When al-Qaeda destroyed the Twin Towers almost exactly 19 years ago, the aims of the terrorists were not fully understood by many in the western media. Osama bin Laden intended not just to wage war against the non-Muslim world but to present himself — and his jihadi narrative — as the new voice of Islam. He was fighting a war of ideas, as well as one of terror. One of the best ways to understand and combat the ideological side of the jihadi movement is to read the works of the philosopher Bassam Tibi, who has been fighting fundamentalist ideas for the past four decades.
His work — speeches, essays and more than 40 books — tracks the methods by which Islamists operate. With forensic precision, he details the ways in which they are inimical to most of Islam’s history. ‘To protect themselves against criticism,’ he once wrote, ‘Islamists invented the formula of “Islamophobia” to defame their critics.’ The word ‘serves as a weapon against all who do not embrace Islamist propaganda, including liberal Muslims’.
I’ve been an admirer of his work for years and flew to Frankfurt to meet him and to hear his story first-hand. He grew up in Damascus and became hafiz (someone who has memorised the Quran) at the age of six. There was a clash of civilisations in his head. ‘My family was against colonialism, against imperialism, against the hegemony of the West — but we were still admirers of the West,’ he says. ‘We would go to the Quranic school, then after Friday prayers go to a party with kids and dance rock ’n’ roll. The culture we looked up to was American.’ He had his eye on Harvard but his father — a property magnate whose company had built half of the new buildings in Beirut — was keen on Germany because it had sided with the Arabs in the first world war. So Tibi went to Hamburg in 1962 and never came back.