In Bin Laden’s Words (BRUCE B. LAWRENCE, 11/04/05, Chronicle Review)

We learn three things by reading bin Laden in his own words.

First, bin Laden shifts his style after September 11. He retains the same, anti-imperialist agenda but tries to benefit from the forces that 9/11 unleashed. Responding to the U.S.-led war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, bin Laden becomes more alert to his own role on the world stage. He crafts letters to Muslim audiences with the confidence of a man already writing his own history. The letters reveal him to be a calculating, highly literate polemicist. Stateless, he creates his own image of an Islamic supernation that replaces all current Muslim nation-states. He projects himself as the counterweight to both American hegemony and Arab perfidy. He is the Nasser of the new century, trying to rouse Muslim audiences as much through his rhetoric as his action. He even turns the tables on the Western media. In his view, it is they, not he, who perpetuate terror. “Terror is the most dreaded weapon in the modern age and the Western media are mercilessly using it against their own people,” he declares in an October 2001 interview with Al-Ja-zeera. Why is the Western media establishment so anti-humane? Because, in bin Laden’s view, “it implants fear and helplessness in the psyche of the people of Europe and the United States. It means that what the enemies of the United States cannot do, its media are doing!”

Second, bin Laden not only assails the Western media, but he also talks over the heads of Arab and Muslim governments. He appeals directly to the youth, those with education and skills who still find themselves on the margins of wealthy societies and under the thumb of corrupt autocrats. He invites the overeducated and undervalued to become the vanguard of a war against religious enemies, Jews and Christians. Through selective citations from the Koran as well as the moral example of the Prophet, he claims that Muslims have always fought against their Abrahamic cousins, and the stakes have never been higher than now. “Resist the current Zionist-Crusader campaign against the umma, or Islamic supernation,” he urges young Muslim men, “since it threatens the entire umma, its religion, and its very existence.”

Third, to underscore the extremity of the current crisis, bin Laden invokes a new, Islamic form of just-war theory. For both classical Christian and Islamic theorists, as well as for their contemporary successors, just war has revolved around causes for going to war and methods of waging war. Collapsing both into one comprehensive argument, bin Laden defines the current war as a war “against religious enemies” that is nothing less than a war for survival on the part of the Islamic supernation. “We should see events not as isolated incidents,” he warns, “but as part of a long chain of conspiracies, a war of annihilation in all senses of the word.” Because “the Zionist-Crusaders” have launched World War III, he argues, random, unannounced violence against enemy civilians, including women and children, is now justified in the name of Islam. […]

If I have learned one enduring lesson from months of reflection on the words of Osama bin Laden, it is that the best defense against World War III is neither censoring nor silencing him but reading what he has actually written and countering his arguments with better ones. He has left a sufficient record that can, and should, be attacked for its deficiencies, its lapses, its contradictions, and, above all, its hopelessness.

Most striking is the absence of any social dimension. Bin Laden never examines the different structural features of the various Muslim societies in which jihad is to be waged: Afghanistan is not Iraq is not Israel/Palestine. Morally, he denounces a host of evils. Some of them — unemployment, inflation, and corruption — are social. But no alternative conception of the ideal society is ever offered. The absence of any social program separates Al Qaeda not just from the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades, with which it has sometimes mistakenly been compared, but — more significantly — from the earlier wave of radical Islamism in the mid-20th century. Both Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Abu’l Ala Mawdudi in Pakistan tried to transform their societies into a just Islamic order (nizam-i mustafa, the model order of the Prophet, in Mawdudi’s elegant phrase). In place of social objectives, bin Laden accentuates the need for personal sacrifice. He is far more concerned with the glories of martyrdom than with the spoils of victory. Rewards belong essentially to the hereafter.

Bin Laden’s is a creed of great purity and intensity, capable of inspiring its followers with a degree of passion and principled conviction that no secular movement in the Arab world has yet matched. At the same time, it is obviously also a narrow and self-limiting one: It can have little appeal for the great mass of Muslims. Like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, contemporary Muslims need more than scriptural dictates, poetic transports, or apodictic slogans to chart their everyday life, whether as individuals or as collective members of a community, local or national.

The future evoked by bin Laden does not portend a return to the past, either the distant glories of 7th-century Arab caliphs or the 20th-century pan-Islamism of the beleaguered Ottoman caliphate. Despite references to the glories of the Ottoman Empire, bin Laden does not clamor to restore a caliphate today. He seems at some level to recognize the futility of a quest for restitution. He sets no positive political horizon for his struggle. Instead, he vows that jihad will continue until “we meet God and get his blessing!”

Some have suggested that the war against Al Qaeda can be won if the United States takes steps to engage in serious dialogue with its enemy.

It wounds folks’ pride and scares them too much to acknowledge the fact, but we’re incidental to al Qaeda’s psychoses, which is why engaging their “ideas” and complaints would be futile. Whether George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard understood it clearly at the time or not, the proper strategy has been to radically Reform the Middle East and Islam instead.

Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology (Lee Harris, August 2002, Policy Review)

This common identification of 9-11 as an act of war arises from a deeper unquestioned assumption — an assumption made both by Chomsky and his followers on one hand and Hanson and National Review on the other — and, indeed, by almost everyone in between. The assumption is this: An act of violence on the magnitude of 9-11 can only have been intended to further some kind of political objective. What this political objective might be, or whether it is worthwhile — these are all secondary considerations; but surely people do not commit such acts unless they are trying to achieve some kind of recognizably political purpose.

Behind this shared assumption stands the figure of Clausewitz and his famous definition of war as politics carried out by other means. The whole point of war, on this reading, is to get other people to do what we want them to do: It is an effort to make others adopt our policies and/or to further our interests. Clausewitzian war, in short, is rational and instrumental. It is the attempt to bring about a new state of affairs through the artful combination of violence and the promise to cease violence if certain political objectives are met.

Of course, this does not mean that wars may not backfire on those who undertake them, or that a particular application of military force may not prove to be counterproductive to one’s particular political purpose. But this does not change the fact that the final criterion of military success is always pragmatic: Does it work? Does it in fact bring us closer to realizing our political objectives?

But is this the right model for understanding 9-11? Or have we, like Montezuma, imposed our own inadequate categories on an event that simply does not fit them? Yet, if 9-11 was not an act of war, then what was it? In what follows, I would like to pursue a line suggested by a remark by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in reference to 9-11: his much-quoted comment that it was “the greatest work of art of all time.”

Despite the repellent nihilism that is at the base of Stockhausen’s ghoulish aesthetic judgment, it contains an important insight and comes closer to a genuine assessment of 9-11 than the competing interpretation of it in terms of Clausewitzian war. For Stockhausen did grasp one big truth: 9-11 was the enactment of a fantasy — not an artistic fantasy, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless.

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