by telling them that there is no need for fear, and that the only ones who should be afraid are God’s enemies:

“’The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! We actually saw there the offspring of the Anakim!'” I said to you, “Have no dread or fear of them. Yahweh your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes” (Deut 1:28-30)

“All of their [U.S.] equipment and gates and technology will not prevent, nor harm, except by God’s will. The believers do not fear such things. The only ones that fear it are the allies of Satan, who are the brothers of the devil.” (Al Qaeda instructions, §21)

2. Both Yahweh and Al Qaeda try to inspire their people by saying that the few can defeat the many, with the help of God:

“When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you–the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you–and when Yahweh your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must devote them to destruction… It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that Yahweh set his heart on you and chose you–for you were the fewest of all peoples.” (Deut 7:1-3, 7)

“Remember: How many small groups beat big groups by the will of God… If you see the enemy as strong, remember the groups that fought the prophet Muhammad. They were 10,000. Remember how God gave victory to his faithful servants.” (§§12, 37)

3. In the case of both biblical Israel and Al Qaeda, the warriors are told to prepare with acts of washing and purification – because their mass-murders have a pure religious significance:

“Camp outside the camp seven days; whoever of you has killed any person or touched a corpse, purify yourselves and your captives on the third and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, everything made of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.” (Num 31:19-20)

“Shave excess hair from the body and wear cologne. Shower.” (§3)

4. Both Yahweh and Al Qaeda advise that the warriors should be free fom sin, before their divinely sanctioned mission:

“Therefore, observe diligently the commandment–the statutes, and the ordinances–that I am commanding you today. If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, Yahweh your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors… You shall devour all the peoples that Yahweh your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity” (Deut 7:11-12, 16)

“Purify your soul from all unclean things. Completely forget something called ‘this world’. The time for play is over and the serious time is upon us.” (§9)

5. Both Yahweh and Al Qaeda admonish that, even though they face possible death in battle, the warriors should be happy and courageous, sure in the knowledge that they are doing God’s will, and confident of their reward:

“From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:5-7)

“Do not seem confused or show signs of nervous tension. Be happy, optimistic, calm, because you are heading for a deed that God loves and will accept. It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise.” (§24)

6. Both Yahweh and Al Qaeda describe the mass-murders as a higher calling. Killing is not to be done with any thought of revenge or anger – but is a rational process, done for God’s sake:

“you shall inquire and make a thorough investigation. If the charge is established that such an abhorrent thing has been done among you, you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, devoting it to destruction and everything in it–even putting its livestock to the sword.” (Deut 14:15)

“Do not seek revenge for yourself. Strike for God’s sake… before you do anything, make sure your soul is prepared to do everything you do for God only.” (§32)

7. Both Yahweh and Al Qaeda warn that nobody is to be spared; no prisoners are to be taken; and no plunder is to be taken:

“No human beings who have been devoted to destruction can be ransomed; they shall be put to death.” (Lev 27:29);  “Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” (Deut 7:3); “keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the things devoted to destruction” (Josh 6:18) 

“implement the way of the prophet in taking prisoners. Take prisoners and kill them. As Almighty God said: ‘No prophet should have prisoners until he has soaked the land with blood. You want the bounties of this world in exchange for prisoners and God wants the other world for you, and God is all-powerful, all-wise.” (§33)

In both cases, the instructions were given to divinely ordained warriors, preparing them for their upcoming religious slaughters. True and genuine religious slaughters, that is. The idea that such violence is untrue to religion is an idea frequently imposed on Islam by Western liberal humanism. It is also adopted by a small minority of Western Islamic scholars, most of them operating in the West, and wishing to impose a liberal, humanistic conception of Islam on every form of Islam. It is also held by many groups of Muslims who do not share a belief in this violent type of Islam. Islam should not be characterized as either a monolithically violent or a monolithically peaceful religion. Mohammed Atta’s views cannot be generalised to “Islam”, yet also it should not be denied that his were genuinely religious and deeply held Islamic actions. Similarly, the Holy War described in the Bible – whether it in fact occurred or is a fiction – reflects genuine religious beliefs, even if they are rejected today by many Christians and many Jews.

Bruce Lincoln comments, in Holy Terrors (2003):

“It is tempting, in the face of such horror, to regard the authors of these deeds as evil incarnate: persons bereft of reason, decency or human compassion. Their motives, however—as revealed by the instructions that guided their final days—were intensely and profoundly religious.”

Al Qaeda’s beliefs are genuinely religious beliefs, and beliefs which have a precedent in the violence which is an integral part of many varieties of “true” religious practice – not least, the Holy War traditions in the Old Testament.