Religious zealots and instruments of God's will

Time has a very interesting take on what the death of Osama bin Laden means for al Qaeda in the May 20 issue. Written by Peter Bergen, he compares 9/11 to Pearl Harbor saying both events demonstrated "a stunning tactical victory that set in motion events that would end in the defeat of" the respective aggressors. We're told that bin Laden was full of hubris and how some of his shrewder lieutenants didn't support the particulars of his campaign to destroy the United States. The piece also does a good job of describing some of the copious religious angles that are so frequently missing from other accounts of bin Laden. We learn that his family's renovations of Mecca and Medina gave him unparalleled access to holy sites. But these sections also had some problems. Take this part:

Joining al-Qaeda meant taking a personal religious oath of allegiance to bin Laden, just as joining the Nazi Party had required swearing personal fealty to the Führer. So bin Laden's group became just as much a hostage to its leader's flawed strategic vision as the Nazis were to Hitler's.

The key to understanding this vision and all of bin Laden's actions was his utter conviction that he was an instrument of God's will. In short, he was a religious zealot. That zealotry first revealed itself when he was a teenager. Khaled Batarfi, a soccer-playing buddy of bin Laden's on the streets of Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where they both grew up, remembers his solemn friend praying seven times a day (two more than mandated by Islamic convention) and fasting twice a week in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad. For entertainment, bin Laden would assemble a group of friends at his house to chant songs about the liberation of Palestine.

See, all very interesting, right? But did you catch that part? "The key to understanding this vision and all of bin Laden's actions was his utter conviction that he was an instrument of God's will. In short, he was a religious zealot." So believing you are an instrument of God's will makes you a zealot?

It was a few years ago that someone stole President Barack Obama's note out of the Wailing Wall, where he prayed that he would be an instrument of God's will. Most Christians might offer a similar prayer. This is not unfamiliar language in the Catholic Church, relating to the church itself, the papacy and the consecrated life. I imagine there are more than a few non-terrorist Muslims who hope they're instruments of God's will.

I mean, unless we're adopting the view that the little old lady quietly offering sandwiches to homeless men is "a religious zealot," this is completely illogical.

I'm inclined to accept the premise that Osama bin Laden was a religious zealot. But I'm going to need a much higher standard than knowing he believed he was an instrument of God's will.

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