From the Turkish Wars to September 11
All the most important things seem to have already been said about September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon may be a long way from being entirely explained down to their last detail, and it's too early for a final judgement, but at least in the western media there's general agreement as to which version of events is most likely to be the truth.
Whenever something new turns up, or a new interpretation is offered, the accusation that someone has fallen for a new conspiracy theory quickly follows.
Nowadays all that seems still to require explanation are the factual details. The current Hamburg trial of one of the terrorists is trying to reconstruct exactly what happened on board the hijacked planes. The court is also trying to find direct links between the pilot and other terrorist cells.
But the criminal investigation does not seem to be interested in a deeper understanding of the motivation of the young men. But there's evidence to suggest that they were led systematically to confuse the religious Muslim concept of Jihad with deliberately planned mass murder.
Three copies of the primer for terrorists
It's quite remarkable that the one document which would help in understanding this context has so far been largely ignored. The existence of the work is no secret - the then US Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI director Robert Mueller distributed copies to journalists as early as September 28, 2001. Two days later, the British "Observer" newspaper published an English translation of the text.
The so-called "Spiritual Instruction" is a four-page handwritten document written in Arabic. A copy was found, together with a will written in English, in a bag belonging to Mohammed Atta which was left at Boston Airport and not transferred on to the fatal flight.
A second copy was found in the car of a suspect, Nawa al-Hazmi, and a third was found in the wreckage of the plane which was forced to crash in Pennsylvania on September 11.
Instruction manual for the attackers
Although the document has been known of for some time and was published some time ago, its role has so far been inadequately analysed. The German news magazine "Der Spiegel" printed the text in 2001, and it's also to be found in a book about the attacks which came out the following year, written by "Der Spiegel's" Cordt Schnibben and Stefan Aust.
But how little attention was paid to the document can be deduced from the fact that its pages are printed in the wrong order. The mistake is repeated in a reprinted edition of the book.
Now, for the first time, the "Spiritual Instruction" has received a thorough and detailed analysis, in a book edited by Hans G. Kippenberg and Tilman Seidensticker.
The contributors - experts in politics, Islam and religion - present a wide range of historical and literary relationships which make it clear how this text could function as a precisely calculated instruction manual for the attackers.
The Instruction gives a precise ideological and religious backing for every detail of the operation, from the preparations the evening before to the boarding of the taxis, the arrival at the airport and behaviour on board the plane.
The "Spiritual Instruction" was in effect the screenplay for the attacks. The terrorists were to understand every step on the way, however small, as a holy act, as part of the task of carrying out a spiritual masterplan, with its points of reference in a battle early in the history of Islam and in the acts of the Prophet Mohammed.
The attackers would thus be brought to a state of inner calm and fearlessness, to unconditional obedience and total ruthlessness at the moment of killing.
The text anticipates the individual stages of the process and requires the recitation of a litany of specific verses of the Koran. This kind of text has a historic precedent in manuscripts which were prepared in large numbers during the Turkish wars.
In those texts, written in Arabic Turkish, such prayers were used strategically as part of the pastoral care of the members of the Turkish army.
The act reduced to its individual steps
The author of the "Spiritual Instruction" was aware how much inner resistance the attackers had to overcome and how much emotional pressure they were under. He decided to reduce the "mission" to a number of individual steps.
The act is never seen as a whole, and its murderous result is completely omitted. Instead, the process is divided up into a series of events, none of which take longer than a few minutes. Each one is given a religious significance which the attacker can hold on to.
The Instruction starts with an oath of brotherhood by which a "band of men" (a "futuwa") will be founded. This is modelled on a procedure under which many Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brothers were bound together.
The text calls on the men "to make an oath of loyalty to death towards each other." They should renew their "intention." "Intention" is a fundamental category of Muslim Law. It's explained in the text as the inner conviction that "everything which one does is only for God."
New presentation of an old model
Hans G. Kippenberg explains convincingly how this ritual preparation could be understood as a specific ritual of transition, as can be found in other non-Islamic cultures and which is described in cultural anthropological terms as a rite of passage.
The "Spiritual Instruction", says Kippenberg, "leads towards such a transition. The young Muslim is separated from the world of everyday norms, breaks with the existing legal systems and becomes a soldier in the army of the prophet. The violent acts of September 11, 2001 are conceived as a new presentation of the old model of violent enforcement of Islam."
Down to the smallest detail the "Spiritual Instruction" is designed to give the impression that it is in the tradition of the Koran. It gives the terrorists the feeling that they are walking in the ways of the great prophet.
Since it's told of Mohammed that he plundered his dead enemies, the hijackers are told to take some symbolic plunder from the cockpit of the aircraft, even if it's only a glass of water.
At the same time, they are forgiven in advance in case such actions prove to be impossible. The pragmatic strategy of the document can be seen in sentences like, "What is absolutely obligatory should be put above custom."
Suicide is a sin
When the "Spiritual Instruction" tells the terrorists to ask God "to award you martyrdom (shahada)," it's taking account of the fact that suicide attacks are by no means generally acceptable in Islam - not even in Jihad.
As the attackers were being prepared for the operation, it was recognised that suicide is seen as a serious sin, and that convinced Muslims would know that they could run the danger, not only of forgoing the promised virgins in paradise, but going straight to hell.
Indeed, in the Muslim reaction to September 11 it was clear that the terrorists surrounding Mohammed Atta were not being recognised as martyrs - not even by ultra-conservative Islamists.
While some of the junior clergy might have been prepared to go along with such an interpretation, the spiritual head of the Lebanese Shiites, Ayatollah Fadlallah, came to a different conclusion.
Although he'd pronounced that the Hezbollah fighters of 1983 had taken part in a Jihad struggle which was pleasing to God and that they would go straight to paradise, he pronounced a different judgement on the 9/11 terrorists: "No, they did not fall in Jihad, in holy war," he told "Der Spiegel". "They are simply guilty of suicide."
The argument over whether the violence of September 11 is based on a religious foundation or not is one which, according to Kippenberg, leads in the wrong direction. The terrorists certainly understood their action as holy - even if they would meet with the disagreement of the vast majority of Moslems and Islamic clerics.
That it's possible for fundamentalist terrorists to convince their followers of a particular way of reading the Koran and an eclectic way of reading Islamic tradition has something to do with the fact that religion in Islam is less hierarchical than, for example, in the Christian churches.
The tradition of interpreting texts in Islam is not a professional occupation, unlike the interpretation of law. The person who drew up the "Spiritual Instruction" makes no bones about the fact that he's a layman. As he says at one point: "Know that the best recitation is that of the holy Koran. As far as I know, there's agreement on that among the religious scholars."
What conclusions can one draw? Certainly not that Islam is per se a dangerous or militant religion. What's dangerous is the creation of certain relatively new and extreme kinds of Islamic groups, whether they go under the name of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas or the Muslim Brothers.
According to Kippenberg, these are to be seen above all as a phenomenon of modernisation against the background of globalisation "which puts the laws of the market above political community." In that way, social responsibility is transferred from the level of the state to the level of the religious community.
© Ronald Düker 2005
Translation from German: Michael Lawton
Hans G. Kippenberg, Tilman Seidensticker (eds.): Terror im Dienste Gottes. Die "Geistliche Anleitung" der Attentäter des 11. September. (Terror in the Service of God: the "Spiritual Instruction" of the attackers of September 11) Campus-Verlag 2004, 128 pages, 14.90 Euro