When Mohammed Atta boarded the airline on September 11, 2001 that soon thereafter slammed into the World Trade Center towers, he left behind a manual of instruction. Apparently prepared by his colleagues in the al Qaeda network, it instructed him and his fellow activists how to behave and what to do in preparation for their fateful act. What is interesting about this document is not only the text, but the subtext. Lying beneath the pious rhetoric of the manual and its eerie ties to the World Trade Center tragedy are hints about the perplexing issue of the role of religion in the contemporary world, and answers to the persistent question, how could religion be related to such vicious acts of political violence?
The common sense way of putting this question about the September 11 attack and all of the other recent acts of religious terrorism is "what's religion got to do with it?" The common sense answers to this question are varied, and they are contradictory. On the one hand some political leaders–along with many scholars of comparative religion–have assured us that religion has had nothing to do with these vicious acts, and that religion's innocent images have been used in perverse ways by evil and essentially irreligious political actors. On the other hand there are the radio talk show hosts and even a few social scientists who affirm that religion, especially Islam, has had everything to do with it–and not just ordinary religion, but a perverse strain of fundamentalism that has infected normal religion and caused it to go bad.
A reading of the Atta manuscript shows both answers to be incorrect. In an analysis of this manual undertaken by a scholar of comparative religion, Bruce Lincoln, he leaves us with no doubt that Mohammed Atta and his eighteen accomplices on that dark morning of September 11 were filled with a religious zeal and undertook their hideous assignment in a ritualistic act of self–sacrifice following traditional tenets. Moreover, although the ideology of their mentors was influenced by a certain strain of Islamic political thought characterized by the writings of Mawdudi, al Banna and Faraj, to which only a minority of Muslims subscribe, the religious practices and rituals were themselves not deviant. The actions prescribed for the nineteen on the morning of September 11 were well within the norm not only for Islamic belief and practice, but also for many other religious traditions. Skewed though their political views may have been, one could say on the basis of this text that Atta and his colleagues died as good Muslims. Had they been Christians or Hindus they would have died as good adherents of those faiths as well.