When I was five years old, the first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, threatened to bury me. That was in 1956, when he buried the Hungarian Revolution. In California we welcomed Hungarian victims of Soviet brutality while finding no room for the Guatemalans whose democracy the CIA had crushed two years earlier. We were trained to ignore our victims and to fear our enemy. After all, Khrushchev could have buried us, even if he did not mean to do so literally, so much as to attend the funeral of capitalism. His formidable arsenal, we were told by Senator Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1960, contained more intercontinental ballistic missiles than ours. Soviet scientists propelled the first satellite and the first man into space.
The Soviets had more manpower, more tanks and more dedication than we would ever have, somnolent as we were in our material comfort. ‘Monolithic Communism’ ruled most of the Eurasian landmass. J. Edgar Hoover, America’s chief law enforcer, warned us about ‘godless Communists’ and their designs on our liberties in his bestselling Masters of Deceit. Other titles in the red-baiting crusade – yes, they called it a crusade – were You Can Trust the Communists (to Be Communists) and None Dare Call It Treason. Under banners proclaiming that ‘The only ism for me is Americanism’, and ‘Better Dead than Red’, Dr Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communist Crusade held rallies that were guaranteed to fill the Hollywood Bowl.
Every morning at my parochial school, we pledged allegiance to the flag, sang the national anthem and prayed for the conversion of Russia. The otherwise thoughtful Sisters of the Immaculate Heart sometimes asked us – a kind of moral quiz – what we would do if the Communists burst into the classroom ‘right now’, levelled guns at our heads and demanded that we renounce Christ. When we got home from school, our flickering black and white televisions escalated the Communophobic barrage. The FBI Story, a weekly drama, competed in unmasking disloyalty with the real House Un-American Activities Committee and its Senate equivalent under Joe McCarthy. Commies, loners and eggheads were undermining the American way of life with foreign ideas like socialised medicine, racial mixing and unemployment insurance. The most compelling TV series was I Led Three Lives, based on the autobiography of Herbert Philbrick. Normal, God-fearing Americans shunned Communist cadre Philbrick; but we viewers knew he was secretly – and patriotically – working for good old J. Edgar at the FBI to send his comrades to the slammer. I understand now why Dalton Trumbo and Larry Adler hightailed it to England. Bad as those days were, brother, we never had it so good.
Now, the kids are terrified of some guy in a cave. The successors of McCarthy, Hoover and the 1950s television network bosses teach them that the madman Osama bin Laden can kill them at any minute, that he hates their freedom (perhaps not so much as their parents do) and is out to get them just because they are free. Unlike Khrushchev, Osama bin Laden has neither ICBMs nor nuclear warheads capable of destroying mankind ten times over. He does not even have a country. Yet he scares more than Khrushchev did. As every American schoolchild saw, bin Laden attacked the homeland on 11 September 2001 – burying a few thousand of us. He may yet bury more. We, of course, are sending his kind to their graves in Afghanistan, Iraq and other corners of the Islamic patrimony.
Osama’s is a two-theatre war: one on the battlefield, the other on the airwaves. For a guy on the run, he is not doing badly. Although his loyalists are killed, wounded and captured, volunteers for his holy war increase in proportion to the dearth of recruits to the American armed forces. While the US military lowers entrance requirements and raises pay, Osama’s guarantee of hardship, hunger and probable death has young Muslims jumping the jihad queue. By body count – which proved an unsure indicator in Vietnam – the US is winning. It has killed and incarcerated more Muslims than Osama has Westerners. But Osama has the upper hand. The American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, ostensibly designed to capture him, has not prevented him from popping up several times a year on television and the internet. America’s ‘public enemy number one’, a term dating from Hoover’s enforcement of America’s experiment with Saudi-style Prohibition, has a more devoted television following than Desperate Housewives and Big Brother. His pronouncements invariably lead the news. When he mentions a book, it scales the bestseller lists. If he endorses a war in, say, Iraq, the roads clog with volunteers. This guy is box office. Osama sells.
The Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, who spent three days with bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996, calls the al-Qaida leader’s use of modern communications ‘cyber-jihad’. Cyber and television jihad are parts of the war that the former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer believes bin Laden is winning. Scheuer, whose Cassandra-isms as head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit went unheeded by the Clinton and Bush administrations before 2001, is still trying to warn America. ‘No one,’ he writes, ‘should be surprised when bin Laden and al-Qaida detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States.’ Why? As Scheuer notes in Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, and as the collected pronouncements in Messages to the World make clear, bin Laden will attack the United States again because he said he will. He is a man of his word.
In his introduction to Messages to the World, Bruce Lawrence writes: ‘Bin Laden is not an original thinker.’ What gives these statements ‘their unique force . . . are his literary gifts. Bin Laden has earned many labels by now – fanatic, nihilist, fundamentalist, terrorist – but what actually distinguishes him, among a host of those described in these ways, is that he is first and foremost a polemicist.’ What in fact distinguishes him is that he acts. His polemic, taken alone, would not grant him global prominence. Until he attacked American targets in the late 1990s, most of the Western world ignored him as another crank in a turban. His expulsion to Afghanistan from Sudan in May 1996, at America’s insistence, marked a change in bin Laden’s modus operandi that would increase his media celebrity. The veteran Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal, in his detailed and thoroughly researched biography Osama: The Making of a Terrorist, noted that in 1996 ‘he crossed the threshold from a war of words against Saudi Arabia and the United States and planning violent operations to executing his first incontrovertible acts of terrorism.’ The acts themselves – attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen, on American embassies in East Africa, and on the United States itself in September 2001 – increased his audience share in both East and West. Similarly, George Bush’s pulpit depends on his control of the largest nuclear armoury on earth – not on his eloquence – and his predisposition to launch invasions. Violence, potential and real, rather than the force of their polemic obliges us to heed them.
Bin Laden’s utterances, beautifully translated by James Howarth and well edited with informative footnotes by Lawrence, prove a better guide to his intentions and Weltanschauung than the same words mediated by CNN anchors and New York Times columnists. He does not appear to be deranged, as his detractors insist he is. His message is plain: leave the Muslim world alone, and it will leave you alone. Kill Muslims, and they will kill you. ‘America won’t be able to leave this ordeal unless it pulls out of the Arabian Peninsula, and it ceases its meddling in Palestine, and throughout the Islamic world,’ bin Laden told the al-Jazeera correspondent Taysir Alluni six weeks after the 11 September attacks. ‘If we gave this equation to any child in any American school, he would easily solve it within a second.’ When Bush said in 2004 that his was ‘a war against people who hate freedom’, bin Laden responded: ‘Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example.’ In December 1998, two months after his followers had destroyed the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and killed hundreds of Africans, bin Laden justified the murder of unarmed civilians on al-Jazeera:
The infidels tell Muslims that bin Laden is threatening to kill civilians – yet what are they doing in Palestine? They’re not only killing innocents, but children as well! . . . I say there are two sides in the struggle: one side is the global Crusader alliance with the Zionist Jews, led by America, Britain and Israel, and the other side is the Islamic world. It is not acceptable in such a struggle as this that he [the Crusader] should attack and enter my land and holy sanctuaries and plunder Muslims’ oil, and then when he encounters any resistance from Muslims, to label them terrorists. This is stupidity, or considering others stupid.
‘They evidently won’t wise up without the language of beatings and killings,’ bin Laden said in his post-9/11 al-Jazeera interview. ‘So, as they kill us, without a doubt we have to kill them, until we obtain a balance of terror. This is the first time, in recent years, that the balance of terror has evened out between the Muslims and the Americans; previously, the Americans did to us whatever they pleased, and the victim wasn’t even allowed to complain.’ Jonathan Randal’s caustic aside in Osama sums up the American attitude: ‘How odd that many foreigners thought the United States ran a global empire and intervened at will in the affairs of countries great and small.’
Israel’s brutality to Palestinians and, in particular, its 1982 invasion of Lebanon appear to have inspired bin Laden’s world-view:
‘The events that made a direct impression on me were during and after 1982, when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon with the help of its Third Fleet . . . I still remember those distressing scenes: blood, torn limbs, women and children massacred. All over the place, houses were being destroyed and tower blocks were collapsing, crushing their residents, while bombs rained down mercilessly on our homes . . .
‘As I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America, so that it would have a taste of its own medicine and would be prevented from killing our women and children. On that day I became sure that the oppression and intentional murder of innocent women and children is a deliberate American policy.’
‘Attention!’ the old French saying goes, ‘cet animal est très méchant, quand on l’attaque il se défend.’
Bin Laden’s recalibration of violence between the West and Islam matches his capture of airtime on the world’s media. On the internet and television, he out-punches Bush. Unlike Bush, he is articulate and coherent. His rationale for violence is simple. You have attacked Muslims for the past century, and now Muslims are taking the war to you. ‘As I speak,’ bin Laden said in a sermon released on videotape in February 2003, ‘our wounds have yet to heal from the Crusader wars of the last century against the Islamic world, or from the Sykes- Picot Agreement of 1916 between France and Britain, which brought about the dissection of the Islamic world into fragments.’ Bin Laden is not fabricating Israeli oppression in the West Bank and Gaza or American interference in Islam’s political, cultural and financial life. He is one of the first preachers to address Muslims’ experiences in words they understand and deeds they believe are committed for their benefit. His imagery harks back to their earliest religious education. Even a secularist and bon vivant like Abdel Bari Atwan is not immune. When he stayed in bin Laden’s Afghan encampment in 1996,
‘the resident imam called us to al Fajr (dawn prayers). It was intensely beautiful, echoing round the lofty mountains. Some of bin Laden’s followers had taken on the names of military commanders from early Islamic conquests, and I felt as though I had stepped back into the past: here was Abu Ubaydah, there Abu Mu’adh, Abu Shayb, Abu Dharand, Abu al-Walid . . . They had turned their backs on life a long time ago and were in a hurry to get to eternal life in the hereafter. All spoke longingly of the martyrdom they hoped for. I found it remarkable that so many of the mujahidin possessed the very highest academic qualifications. There were doctors, engineers and teachers among them, people who had left their jobs to join the jihad.’
Occasionally, bin Laden’s words resonate even in the West. After the Madrid bombs that killed 191 people on suburban trains in March 2004, bin Laden addressed the ‘peoples of Europe’ on videotape: ‘In what creed are your dead considered innocent but ours worthless? By what logic does your blood count as real and ours as no more than water? Reciprocal treatment is part of justice, and he who commences hostilities is the unjust one.’
Bin Laden determines the pace at which he makes revelations, declares jihad, offers truces, condemns American military adventures and grants interviews. Abdel Bari Atwan recalls the circumstances that led to his interview with bin Laden in 1996, when the US was already offering $1 million for his capture. Atwan, who had shown little interest in bin Laden, didn’t request an interview. The invitation came through Khaled al-Fawwaz, who was then the representative of bin Laden’s Reform and Advice Committee in London – he was later arrested.
‘Bin Laden . . . seems to have developed a very good sense of how to use the media over the years, and when he decided to declare war on the US, he wanted it to be known the world over. He instructed al-Fawwaz to invite other selected media professionals for interviews, too. From the newspaper sector, only the British journalist Robert Fisk and I were chosen.
ABC News, Channel Four and CNN, whose producer Peter Bergen spotted bin Laden’s importance early on, also accepted. Over the years, so did several Arab and Pakistani networks. The BBC and CBS declined, Atwan writes, out of lack of interest – editorial decisions that must have been regretted. Since 2001, no journalist would turn down an offer to interview bin Laden for any reason other than fear for their safety or of subsequent internment by the CIA. The interviews are few, but recorded proclamations are many.
The bin Laden who emerges in the interviews and epistles collected in Messages to the World is the figure astutely observed by Scheuer:
‘For nearly a decade now, bin Laden has demonstrated patience, brilliant planning, managerial expertise, sound strategic and tactical sense, admirable character traits, eloquence and focused, limited war aims. He has never, to my knowledge, behaved or spoken in a way that could be described as “irrational in the extreme”.’
Scheuer criticises pundits – from the elderly Orientalist Bernard Lewis to the neocons on Fox – for consistently dismissing bin Laden as insane. ‘Bin Laden is described,’ Scheuer writes, ‘alternately as a “stateless psychopath”, a man of “mad ambitions”, the leader of “a new breed of savage and suicidal terrorists”‘ who follow a ‘”fanatical warping of Islam”; a “mass murderer” who, with al-Qaida, produces “mumbo-jumbo to justify their various atrocities” . . . These writers were wrong before 11 September and are wrong now, although their stubborn resistance to post-11 September reality is remarkable.’
Bin Laden’s earliest messages were directed to Islamic scholars, who were neglecting, as he saw it, their duty to guide the faithful. In 1994, condemning the Saudi clerics who endorsed the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, he reminded them of the Prophet Muhammad’s dictum, ‘Whoever enters the Sultan’s door has been led astray.’ Throughout 1994 and 1995, he pleaded with Muslim scholars to ‘come and lead your umma, and call her to God, and return her to religion in order to correct beliefs, spread knowledge, enjoin good and forbid evil. Call her to jihad for the sake of God Almighty and call her to motivate people for it.’
Two types of scholar coexist in bin Laden’s cosmology: the good, who are in prison for criticising rulers, and the courtiers, who serve apostasy. It has fallen to bin Laden himself to fill the void. He told CNN’s Peter Arnett in March 1997: ‘When the Saudi government transgressed in oppressing all voices of the scholars and the voices of those who call for Islam, I found myself forced . . . to carry out a small part of my duty of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.’ Men do not make laws, God does. Scholars have the important task of understanding, interpreting and applying God’s law. Bin Laden does not believe in legislators, because there is nothing to legislate. Law is eternal. It issues in the Sharia. There can be jurists and governors, but not legislators. This vision underpins his hatred of secular regimes in the Muslim world, whether democratic or dictatorial. He has a special animus against the United Nations, whose resolutions not only contradict Sharia but tend to be harmful to Muslims – like the 1947 resolution creating Israel in Palestine. He insists that ‘no sane Muslim should take his grievance to the United Nations. As for Muslims, they are not allowed to seek the help of these infidel, man-made organisations.’ When the Islamic umma is threatened, as bin Laden believes it is, the scholar’s duty is to struggle in its defence. The struggle is jihad.
In February 1998, under the banner of the World Islamic Front, bin Laden, together with Muslim fundamentalists from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt, declared jihad on the United States, benefactor of Israel and of the tyrants who rule the Islamic birthplace in Saudi Arabia. The four self-declared leaders pronounced that
To kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim in all countries, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Mosque from their grip, so that their armies leave all the territory of Islam, defeated, broken and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of God Almighty: ‘Fight the idolators at any time, if they first fight you.’
In Imperial Hubris, Scheuer describes this jihad:
Theirs is a war against a specific target and for specific, limited purposes. While they use whatever weapons come to hand – including weapons of mass destruction – their goal is not to wipe out our secular democracy, but to deter us by military means from attacking the things they love. Bin Laden et al are not eternal warriors; there is no evidence they are fighting for fighting’s sake, or that they would be lost for things to do without a war to wage. There is evidence to the contrary, in fact, showing bin Laden and other Islamist leaders would like to end the war, get back to their families, and live a less martial lifestyle. They share the attitude of the Afghan mujahideen during the Afghan-Soviet war: they are weary of war, but not war weary in a way making them ready to compromise or fight less enthusiastically.
Some of bin Laden’s declarations, however, point to a millenarian vision of permanent warfare between Islam and the rest of the world. ‘Although our enemy lies,’ he stated in an audiotape broadcast by al-Jazeera in January 2004, ‘our religion tells the truth when it stipulates: you fight, so you exist.’ Two months later, Islamists detonated the Madrid bombs. Afterwards, bin Laden was more conciliatory, offering on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya ‘a peace proposal in response to positive recent exchanges’. Spain had just elected a socialist government, whose first action was to keep its election promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.
So I present to them this peace proposal, which is essentially a commitment to cease operations against any state that pledges not to attack Muslims or intervene in their affairs, including the American conspiracy against the great Islamic world. This peace can be renewed at the end of a government’s term and the beginning of a new one, with the consent of both sides. It will come into effect on the departure of its last soldier from our lands, and it is available for a period of three months from the day this statement is broadcast . . . Therefore, stop spilling our blood in order to save your own.
Anti-semitism of a vicious kind infects many of the bin Laden edicts. His rhetoric harks back to a moment in early Islamic history, when Muhammad and his followers fought non-Muslim tribes who happened to be Christian, Jewish and polytheist. ‘These Jews are masters of usury and leaders in treachery,’ bin Laden stated in a 53-minute audiotape broadcast on 14 February 2003. ‘They will leave you nothing, either in this world or the next.’ In the same epistle, he brought down the Prophet Muhammad’s wrath on the Jews:
Our umma has also been promised victory over the Jews, as our Prophet told us: ‘The Day of Judgment will not come until the Muslims fight and kill the Jews. They will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will say: O Muslim, oh servant of God, there is a Jew behind me, so come and kill him. This is except for the boxthorn tree, which is the tree of the Jews.’
Although the passage above comes from a hadith of the Prophet that is not recognised by all Muslims, its message is clear: defeat of the Jews is a religious priority. However, other epochs in Muslim history, when the umma’s existence was not threatened, show that anti-semitism, far from being essential to the Muslim message, is antithetical to it. Bin Laden, subtle in other ways, rarely distinguishes between Zionism and Judaism, between Israeli actions against Palestinians and the long history of Muslim-Jewish fraternisation throughout the Islamic world, between the politics of the moment and the essential duty of Muslims to honour the previous Peoples of the Book – Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians. Bin Laden’s anti-semitism contrasts with the golden ages of Islam, when the Muslim world welcomed Jews fleeing Christian persecution in Europe. The Ottoman Empire, the princely states of North Africa and Islamic Persia all made themselves havens for Jews. In pre-British Iraq, Jews were so much a part of society’s fabric that the banks closed, not on Friday for Muslim prayers, but on the Jewish Sabbath. Bin Laden is introducing a new concept into Islam when he says, as he did in 1998: ‘Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians. This is a part of our belief and our religion.’ His belief perhaps, but not Islam’s.
In the same way, bin Laden’s Muslim tribalism takes precedence over the right of self-determination in the case of East Timor. In a letter dated 3 November 2001 to al-Jazeera’s Kabul bureau, bin Laden wrote:
Look at the position of the West and the United Nations with regard to events in Indonesia. They moved to partition the most populous nation in the Islamic world. That criminal Kofi Annan publicly put pressure on the Indonesian government, telling it that it had 24 hours to partition and separate East Timor from Indonesia, otherwise he would have to introduce military forces to do it. The Crusader armies of Australia were on the shores of Indonesia and they did in fact intervene and separate East Timor, which is part of the Islamic world.
East Timor, a former Portuguese colony whose population was almost entirely Catholic and animist, had never been part of the Islamic world. Encouraged by Washington in December 1975, the secular dictator of Indonesia, Suharto, invaded the country. Over the next 25 years, Indonesian occupation forces supplied by the United States defence industry killed or starved to death about a quarter of the population – more than 200,000 people – and implanted Muslim settlers from Java in their place. When this was done with less ruthlessness by Israelis to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, bin Laden condemned it. A strong odour of hypocrisy hovers over his endorsement of ethnic cleansing by Muslims against Christian East Timorese. After Suharto’s fall, the UN brokered an agreement and sponsored a referendum in which the vast majority of East Timorese voted for the independence that they finally won – after a final, brutal spasm of Indonesian violence in 1999 – in 2002.
By restoring the Muslim world to Islamic rule free of American manipulation, bin Laden seeks to establish rightful governance as in the Prophet’s days. The Taliban’s Afghanistan was his ideal Islamic society. But many Muslims, perhaps a majority, who admire bin Laden for his resistance to the United States would balk at Taliban rule in their homelands. Perfect states tend to alienate their citizens, who usually overthrow them as soon as they are given the opportunity.
Bin Laden would do well to study the example of another charismatic preacher who shunned worldly pleasures and condemned the corrupt despots and bogus scholars of his day. Fra Girolamo Savonarola’s sermons against the excesses of the Medici in Florence were as popular as bin Laden’s videotapes and internet epistles are today. Like bin Laden, he longed for the pure, simple life of his religion’s earliest days and the destruction of the worldly magnificence that had accreted to it. Medici and priestly corruption gave him an audience. Florentine zealots expelled the Medici in 1494 and, as the Taliban did, banished all signs of luxury. Like bin Laden, Savonarola refused public office but maintained his influence through his words. A confraternity of young men, not unlike the Taliban’s religious police or Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, broke into houses to seize dice, cards and other amusements that diverted attention from the Almighty. Savonarola’s brotherhood warned women to dress modestly and interfered, via a system of household spying, in everyone’s private life. It did not help his cause that he had condemned the pope and all the princes of Italy for their dishonesty and unChristian behaviour. By 1498, Florence had wearied of religious piety and hanged him.
Prophets are popular until they reach the Promised Land. One wonders how long any Muslim population, however much its ears are attuned to the words of Osama bin Laden, the revolutionary outsider and nemesis of American imperialism, would last under a state ruled by him. How long would the Iraqis or Syrians or Indonesians tolerate the religious police instructing them how to dress and act and think? How many years would they endure spying by their neighbours to ensure their conformity with his version of Sunni Islam? How long would it be before al-Qaida’s members themselves succumbed to the blandishments of power and wealth? ‘You must know the proverb,’ Machiavelli wrote in The Art of War, ‘”War makes thieves, and peace hangs them.”‘
Books under Review
The Secret History of al-Qaida by Abdel Bari Atwan, Saqi, 256 pp, £16.99
Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror by Michael Scheuer, Potomac, 307 pp, £11.95
Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden ed. Bruce Lawrence trans. James Howarth, Verso, 292 pp, £10.99
Osama: The Making of a Terrorist by Jonathan Randal, I. B. Tauris, 346 pp, £9.99