Raffi Khatchadourian / The Nation – 2006-05-16 08:28:10
WASHINGTON (May 15, 2006 issue) — Since the end of the cold war, a new ideologue has joined the literary canon of American enemies. His full name is Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden.
During a recent address, George W. Bush described bin Laden as one of history’s “Evil Men, obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience,” and one can find both truth and hyperbole in this assessment. Men like Hitler and Stalin wrought catastrophic ruin upon their societies and were responsible for the deaths of millions of people. So far, bin Laden has proved to be much less adept at mass murder and physical destruction. Nevertheless, he demands our attention, and for obvious reasons.
Bin Laden leads a sophisticated global insurgency that is largely unseen, profoundly violent, hostile to Western values and full of rage and bloodlust. More important, he has come to personify a dark strand of modernity, one that fuses austere religious ideas from eighteenth-century Saudi Arabia with recent innovations in political Islam. He has drawn the United States into a worldwide conflict. He hopes to kill on an unimaginable scale.
For more than a decade, bin Laden has been unapologetic about his own struggle to correct “the great book of history,” and he has carefully and lucidly described the specifics of his Kampf in a series of epistles, declarations and interviews.
As far as it is known, bin Laden has never written a book, but that may be because he believes the most important book, the Koran, has already been written. Where Mein Kampf elevated the all-encompassing state (der totale Staat), and specifically the German nation, into the realm of the sacred, bin Laden seeks to bring the Islamic faith into the realm of the profane. The Koran, in his reading, is a revolutionary document. There is no need to hire calligraphers to give it the authenticity of ancient wisdom. It is already ancient and wise.
Beside it, bin Laden’s scattered pronouncements are meant to seem derivative, as if he were merely a clerical warrior interpreting the word of God. But that notion clouds bin Laden’s real significance. In fact, he has a complex political vision that is highly coherent, uniquely contemporary and in many ways irreligious. And it is startling that only now, several years after 9/11, a number of new books give us the chance to inspect, firsthand and in detail, precisely what he has been saying.
Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, an anthology of bin Laden’s oral and written opinions edited by Bruce Lawrence, a professor of religion at Duke University, is among the best primary Al Qaeda resources available. It is divided into two dozen chapters that chronologically progress through what will probably be regarded as bin Laden’s most important decade, 1994 to 2004.
In his introduction, Lawrence explains the difficulty in assembling a collection of bin Laden’s statements, which have been virtually unavailable to the public. “Occasional fragments are cited, and–much more rarely–a few speeches have been reproduced here and there in the press,” he writes. “Yet official pressures have ensured that, for the most part, his voice has been tacitly censored, as if to hear it clearly and without cuts or interruption would be too dangerous.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the White House urged newspapers and TV networks to refrain from publishing unedited Al Qaeda statements or videos, and for the most part they have complied. Chief among the government’s concerns was that bin Laden might transmit coded messages to his operatives (a dubious claim offered without any real evidence) or, as then NBC News president Neal Shapiro pointed out, that he could “arouse anti-American sentiment getting twenty minutes of air time to spew hatred and urge his followers to kill Americans.”
The longevity of these official pressures became apparent in November when Lawrence was invited to discuss his book on CNN. One of the network’s evening anchors, Carol Lin, began the segment by assuring viewers that “respected media” censored bin Laden. Then, after confusing Lawrence with another author, she testily asked, “Well, but aren’t these messages dangerous? I mean, you are essentially making Osama bin Laden the possibility of a bestseller.”
Lin’s curt skepticism echoed a much more intense debate over a similar anthology, the Al Qaeda Reader, which is scheduled for publication by Doubleday in 2007 and which attracted a fusillade of hysterical criticism from conservative media for helping “to promote Al Qaeda’s evil.” When the anthology was announced last year, a National Review columnist accused Doubleday of going “too far” and acting “naive at best, harmful at worst.”
The New York Post, in tones even more shrill, called for legal action against the publishing house. Its editorial writers effectively tarred Doubleday’s parent company, Bertelsmann, as treasonous and then, in a strange rhetorical gesture, doubted that anyone would read the book anyway: “Yeah, right,” the Post noted, “Americans are just clamoring to have the Bearded Butcher and his Egyptian sidekick, Dr. Death, spew their venom at the United States.”
Part of what makes this outrage so misplaced is that there are numerous publications already in circulation that contain primary Al Qaeda source material. (To name a few: Osama bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words, edited by Randall Hamud; The World According to Al Qaeda, edited by Brad Berner; What Does Al Qaeda Want? Unedited Communiqués, edited by Robert Marlin; and The al-Qaeda Documents, a series edited by Ben Venzke.) None of these books say anything America’s enemies do not already know, and jihadi militants have proved that they do not need Doubleday to recruit operatives, to convey secret messages or to promote their agenda. For such things they have their own channels — Islamic websites, online chat rooms, Arab media, mosques, safe houses and the back alleys of Baghdad. Meanwhile, even the military recognizes that the United States is engaged in a two-pronged war, “a battle of arms and a battle of ideas,” as the Pentagon noted in this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review.
The more Americans study Al Qaeda’s ideas, no doubt the better chance we have of winning in that struggle. Currently, one out of four Americans cannot identify the name of the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks; a third of all Americans believe that bin Laden has no ideological agenda, that he is driven only by abstract hatred. Given the number of lives and resources lost to the “war on terror”–now known in the Pentagon as the Long Wa — -this is remarkable. It hardly presents the image of a society committed to understanding its foes.
During World War II, by contrast, one could enter a bookstore in the United States and purchase The Nazi Primer (1938), a translated Hitler Youth handbook; or German Psychological Warfare (1941), a compilation of Nazi military and propaganda manuals; or Nazi Guide to Nazism (1942), an anthology of official Nazi pronouncements. And of course, Americans could choose from no fewer than four English translations of Mein Kampf. The first, published in 1933, was heavily scrubbed of anti-Semitic themes, but later unauthorized translations became progressively more faithful and complete.
By the time Hitler invaded Poland, in 1939, Mein Kampf was an American bestseller — as dangerous as its ideas were. Demand for the book soon spiked in libraries; it became recommended reading for Army officers; it was taught in schools as a way to strengthen the “war effort.” On this final point, a reader of the New York Times wrote a letter to the paper in 1942 to express his approval: “Why should not Mein Kampf be studied?” he said. “Millions of Americans would do the things to win this war with more vigor if they knew what they were fighting Hitler and Hirohito for.”
Today, Mein Kampf remains a disordered, hate-filled “coagulated stench,” as one contemporary reviewer noted, yet it does serve as a useful manual on the art of political demagoguery. Hitler wrote, for instance, that “it is a mistake to make propaganda many-sided, like scientific instruction”; rather, “propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand.”
Bin Laden also knows the power of a focused message tailored to a specific constituency, and he has put that knowledge to use. In his speeches and interviews, he has stuck to a narrow set of themes, drawing on an inherited vernacular of Islamic dissent. “While bin Laden’s words have not been a torrent, they are plentiful, carefully chosen, plainly spoken, and precise,” observes Michael Scheuer, the CIA’s former top bin Laden analyst, in Through Our Enemies’ Eyes. “Seldom in America’s history has an enemy laid out so clearly the basis for the war he is waging.”
Bin Laden formally declared war on the United States in 1996 and again in 1998, when he and Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian Islamist, joined several other militants to sign a charter titled “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” The declaration was arguably Al Qaeda’s most direct and forceful plea. Crafted as religious dictum, it urged every Muslim to kill American citizens and military personnel in the service of a grand defensive battle. In clean, scriptural language, it described a universe thrown into turmoil by two competing forces, good and evil, and within that universe a just society under mortal threat:
Ever since God made the Arabian Peninsula flat, created the desert in it and surrounded it with seas, it has never suffered such a calamity as these Crusader hordes that have spread through it like locusts, consuming its wealth and destroying its fertility. All this at a time when nations have joined forces against the Muslims as if fighting over a bowl of food.
The infested and defiled Arabian landscape, the subjugated and abused Muslim peoples — these are the two most important images in bin Laden’s rhetorical arsenal. He employs them frequently. They fit into his theological apologia for large-scale violence. More important, they convey a sense of primal urgency that extends beyond religious obligation; bin Laden’s message here is about raw communal survival. As Carl von Clausewitz noted, “Where no enemy is to be found, there is no want of courage to oppose him.”
Hitler recognized this. He, too, spoke of a society — the German Volk — that was “broken and defenseless, exposed to the kicks of all the world.” In fact, one can find expressions of civilizational crisis among many modern revolutionary and millenarian groups. Aum Shinrikyo sectarians, the Shining Path and early anarchists have all demonstrated such thinking.
In Anarchism and Other Essays, published in 1910, Emma Goldman observed that a terrorist’s “very being must throb with the pain, the sorrow, the despair millions of people are daily made to endure” before setting out to commit violence that, by comparison, is but “a drop in the ocean.” In many ways, this same murder-drenched social calculus is what has propelled bin Laden onto the battlefield of global jihad.
It is not surprising, then, to find in bin Laden’s writings and speeches a detailed portfolio of human suffering. In recruitment videos, he speaks of such matters with tears in his eyes. In the 1998 World Islamic Front charter, he began with the following indictment: “Firstly, for over seven years America has occupied the holiest parts of the Islamic lands.”
This is a reference to US troops then stationed in Saudi Arabia, home to the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. For bin Laden, this “occupation” represented not just a religious affront but an imperial gambit, a base from which Washington projected “excessive aggression” upon the Middle East and forced Muslims to reside in “paper mini-states” that have been folded and twisted to the will of non-Muslim enemies.
Exhibit A of this aggression is Iraq. He notes that during the 1990s United Nations sanctions, along with their strongest advocate, the United States, caused the death of more than a million Iraqi children (a more accurate assessment puts the figure at around 500,000, a number that hardly needed inflating), and that the United States would soon attempt to “repeat these horrific massacres” against the Iraqi people.
Finally, he discusses America’s relationship with Israel. Bin Laden never makes clear which side he believes is dominant in that relationship, but it is no mystery that he regards it as a hostile alliance. Elsewhere, he is more specific, citing, for instance, Palestinian refugees or the 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath, when Israeli air raids into southern Lebanon killed more than 100 civilians taking shelter at a UN compound.
Indeed, Muslim suffering, according to bin Laden, spans the globe — in Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tajikistan, Burma, Somalia, Eritrea, among other places — and though these regions and their conflicts are disconnected in space and time, they are a single struggle because all of them run along the same civilizational fault line that divides Muslims from the West. Bruce Lawrence’s anthology includes one of bin Laden’s most fascinating interviews, a tough, freewheeling discussion with Al Jazeera’s Taysir Alluni in 2001.
At one point, Alluni asked bin Laden for his opinion of Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations. Bin Laden, apparently referring to the book’s title alone, replied, “I say that there is no doubt about this.” Western countries, he argues, historically have sought to divide and conquer the umma, a word that is often translated into English as “the Muslim nation.”
In bin Laden’s sense of the term, this is an accurate translation, although it is by no means the only way to express the concept. The umma could just as well be regarded as a diverse community of believers, scattered throughout the world, harmoniously mixed among peoples of various faiths and cultures.
But for Al Qaeda’s adherents it represents a kind of modern nation-state, a vast monoculture that, in its ideal form, must be contained and protected by vast borders. Bin Laden has many ways of referring to this community — the Nation of Monotheism, the Nation of Honor and Respect, the Nation of Martyrdom, the Nation That Desires Death More Than You Desire Life, the Nation of Victory and Success That God Has Promised — but in each instance, his imagined umma is the same: a sovereign expanse populated by one kind of people, governed by one system of thought and purged of all others.
This forms the basis of bin Laden’s preoccupation with the “fragmentation” of the Muslim world, and it inevitably has led him to examine the cause of that disunity. For decades other Islamists focused their jihad upon the “near enemy,” the corrupt autocrats–some secular, others religious — who rule the Middle East, but by the 1990s these movements had either been smashed or had collapsed under their own weight.
Bin Laden’s response to that failure has been to turn to the “head of the snake,” the United States — the distant reptilian juggernaut that provides the “near enemy” with military and financial backing, acts inscrutably to satisfy its economic hunger, is limitless in its political manipulations and has little regard for the people who live beyond its imperial horizons.
Bin Laden often frames his jihad against the United States as a religious conflict, and he has taken endless pleasure in Bush’s ill-considered comparison of the “war on terror” to theCrusades. (“The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouth,” bin Laden remarked.) But more often than not, he appears to be concerned with questions of lost Muslim territory and the imbalance of global wealth, which so dramatically tilts in the West’s favor.
At times he likens the United States to ancient Rome, a ruthless and expansionist power that propagates its own brand of terror throughout the world. In 1998 bin Laden asked an American journalist, “Was it not your country that bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Were there not women and children and civilians and noncombatants there? You were the people who invented this terrible game, and we as Muslims have to use those same tactics against you.”
• Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden
by Bruce Lawrence, ed.
• Osama Bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words
by Randall B. Hamud, ed.
• The World According to Al Qaeda
by Brad K. Berner, ed.
• What Does Al Qaeda Want? Unedited Communiqués
by Robert O. Marlin, ed.
• The al-Qaeda Documents, Vol. 1
by Ben N. Venzke, ed.
• Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America
by Michael Scheuer, ed.
• The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader
by Peter L. Bergen
• The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global
by Fawaz A. Gerges