Why we must take Osama bin Laden’s writings seriously
March 1, 2006
Mar 1, 2006
30 Min read time
Why we must take Osama bin Laden’s writings seriously.
Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden
edited by Bruce Lawrence and translated by James Howarth
Verso, $16.95 (paper)
It is unfortunate that Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden only appears now, more than four years after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Considering the extraordinary costs of the “war on terrorism,” the American people cannot afford to yield to the temptations of apathy and ignorance. Reading this book is essential if we are to seriously appraise the effectiveness of our counterterrorism policies, understand our enemy, and appreciate the historical dimensions of the conflict with what is described as Islamic terrorism.
We now have, for the first time in English, a systematic and well-organized selection of the speeches, proclamations, declarations, and interviews of our principal enemy, Osama bin Laden. The book is particularly valuable because of the scholarship of Bruce Lawrence, a religion professor at Duke University, whose insightful introduction and many explanatory footnotes provide essential context for bin Laden’s references and claims.
But how are we to read this book? On one level, reading bin Laden is like reading the writings of a criminal who aims to rationalize his acts by explaining the circumstances of political and social oppression that forced him into criminality. At another level, reading bin Laden is not materially different from reading the tracts of a committed revolutionary who is struggling to liberate his people from foreign domination. But bin Laden himself insists that he be read neither as a criminal blaming the system nor simply as a radical defending its overthrow. He fancies himself a theologian and jurist who, besides acting to defend Muslim lands, is struggling to educate and exhort Muslims to act according to the dictates of their faith.
So who is bin Laden? Is he a criminal, a revolutionary, a theologian, or perhaps a historically unique and significant blend of all three—one who, like a medieval Crusader (perhaps a Bernard of Clairvaux), is armed with a righteous sense of aggression and feels compelled to preach violence while crying out, “Deus lo volt!” (“God wills it!”)?
The Crusades were replete with deeply religious bin Laden–like characters who, convinced of the justice of their cause and fully absorbed in their rage and hate, committed acts of barbaric cruelty. Of course, bin Laden considers himself to be the antithesis of a Crusader: he is a liberator, seeking to thwart a vicious new Crusade being waged against Islam and Muslims. But this self-serving description does not seem to convince most Muslims. While many may believe that such a Crusade is indeed being waged, the vast majority do not consider bin Laden to be their great liberator—or any sort of liberator at all.
* * *
Osama bin Laden was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. He came from a broken home; his mother was Syrian, and both his father and his stepfather were Yemeni. Although bin Laden’s father started out as an illiterate laborer, he became a close confidant of the Saudi ruling family and a major building contractor in the holy sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina. Upon his death, bin Laden’s father left a fortune of $11 billion to be shared among his 54 sons and daughters borne by more than 20 wives. Bin Laden’s father was in the habit of ameliorating the practice of the Saudi royal family by marrying women for a short period of time but assuming financial responsibility for their children after divorce. He would also financially support the mothers of his children until they died or remarried, whichever came first.
When bin Laden was ten, his father died, and although he does not seem to have suffered any financial deprivation, he and his stepfather were not close. Bin Laden attended the school of management and economics at King Abd al-Aziz University at Jeddah. There he allegedly took a few Islamic-studies courses with Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian scholar of Islam who was killed in a car bombing in 1989 in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Muhammad Qutb, who was a graduate of the Azhar seminary at Cairo and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Muhammad Qutb’s brother, Sayyid Qutb, was a puritanical member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by the Nasser regime in 1966. Bin Laden was especially influenced by Azzam, who emphasized the idea of jihad as a militant struggle against foreign occupation, domination, and colonialism.
Interestingly, while many of bin Laden’s speeches express his admiration for and acknowledge his intellectual debt to Azzam, they rarely mention Qutb. Both Qutb and Azzam believed in the necessity of establishing an Islamic state governed by divine law. But while Qutb believed in pursuing this goal through evolutionary change, Azzam believed in liberation through militant struggle. It is noteworthy that both Azzam, a Palestinian, and Qutb, an Egyptian, ended up living and teaching in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has played a central role in the Muslim world by absorbing, co-opting, and then directing the voices of Muslim activists. The Saudi power to inveigle and influence Muslim activists and scholars with Wahhabi theology played a prominent role in shaping bin Laden’s legacy, a matter I will return to later.
Bin Laden dropped out of school without obtaining his degree and submerged himself in the world of business, helping to develop his father’s construction empire and amassing a sizeable fortune. It is significant that bin Laden was never trained as a theologian or jurist, and his knowledge of Islamic law is not systematic or exhaustive. But even if bin Laden had sought systematic training in Islamic jurisprudence, in Saudi Arabia he would only have been able to study the Wahhabi school of thought. As far as the Saudi government is concerned, Wahhabism is the only true Islam. Every other legal or theological orientation is false, heretical, and, therefore, banned.
“Wahhabi” is the term used to describe a follower of the puritanical teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century militant activist who sought to quash what he considered to be the many heretical innovations and practices that had come to plague the Muslim world. In the late 18th century, the Wahhabis, the Al Saud family, and Great Britain formed an alliance that successfully rebelled against the Ottoman caliphate and gained control of the two holy sites, Mecca and Medina, as well as most of Arabia. But the followers of Abd al-Wahhab themselves reject the terms “Wahhabi” because as far as they are concerned there is no meaningful distinction between Wahhabi doctrines and Islam proper. They prefer simply to be called Muslims or the followers of the Prophet and his companions (Salafis). The implication is clear: those who do not accept their interpretations and beliefs are not true Muslims.
The fact that bin Laden was never trained as a theologian or jurist does not mean that he is Islamically illiterate. On the contrary, he has a remarkable ability to cite Qur’anic verses and hadith (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) in support of his arguments. Assuming that bin Laden does not rely on research assistants or speechwriters, he must have a prodigious memory: he effortlessly embroiders his speeches and statements with many quotes and anecdotes culled from the amorphous tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. His language and rhetoric are not so much classical as archaic; his Arabic usage is rooted in the medieval linguistic practices of Mecca and Medina. Using this old form of Arabic makes him sound eloquent and authoritative, but contrary to what some commentators have claimed, it is not bin Laden’s linguistic practice or eloquence that makes him popular among Muslims. Bin Laden is not a charismatic speaker, and his Arabic usage is not enthrallingly unique.
What is most striking about bin Laden’s use of the Qur’an and hadith is that he is so unabashedly selective. These raw materials are like the timber of a large forest that could be used to construct a moral edifice of exceptional beauty, but bin Laden carefully chooses from them to build something resembling a siege engine. He does not scrutinize them in light of the ethical and moral objectives of the faith; he does not filter out what might be described as the deadwood or rotted timber of the tradition in the process of searching out the divine will; he does not concern himself with the disputations of juristic communities of the past; and he does not feel bound by interpretive precedents about the validity of particular traditions attributed to the Prophet.
In fact, while he often invokes the Qur’an and hadith, practically all of bin Laden’s speeches focus on political and worldly themes. Bin Laden considers himself and his fellow Muslims to be at war, and he is interested in the Islamic tradition only to the extent that it lends support to his fight. While bin Laden wishes to be read as a theologian, then, he does not accept the demands of theological argument, and were it not for the incessant religious references he would read like a third-world Marxist revolutionary.
Like other revolutionary terrorists, bin Laden believes that he is standing up to a superpower or “the forces of arrogance” that continue to “enslave” the oppressed masses. By committing acts of violence, he exposes the oppressors by forcing them to drop the charade of democracy and respect for human dignity. In his speeches, bin Laden cites the Patriot Act, the secret detention of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, and the use of torture by American forces as revealing the true face of the United States—and as proof that his fighters have already won the war by exposing American hypocrisy and by forever changing the American way of life. This is a point of particular importance: according to bin Laden, after 9/11 the United States quickly abandoned its ideals and betrayed its own principles. “You have claimed to be the vanguards of Human Rights,” bin Laden tells the American government, “and your Ministry of Foreign Affairs [State Department] issues annual reports containing statistics of those countries that violate any Human Rights. However, all these values vanished when the mujahideen hit you [on 9/11], and you then implemented the methods of the same documented governments that you used to curse . . . What happens in Guantánamo is a historical embarrassment to America and its values, and it screams into your hypocritical faces: What is the value of your signature on any agreement or treaty?” Elsewhere, he adds: “So I say that freedom and human rights in America have been sent to the guillotine with no prospect of return, unless these values are quickly reinstated.”
* * *
Like other revolutionaries, bin Laden believes that after acts of violence expose the truth, the masses will rise up and destroy their oppressors—these acts will provide the spark that lights the prairie fire. He is also convinced that as Muslims are forced to watch fellow Muslims (militant dissidents) being hunted down by security forces and foreign invaders, they will join his cause. He repeatedly calls upon Muslims to take part in a jihad that would liberate the world from its state of servitude. But in doing so, he seems to consistently misread the sympathies and aspirations of most Muslims.
Bin Laden seems to suffer from a grandiose, perhaps delusional sense of his own achievements. According to him, the mujahideen single-handedly brought down the Soviet Union. Although most experts agree that the mujahideen were heavily supported by the Saudi government and the CIA and that bin Laden himself at one time worked with the CIA, bin Laden denies all of this. The mujahideen, he says, assisted only by God, brought the Soviet empire to its knees.
The United States, he argues, is much weaker than the Soviet Union ever was, and so it follows that if Muslim fighters could single-handedly undermine the Soviet Union, the same could be done to the United States. Bin Laden exaggerates the impact of the 9/11 attacks, and on one occasion even indulges in bizarre calculations of the financial losses that the United States must have suffered, concluding that a few more well-placed strikes are bound to cause the nation’s downfall. Once the mujahideen cause the American empire to disintegrate or become seriously weakened, it is only a matter of time before all Muslims break the yoke of subjugation by overthrowing their governments, which he believes are nothing more than puppets in the hands of the United States. Ultimately, Muslims will expel the foreign occupiers from their lands. At times, bin Laden reverses the order of his logic—he predicts that first Muslims will rise to overthrow the puppet governments, and in doing so they will bring down the American empire. Whatever the expected order of destruction, bin Laden must be very disappointed because none of the revolutions that he predicted, whether in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Yemen, have materialized.
* * *
Read as a revolutionary, then, bin Laden comes across as politically naive or ill informed or both. But in any case most of bin Laden’s discourse is missing an essential part of the revolutionary message: he is not focused on creating a new world order—he rarely speaks about spreading the Muslim faith all over the world or about establishing a Muslim caliphate that would come to rule the world. In fact, he invites Americans to become Muslim only once, and his half-hearted invitation is only made in response to Muslim critics who accuse him of violating the technical dictates of traditional Islamic law by attacking Americans without proper notice and a declaration of war, and without first giving them the opportunity to convert to Islam.
Most of bin Laden’s speeches are about self-defense and revenge. In practically every statement, bin Laden warns his fellow Muslims against what he calls the “Judeo-Crusader hordes” that have invaded Muslim lands. Like all past Crusaders, he says, the Americans intend to occupy Muslim lands and destroy the Islamic faith. At one point, bin Laden names some of these past Crusaders—Richard the Lionheart, Fredrick Barbarossa, and Louis of France—in the context of arguing that the West has never stopped crusading against Muslims. But, bin Laden argues, the present Crusade is the worst and most dangerous in Islamic history: Ever since God made the Arabian peninsula . . . 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 . . . for over seven years America has occupied the holiest parts of the Islamic lands, the Arabian peninsula, plundering its wealth, dictating to its leaders, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors and turning its bases there into a spearhead with which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.
In bin Laden’s view, the current Western aggression is a defining point in Muslim history—a challenge to Muslims’ very existence. Yet instead of standing up to defend their faith, land, and dignity, Muslims have not only cowered in fear but (in many cases) become traitors by joining the aggressor. “This momentous event,” bin Laden declares in one of his early speeches, “is unprecedented both in pagan and Islamic history.” He continues: For the first time, the Crusaders have managed to achieve their historic ambitions and dreams against our Islamic umma [nation], gaining control over the Islamic holy places and Holy Sanctuaries, and hegemony over the wealth and riches of our umma turning the Arabian Peninsula into the biggest air, land, and sea base in the region . . . All this happened on the watch of the region’s rulers, and with their active participation—in fact, these are the people actually implementing the plans of our umma’s enemies . . . Honorable and righteous scholars, this is the first, the biggest, and the most dangerous invasion of Saudi Arabia, and the leaders that some were counting on to defend our umma from aggression appear in fact to be the tools of that same aggression. And many scholars who were supposed to stand up for the truth . . . have forsaken our umma and pandered to the rulers.
The Judeo-Christian Crusade seeks not only to occupy Muslim holy sites and exploit Muslim natural resources but to assert permanent hegemony over Muslims. As in the case of the infamous Sykes-Pikot Agreement of 1916, among the key objectives of the current Crusade is to further fragment the Muslim world by breaking up strong Muslim countries into mini-states. This will be done to ensure that Israel enjoys unfettered hegemony over all Arab countries. Furthermore, the new Crusaders want Muslims to become defenseless and eventually, like the Muslims of Andalusia, extinct. The new Crusaders certainly want to make sure that Muslims will never be in a position to regain control of the Aqsa mosque, one of their most holy sites.
In several statements bin Laden recounts a long list of aggressions committed by colonial and Western powers against Muslims as evidence of the continuing Crusade. Bin Laden asserts that massacres of Muslims have taken place in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Fatani, Ogden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also includes such events as the 1996 Israeli bombing of Qana, Lebanon, in which 102 civilian refugees were killed and 300 were wounded; the 1998 U.S. reprisal attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan, which killed 224 people and injured 5,000; the death of 600,000 Iraqi children due to the UN sanctions against Iraq; the UN weapons embargo against the Bosnians, which enabled the Serbians to massacre them at will; and several other tragedies. After reminding Muslims of such events, bin Laden concludes that as far as the West is concerned, Muslim blood is cheap, perhaps worthless.
Contrary to popular belief, bin Laden did not start mentioning the plight of the Palestinians and the occupation of the Aqsa mosque only after 9/11. In every single statement issued by bin Laden, before or after 9/11, he unfailingly mentions both the occupation of Jerusalem and the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia as a critical part of the list of Muslim grievances against the West. According to bin Laden, then, the Judeo-Christian Crusade is the first in history to have managed to occupy all three of the Muslim holy sites: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.
Bin Laden claims that the United States, “in its arrogance,” treats people as slaves. Muslim, and especially Middle Eastern, countries are not sovereign nations: they have been stripped of their dignity and freedom by the United States and other Western countries. These crusading nations invade Muslim lands, and if Muslims resist they are labeled terrorists. In one of his longest and most detailed communiqués, he advises foreigners to “pack their luggage and get out of our lands.” He implies that if this happens hostilities will cease, and he calls upon the West “to deal with us and interact with us on the basis of mutual interest and benefits, rather than the policies of subjugation, theft, and occupation.” In one of his early declarations, bin Laden asserts what has become one of his principal themes: reciprocity. Americans will not be allowed to feel safe until safety becomes a reality for Muslims everywhere, including in Palestine.
Bin Laden offers different and rather inconsistent justifications for the practice of terrorism. At one point he insists that it is the United States and not his followers who are the true terrorists. It is the United States that invades and bombs Muslim countries and terrorizes peaceful civilians. His followers are doing no more than acting in self-defense. Elsewhere he contends that he is merely taking the battle to the land of the enemy and creating “a balance of terrors.” As long as Muslim innocents are being killed, American and British innocents will also be killed—he intimates that this balance is both logically necessary and morally righteous—an argument with roots in the Cold War, not in Islam.
In other passages, bin Laden concedes that Islamic law prohibits the killing of innocent civilians. But he claims that because Americans live in a democracy and elect their government, there are no innocents in the United States. In a democracy, citizens are responsible for the actions of their government and should be willing to bear their costs. So civilians in a democracy are legitimate targets, though the civilians in a dictatorship are not.
In yet another context bin Laden insists that his followers do not target innocents at all; they target political and economic symbols of the aggressors, and any civilian casualties are incidental, not intentional. Bin Laden also tirelessly reiterates that it is the United States itself that targets innocent civilians—for instance, when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is not clear whether his point is that since the United States has done so, it is lawful for him to do the same; or whether he is offering the atomic bombings as material proof of the immorality of targeting civilian populations, regardless of who does it; or if he is asserting, in the tu quoque spirit, that the United States lacks standing to register a moral complaint.
Bin Laden is not the most systematic or consistent thinker. There is no question that he sees himself as the conscience of Muslims—as their defender and protector. Many Muslims would agree with bin Laden that in the modern age the West has colonized, dominated, and abused Muslim lands. As Bruce Lawrence notes in his introduction, in the past 200 years “all the lines of intrusion and violence historically run in one direction.” But few Muslims would agree with bin Laden’s methods or his conception of defensive jihad. And bin Laden himself is unable to produce a coherent defense of his use of terrorism. Forced to concede that Islam does not condone the murder of civilians, he offers various justifications for violating this prohibition. The one Islamic moral principle that he never attempts to address, however, is that one injustice does not justify another.
* * *
Despite these shortcomings, Bin Laden does not suffer from a shortage of followers or new recruits. What explains the attraction? To answer this question, we need to look more closely at bin Laden’s life and thought.
Bin Laden claims that he awakened to the reality of the Crusade being waged against Islam during the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, when the United States airlifted weapons to Israel to insure its victory over Arab military forces. In fact, it is far more likely that bin Laden was radicalized when the Saudi government invited American troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bin Laden responded by making a clear break with the policies of the Saudi government. At the time, there was considerable opposition to those policies, most notably by a large group of Saudi religious scholars who submitted a petition to the king of Saudi Arabia. Over 100 Saudi jurists signed the petition, which expressed their conviction that inviting American forces to Saudi Arabia, even to liberate Kuwait, violated Islamic precepts. The Saudi government responded to the dissent as it always does—by suppressing and punishing the dissenters. Bin Laden himself was placed under house arrest, and in his statements he repeatedly refers with great sorrow to the imprisonment and persecution suffered by the dissenting scholars. When bin Laden decided to disobey the Saudi government by leaving the country, the government responded by canceling his passport and taking away his Saudi citizenship. While bin Laden lived in Sudan, the Saudi government tried to assassinate him several times and thus further ensured his continuing radicalization.
Bin Laden’s popularity is in part a response to an oppressive Arab government that deals with dissent among its citizenry in the most alienating fashion. By consistently suppressing and disempowering their citizens, Arab countries force the most socially troubled and ill-educated members of society to throw away all ethical scruples in an effort to empower themselves. In a climate of suffocating theocratic despotism, it is not surprising that religion becomes so essential to the language of violence—whether violence of the state or of its opponents.
But there is another explanation, one that is rooted in contradictions between Saudi policy and the Wahhabi system of belief. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, bin Laden offered to form a force constituted from the mujahideen to fight the Iraqis and liberate Kuwait. But the Saudi government refused and instead welcomed the forces of the United States. This policy—an echo of the earlier alliance with the British—underscored a fundamental inconsistency in Wahhabi history and thought that pushed bin Laden to a point of departure. Bin Laden, it must be understood, is thoroughly a product of the Wahhabi experience. Throughout his speeches he refers to Wahhabi Saudi jurists as the authoritative interpreters of Islam. Before Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, the late grand jurist of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa legitimizing the policies of the Saudi government, bin Laden held bin Baz in high regard. Bin Laden wrote to him in a reverential tone and pleaded that he remember his solemn duties towards Islam by standing up to the Judeo-Christian Crusade and opposing the policies of the Saudi government. Even after bin Baz failed to do so, bin Laden never dared call bin Baz an apostate, although he could not hide his great disappointment with him.
Like other Wahhabis, bin Laden is intolerant of differences. He brands Muslims who do not agree with his views either hypocrites or apostates. He cites particular jurists (Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Taymiyya, and Ibn Kathir) as if they are the embodiment and sole representatives of the Islamic legal tradition. (In this same spirit, bin Laden treats his own legal opinions as representative of the indisputable and invariable divine will.) He condemns democracy as a heretical innovation and calls for the application of Islamic law by a consultative government (i.e., the application of shura) to insure that the government faithfully enacts Islamic law as interpreted by the Wahhabis. In bin Laden’s view, the only true Islamic government of the modern age was the government of the Taliban, which was the only one able to claim the honor of being more Wahhabi than Saudi Arabia.
The most pertinent indicator of bin Laden’s loyalty to Wahhabi principles is his adherence to a doctrine known as al-wala’ wa al-bara’—association and disassociation. According to this doctrine, Muslims are not to ally themselves with or even befriend Jews and Christians. Wahhabi doctrines have in fact long maintained that Jews and Christians should not be allowed to live in any part of Arabia. These positions have enabled the Wahhabis to adopt an even more uncompromising position toward Muslims who adopt heretical innovations (bida’) by imitating the practices of Jews and Christians; these heretical Muslims are to be punished or killed. Citing reports that are probably apocryphal but that are consistent with classical Wahhabi theology, bin Laden asserts that the highest form of jihad is that waged against innovators, heretics, and apostates. Muslims have a duty to fight and slaughter these betrayers, but under no circumstances may they do so with the assistance of non-Muslim infidels.
But from its very inception Wahhabism suffered from a fundamental inconsistency. Wahhabis allied themselves with the Saudi family, which in turn relied on the British for military and logistical support, and it is British support that enabled Wahhabi fighters to wage war against the Ottomans. In doing so, the Wahhabis helped the British defeat and dismantle the Ottoman caliphate. Generations of Wahhabi scholars simply ignored this inconsistency; others denied that the British alliance ever existed; and still others masked the contradiction by greatly exaggerating the supposed heresy or apostasy of the Ottomans.
Remarkably, bin Laden is the only Wahhabi I am aware of who has confronted this paradox. Bin Laden condemns the Saudi family for allying itself with the British against their fellow Ottoman Muslims and for playing a puppet-like role in dismantling the Islamic caliphate. Bin Laden cites this as evidence of the historical betrayals of the Saudi family and their willingness to serve the interests of infidel invaders at the expense of fellow Muslims. But he fails to mention that it was not the Al Saud family that did the actual fighting—it was the Wahhabi zealots who fought and killed the Ottoman Muslims.
In a sense, bin Laden’s sin is only that he took Wahhabi teachings as seriously and literally as Wahhabism requires him to do. Consistent with Wahhabi beliefs, he found it unthinkable that the Saudis and Kuwaitis would turn down offers of Muslim assistance and turn to the Americans and other non-Muslims for help. And the Wahhabi scholars who came to the same conclusion and made their views known to the king were executed. For bin Laden this experience was earth-shattering. He concluded that the Saudi government was not truly Islamic—that it was a puppet of the American government.
Bin Laden does not tire of listing the names of the prominent Wahhabi scholars that the Saudi government has thrown in prison because they dared to express their opposition to U.S. policies in the region. He concludes that by betraying Islam, the Saudi government and all those who support it have become apostates and infidels—they have sold their faith in order to appease the Judeo-Christian alliance led by the United States.
For bin Laden, the Saudi reaction to the invasion of Kuwait also demonstrated that the United States and no one else is in charge in the Middle East. It logically follows that it is the United States, not the Saudi government, that controls the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, just as Israel controls the holy site of Jerusalem. In one statement after another, bin Laden repeats that Muslims must recognize that all three holy sites are now under non-Muslim domination—that the Saudi government is a mere puppet and a traitor to Islam. When asked why he targets the American rather than the Saudi government, bin Laden responds that targeting the master must take priority over targeting the puppet.
In some ways, bin Laden is a historical anomaly. He is a natural byproduct of Wahhabi theology but hardly a theologian himself. Despite his many speeches and writings, he does not seem keen about leaving behind a legacy of interpretations or a coherent system of thought that would inspire generations of Muslims after he is gone. Something of a theological parasite, he seems content with tapping into everything cruel and intolerant in the vast Islamic tradition. Likewise, his revolutionary credentials are suspect; although he speaks of ending oppression and injustice, his vision is full of nightmares. Revolutionaries usually promise a better world after destroying the old—there is at least the hint of a utopian dream that draws in young idealists. The rhetoric of defensive jihad suggests that bin Laden sees himself as a different kind of revolutionary—a national liberator or freedom fighter—and indeed, many secular Muslims and Christian Arabs do sympathize with him on that basis.
But between the three choices—theologian, revolutionary, or Crusader—bin Laden is most like a Crusader. The Crusades were ostensibly about gaining control of holy sites, but in reality this was just an excuse for waging war without the constraints of morality. Not bothering with such technicalities as who actually lived on the land, the Crusaders believed that their acts of unmitigated aggression were defensive wars, and, like bin Laden, the Crusaders thrived on narratives of victimization. Both bin Laden and the Crusaders transformed the evil of vengeance into a virtue. Bin Laden fancies himself the defender of Islam, and Crusaders fancied themselves the defenders of Christendom. But most tragically, the Crusaders and bin Laden exploited their religious traditions to commit atrocities in God’s holy name.
* * *
In Europe, the tragedy of the Crusades brought about a critical movement that looked inward and eventually led to major reconstructions of Christian theology. Of course, bin Laden represents a much smaller phenomenon within the world of Islam. Nevertheless, his mix of religion and politics raises a critical question about the way that contemporary Muslims deal with their textual and intellectual heritage.
Bin Laden does not offer a personal opinion about the current state of Muslims; he claims to articulate the position of Islam on all matters. There is no question that bin Laden abuses the text of the Qur’an by quoting it out of context. He is able to rummage through hundreds of thousands of traditions attributed to the Prophet, and he has located and cited traditions that can only be described as inhumane and inconsistent with the basic ethics of the Qur’an. These traditions of cruelty are for the most part medieval reports that cast the Prophet of Islam in the role of destroyer and vanquisher; they represent a historical attempt to transform the Prophet into someone akin to a King David or Alexander the Great. Scholars have thoroughly interrogated, deconstructed, and ultimately marginalized these reports as historical fabrications, but because bin Laden has little regard for the work of past interpretive communities and haughtily dismisses most of the juristic tradition, he is able to breathe new life into these discredited narratives. In this regard, bin Laden’s approach typifies Wahhabi methodologies and attitudes toward Islamic history—but it also typifies the approaches of puritanical movements in general.
Bin Laden’s exploitation of the hadith tradition also should remind Muslim scholars of the pressing need to develop critical analytical methods for evaluating these traditions. It is not sufficient to rely on the science of hadith authentication that was developed in the tenth century. It is proper to learn from and defer to the determinations of the interpretive communities of the past, but only after thoroughly interrogating those determinations. Continuing to avoid controversies by deferring to Wahhabi literalist approaches toward such traditions is bound to help people such as bin Laden mislead Muslims who are not firmly grounded in the ethics of Islam. We can no more uncritically follow the determinations of past interpretive communities than we can uncritically dismiss the cumulative intellectual efforts and accumulated wisdom of past generations.
One of the most fascinating documents contained in this collection is a letter that bin Laden sent to bin Baz after bin Baz issued a fatwa legitimizing the policies of the Saudi government. In this letter, bin Laden offers bin Baz his respect and admiration but pleads with him to refrain from issuing fatwas on political issues such as the matter at hand. Bin Laden does not challenge bin Baz’s scholarly qualifications and does not accuse him of hypocrisy. Bin Laden politely explains that bin Baz ought to leave such politically charged matters to people who have political acumen—to people who have practical experience and understand how the world works. Bin Laden implies that it is people like himself who have the necessary perspicacity to deal with such matters.
At first sight, the claim may seem ridiculous. But then, bin Laden believes that he and his followers brought down the Soviet Union. And he gloats that he has forced the United States to compromise many of its civil rights: that the U.S. government now detains people without charges, practices torture, and is morally superior to no one. In one of his pre-9/11 statements bin Laden wonders whether he could embroil the United States in another Vietnam. Is it possible that bin Laden wanted to bait the United States to slip into a quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq? Bin Laden is also asked his opinion about the clash-of-civilizations thesis, and he wholeheartedly embraces the idea as historically and religiously inevitable. Is it possible that Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and the secret detention centers in Europe have made bin Laden happy by leading more Muslims to buy into this confrontational paradigm? On several occasions, bin Laden has proclaimed that the world is divided into two groups—the infidels and those who are rightly guided. He claims that it follows from this division that people are either with him or against him. Interrogated about this dichotomy, he emphasized time and again that President Bush himself has admitted the validity of this division—Bush had stated that either the nations of the world are with us or they are against us. Whether bin Laden is responsible for it or not, we have embraced this same division. We should be wiser.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
March 01, 2006
30 Min read time