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Their Master’s Voice

When Osama bin Laden speaks, people listen. They tend, however, to hear different things. Take the coverage of his latest voice-from-the-mountain tape, released in mid-January. The New York Times and The Washington Post both headlined with the words “Bin Laden Warns of Attacks.” The equivalent two highbrow Arabic-language newspapers, al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat, led instead with the news that the al-Qaeda leader had offered a truce.

Neither version was wrong. As all four papers went on to explain, bin Laden had done both things: threatened to strike America again, and proposed a hudna, or cease-fire. Yet the difference in emphasis pointed to the roots of deeper misapprehensions. How, more than four years after September 11, and after so much subsequent bloodshed, can this fugitive terrorist still command the respect and admiration of a good number of his fellow Muslims? And why, after the mobilization of so many resources, has America’s campaign against him produced such unsatisfactory results?

One simple answer is that neither most Americans nor many Muslims have been listening closely enough. As a result, neither has fully understood the man, his motivations, or his aims. Whereas bin Laden continues to manipulate and mislead his Muslim audience, America has failed either to undermine him effectively or to speak persuasively to the Muslim public.

Consider the offer of a truce. This offer is not really serious.1 Bin Laden is well aware that America cannot meet his demands anytime soon. The superpower cannot simply abandon Afghanistan and Iraq, or bases in the Gulf, or alliances with most Muslim governments, or longstanding support for Israel. Even if such policy reversals were wise, which they might be, their sudden application would be hugely destabilizing. Conversely, bin Laden is also hardly in a position to enforce a truce. He never did control much of an army, and certainly does not now, having long since lost his Afghan redoubt and seen dozens of other al-Qaeda cells smashed. It is highly questionable whether he could even call off the more radical parts of the Iraqi resistance that have pledged allegiance to him: their “war” is now as much against Iraqi Shias and Sunni dissenters as against foreign occupiers.

Yet proposing a truce served important political goals. Aside from reminding the world that he is still out there, it helped to deflect, in advance, criticism of whatever brutal act al-Qaeda might next carry out, and to refocus minds on Muslim grievances. More importantly, it cast bin Laden in the role of a statesman who speaks for a wide following. It suggested that he has powers that he does not have, and reinforced the basic narrative, so successfully etched in the minds of all too many Muslims, that America is the recalcitrant leader of a war against Islam itself. It was, in effect, a campaign speech.

The White House summarily dismissed the truce offer, as well it might. But the ground for refusal was that America “does not deal with terrorists.” A fine sentiment, but by neglecting to note that bin Laden simply is not the commander or even a legitimate representative of the Muslim side in some sort of millennial clash of civilizations, the brusque response actually bolstered his posture as a defender of the faith.

From the beginning, America’s responses to bin Laden have shown a similar lack of subtlety. Recall, for instance, the cruise missiles which destroyed a pharmaceuticals plant in Khartoum, in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s twin bombings of US embassies in Africa. Remember George Bush’s inept uses of the word “crusade,” and of the phrase “you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” at precisely the juncture when al-Qaeda was raising alarms of an all-out “Zionist Crusader” assault against Islam. And then, of course, the invasion of Iraq made this alarm sound prophetic rather than ridiculous.

In fact, instead of listening, and then calibrating a response, the Bush administration has, on occasion, shut its ears deliberately. On October 10, 2001, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, summoned the heads of America’s five biggest television networks to ask them not to broadcast in full any statements from al-Qaeda. A day later, the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told journalists that transmitting bin Laden’s words was dangerous. They might contain coded messages to operatives, he said, or “incite people to kill Americans.”

Bin Laden’s immediate response was gleeful. He called the notion of hidden messages farcical: “as if we are living in an age of carrier pigeons.” Censorship made a mockery of such Western values as freedom and human rights, he said, meaning America had struck a blow against itself that was “bigger, greater and more dangerous than the collapse of the towers.” This, of course, was long before the further disgraces of Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, eavesdropping scandals, and the like. These were to become fodder for later tirades, including bin Laden’s most recent, in which his endorsement of an earnest but obscure critique of American policy, Rogue State by William Blum, made the book an instant best seller.

Whether because of the Bush administration’s advisory or not, it has long been surprisingly hard to find authoritative, complete versions of the al-Qaeda leader’s varied missives, even in their original Arabic. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Four years after September 11, several new books now present well-annotated, chronologically organized collections of bin Laden’s words.2

They do not, by and large, make for fascinating reading. As Bruce Lawrence, a Duke University religion professor, notes in the concise and illuminating introduction to his well-edited collection Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, the arch terrorist is, above all, a polemicist. He is a soapbox orator, scoring unsubtle points in an imaginary debate by drawing on a mix of Islamic scripture, faddish political constructs, and gross exaggeration, as well as real historical grievances. His surprisingly limited number of recorded speeches, delivered sometimes on audio, sometimes videotape, or in the form of Internet screeds and occasionally Q & A sessions with journalists, are repetitive. For all his aura of religious punctiliousness, bin Laden twists Islamic texts to his purposes. He seems happy to engage in factual distortion and, occasionally, the politician’s bald-faced lie.

Such is the case, for instance, when he bluntly denies that American arms and money (which included Stinger ground-to-air missiles, among other goodies worth some $3 billion, delivered between 1981 and 1989) had anything to do with the success of the Afghan Mujahideen in expelling Soviet invaders. After repeatedly railing against America’s “occupation” of holy soil—i.e., the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the kingdom’s rulers, to protect it from the “Muslim” army of Saddam Hussein—the absence of any mention of those troops’ subsequent withdrawal, in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, smells of self-serving rhetorical omission.

Bin Laden excels at hyperbole. The idea that America “robs” Arabs of their oil will certainly be news to American consumers, as much as to the very wealthy citizens of, say, Kuwait. Non-Muslim forces do indeed have troubles in various parts of the Muslim world, but they are not “attacking Muslims like people fight over a plate of food.” It takes a degree of ignorance or fanaticism to believe that America wants to “enslave” Muslims or to “annihilate” Islam. Surely, if that were the case, America would have started by attacking Mecca.

Bin Laden’s sense of history is equally skewed. He repeatedly declares that the Christian West has warred on Islam “for 80 years.”3 In fact, Western incursions into the Muslim world were far more penetrating and brutal before then; consider the Dutch conquest of the East Indies, the French invasion of Algeria in the 1830s, or Britain’s crushing of the 1854 Indian Mutiny. Western political control over Muslims has actually receded steadily since the 1920s, as shown by the fact that four in five Muslims live in countries that gained independence after World War II or that Bosnia, Albania, Azerbaijan, and the Stans of Central Asia have all won freedom from atheist communism in the past fifteen years. Nowhere does bin Laden credit American policy for any of this. Likewise, the generally untroubled presence of millions of recent Muslim immigrants in Western countries goes completely unremarked.

Western support for the creation of Israel may, in fairness, be seen as having caused considerable suffering. The Zionist enterprise does look, to many Muslims as well as to others, like an anachronistic extension of European colonization into the modern age. But for all the turmoil, the number killed in six decades of conflict over Palestine amounts to a fraction of the “hundreds of thousands” reported by bin Laden, with a majority of those victims having been Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian soldiers, or Lebanese civilians, rather than Israelis or Palestinians. The plight of Palestinian refugees is tragic and a stain on the world’s conscience. But Israel did not “create five million refugees.” It created just under a million. Population growth turned them into five million, most of whom are fairly well integrated into other societies. Meanwhile, some 700,000 Jews left predominantly Muslim countries to settle in Israel.

There are obvious contradictions in bin Laden’s logic, too. For instance, he despises democracy as a “religion of ignorance,” because it issues man-made laws. He then defends attacks on American civilians on the grounds that they are responsible for electing their governments. Yet he remarks elsewhere that Spain has a bigger economy than that of all Arab countries combined because “the ruler there is accountable.” Evidently, he has never heard theological justifications for democracy, based on the notion that the will of the people must necessarily reflect the will of an all-knowing God.

So misplaced are many of his citations from Islamic scripture that in all likelihood, one of the best ways to diminish the al-Qaeda leader’s stature would be to publish his words more widely in the Muslim world. He frequently quotes the more aggressive passages from the Koran regarding dealings with infidels, for instance, concluding with an exhortation not to ignore such passages by reading selectively. Yet he himself reads selectively by ignoring Koranic injunctions for mercy and pacifism. In one bizarre interpretation, he says that the famous verse “If anyone kills another person…it is as if he has killed all mankind” means that Israel, backed by America, has killed all the children in the world.

More disturbingly, for a Muslim audience, bin Laden arrogates to himself and to his movement a right to speak for the Islamic umma, or nation. Every Muslim, he confidently asserts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians as a matter of religious conviction. The dynamiting of the colossal third-century-AD Buddhas of Bamian by the Taliban in March 2001, an act decried by Muslim religious leaders everywhere, he describes as a great Islamic decision. He uses parables about those in the Prophet’s time who failed to rally to Muhammad’s battle cry as relating to himself. He and his Mujahideen, he declares, are the living conscience of the umma, and anyone who does not join their jihad suffers from a “disease.”

  1. 1

    The warning of an attack against America, however, may well be serious. Al-Qaeda’s leaders have often telegraphed their intentions, for example by declaring jihad against America in February 1998, seven months before the attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

  2. 2

    A further comprehensive source of bin Laden texts is Osama bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words, edited by Randall B. Hamud (Nadeem, 2005).

  3. 3

    Perhaps he is thinking of the end of the Sunni Muslim caliphate, a title last held by the Ottoman sultans of Turkey until the secularist revolutionary Kemal Attaturk abolished it in 1924.

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