Jihad in Tappahannock?

A question or two for Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri


Dr. Zawahiri? You there?

I've got a quick question for you, and I'm asking you instead of Sheikh Osama for a pair of reasons. The first is that these days, Sheikh Osama may well be resting permanently under some central Asian rock. The second reason is that, Osama's health notwithstanding, you're often said to be the brains of Al Qaeda anyway. While Sheikh Osama sighed over long-lost Al-Andalus and signed the checks, you've supposedly been central in planning the logistics of murder.

Of course, along the way you and your afareet allies often manage to kill a lot of unsuspecting and entirely innocent Muslims, and sometimes there are many more Muslim victims than there are any other kind. That's what happened in the recent Istanbul bombings, appalling the Turks and forcing the frightened families of your martyr bombers to bury their relatives in secret.

But then the attempted destruction of comparatively successful Muslim societies by a lunatic fringe is an old story, isn't it? Osama bin Laden's very first words directed to the West, as the Taliban were being overthrown, evoked lost Islamic Spain. But the glories of Spain's Umayyads were destroyed not by European Inquisitors; they were ruined by armies of North African proto-Islamists who were as angry and as destructive and as crazy as you are. Cordoba and Toledo and Granada achieved their golden ages not through the efforts of people like you, but despite them. In the course of the struggle between an Islam of achievement and grace, and an Islam engulfed by righteous futility, have you never noticed that even Muslims prefer to forget people like you and to remember the other side? Even you and Osama, it seems, attempt to co-opt precisely the Islamic history you are attempting to negate.

But—my apologies—you're no doubt busy planning noxious slaughter and here I am failing to get to my question, which is not about Umayyad Spain at all. It's about Tappahannock, Virginia.

According to this morning's news, the little town of Tappahannock, with a population somewhere under 2000 souls, may have been identified through intelligence intercepts as a possible terrorist target. Tappahannock is some 90 minutes down Route 17 from me, and it reportedly has a single policeman on duty at any given time. So my question is a simple one: Tappahannock?

I've got my doubts. Even the intelligence sources think the reference they've picked up could be Rappahannock, which would be almost as senseless. But then, these place names are not so easy to say in Arabic. For one thing, there's no Arabic 'p.' Furthermore, the 'r,' 'h,' and 'k' sounds in Arabic all have near alternatives, so that this succession of syllables might turn out to be any number of other possible words or phrases.

And yet, it's plausible, because targeting a place like Tappannock would be entirely consistent with your demonstrably impotent rage. Last time we heard from you, Doctor, you were boasting that you were still "chasing the Americans and their allies everywhere, even in their own backyard."

Have your sycophants in this country tried shopping at a mall this Orange-coded Chistmas? Have they seen the crowds at rail stations, bus depots, and, yes, even airports? Have they even tried driving down a Washington-area commercial strip like Rockville Pike? Americans are chasing after gifts for their families, and flights home, not thinking about you or whatever central Asian cave you're in. There are surface-to-air missile installations in some major cities; traffic reporters have been citing them to situate traffic back-ups. Artillery has become an issue of landmarks helping people go about their holiday business, not an issue of fear. Are you even aware of the recent growth rate of the American economy? Americans, among them Muslim Americans, are busy attending to their prosperity and liberty. What are you busy attending to? Anything aside from murder?

Have you been paying attention to Afghanistan? It's in the process of adopting a moderate constitution. Do you have any notion of what's going on in Baghdad? No, not the search for Saddam's lice. Rather, despite the extremely well-publicized set-backs, Baghdadis and other Iraqis have been gradually establishing the foundation for a functioning civil society, one that, in Adeed Dawisha's words, will enable "the growth of a democratic political culture and institutional ensemble in the new Iraq." Libya's Ghaddafi caved the other day. Iran is caving on WMD as well. Whose allies are on the run again?

You know who you remind me of, Doctor? You remind me of Amm Mitlawi. Does the name ring a bell? He's a character invented by one of Egypt's best fiction writers of the early 20th century, Mahmud Taimur. You're an Egyptian, Doctor, an educated man; you must know Taimur's work. Authors like him, like Ibrahim Al-Mazini, like the great Tawfiq Al-Hakim, all these shared in the creation of modernist Egyptian literature, a rich field that was to blossom in the work of Naguib Mahfouz. The Swedes gave Mahfouz a Nobel, while someone who shares your civilizational outlook awarded Mahfouz a prize worthy of you: he sank a knife in the aged writer, paralyzing his writing arm and ending his extraordinary career.

But back to the pioneering Mahmud Taimur. In 1925, Taimur created an aged seller of bizr, or dried watermelon seeds. "Amm Mitlawi" worked on the streets of Cairo, but he lived in his memories of having followed the disastrous would-be Mahdi of Sudan, and fought against the British. Through a gently comic series of accidents and credulous misperceptions, the old man is soon believed by his Cairo alley neighbors to be a great hero of Islam. Indeed, his notched old blade is transformed, in the eyes of those seeking miracles, into a mighty Sword of Prophecy. Soon, the old man retreats into a world of his own, wielding his sword against the evil-doing devils who, he believes, regularly invade his single room.

One day, his eyes ablaze, Amm Mitlawi runs from his room, and—sword in hand—rushes into the alley's little coffee shop to attack the devils whom he imagines have gathered there. The neighbors try to restrain him, and at last the police arrive. "Praise be to God!" cries the old man before collapsing. "I have completed my jihad!"

Now, Doctor, be careful you don't turn Tappahannock into the equivalent of poor Amm Mitlawi's devil-filled Cairo coffeehouse; even that's a battle you won't ultimately win. Already, when you shout about the retreat of "the crusaders" and "the hypocrites" and "the Jews," your eyes surely blaze with the same light as did his. And though you shout while standing on a mountain of corpses, your struggle will eventually end the same way.