Q & A: The Mind of Bin Laden

November 30, 2005

 

Lawrence: Muslims not monolithic

Lawrence: Muslims not monolithic, Photo: Les Todd.

Religion professor Bruce Lawrence, who has studied and written extensively on the Muslim world, is editor of Messages to the World, a collection of twenty-four of Osama bin Laden's letters, speeches, and statements due out in November. As he worked through the book's final proofs, Lawrence sat down to discuss bin Laden's vision, the circumstances surrounding his rise to power, and the truth about "mainstream" Muslim culture.

You've studied bin Laden's writings and speeches. What is his message?

If there's a single message that comes through in his writings again and again, it's that Muslims are the victims. They're not self-willed. They don't choose to be victims. They were occupied; they were oppressed; they have been destroyed by foreign powers, defined religiously. And this has been going on for eighty years.

He would like to see the world change so that there is not an American hegemony, but rather a distribution of power and possibilities that move toward the Muslim world, and specifically to what he calls the Ummah, a kind of super nation that reflects Islamic ideals, Islamic dominance, and Islamic worldview.

How does he view the U.S.?

bin Laden

He defines America as, above all, Christian, Jewish. He likes the term at-tahaluf as-siyouni as-salibi. In fact, it's a neologism; it's an Arabic term that he invented, which when translated means "the Zionist-Crusader alliance." What it means is, all Jews are in favor of Israel. All Christians are allied with them. And they together are against all Muslims. I mean, it's a really simplistic handle, except the events of the last decade, and especially since 9/11, have given him a purchase on a binary, or duo-dichotomous, worldview.

How does he support this view?

The thing that he's done with remarkable skill since 2001 is lay out an agenda that looks at 2001 not as a first strike but as one of several strikes that Muslims have to make to counter everything from World War I, from the occupation of Muslim countries and the division of them into states in the Treaty of Sevres.

He harps on Bosnia. The fact is that at one point the U.S. came to the aid of Bosnian Muslims, but to him that doesn't matter, because so many Muslims were killed before the few that were left were helped. He looks at Palestine, and he looks at Chechnya, and says, "Who's intervening on behalf of the Muslims in Chechnya?" And then Kashmir, and the Philippines. He has a Rolodex, not just of grievances, but of physical confrontations, war-like encounters between Western powers, including Russia, that are Christian or Jewish, and Muslim powers. The Muslims always lose, but it's because they haven't been united. In other words, if they were united, then they could defeat anybody.

Those cultural grievances go back a long way.

He makes direct references to the Crusades and to himself as the new Saladin. In the twelfth century, the Crusaders from Europe took Jerusalem. They occupied it for almost a hundred years. At the end of the century, it was taken back in the name of Islam by a great military strategist and army commander named Saladin. Richard the Lion-Hearted, in one of the Crusades, was losing, but there was a problem of protocol. And Saladin, instead of going ahead and attacking the Lion-Hearted, said, I'll wait until you get better, and then we'll resume the warfare. So even in warfare, there was a sort of book of rules, a kind of code of etiquette that Saladin observed. This is the part that is missed in almost everything I've ever read: The constant message is one of reciprocity.

Reciprocity meaning, if the U.S. attacks Cuba, what could be reciprocity? Cuba is a small little country and the U.S. is a huge superpower. It's unequal, and so what bin Laden is saying is there has to be one strong power contested with another equally strong power. And when there isn't reciprocity, then there have to be unnatural acts, or what he calls justified violence.

His argument is, Look, there's asymmetry, there's unevenness of power. And so, if the Muslims can't attack by open battle, which would be the preferred mode, they can do it by random, unannounced attacks of violence, often against civilians, and that's one of the many definitions of terrorism.

Bin Laden has been described using many terms: extremist, fundamentalist, radical, to name a few. Which of these is most accurate?

All these are terms that have some validity but the real term, it seems to me, is polemicist. He's really trained in thinking about the world through this prism that says there's one group that's unsullied and pure and embattled. All other groups are either powerful and evil, like Americans and Europeans--they use the word infidels--or, in the cases of Muslim groups, are powerless and have been co-opted.

Co-opted?

Anybody who cooperates with or listens to the Americans. He takes each of those so-called apostates by the name of their ruler, and says, "Abdullah, you in Jordan; Mohammed VI, you in Morocco; and Mubarak, you in Egypt. This is what you've done to betray Islam."

People always argue about whether he appeals to "mainstream Muslims." Is there such a thing?

Mainstream Muslim culture is very simple. It's observance of a code that means first of all a belief in God, and God as a single over-arching force in individual and collective life, and then Mohammed as this one figure that stands at the end of a long, long process of divine interventions in human history called prophecy. And he not only is a great prophet for Arabs, but he's the final prophet for all humankind.

Within that range of total belief, you have a whole range of possibilities of what to be. One [Muslim government] could be a kind of benevolent socialism as was the case in Algeria. Another could be a modern monarchy as you have in Morocco. Another one could be a really aggressively modern, pro-woman, pro-development government where all religious groups are tolerated, as there was in Iraq before Saddam Hussein.

So is his vision of a supernation realistic?

If the U.S. withdrew from every Muslim country where it has a military presence, would that then mean that those countries assume control of their own destiny? Not likely, because there are already power vacuums or power disjunctures in each one of these countries. What we would face is not Iran of the Seventies, but a proliferation, either of secular dictatorships, even worse than what we have now, or else, full-blown theocracies.

It wouldn't be uniting a superstate. There are going to be places where the Islamic groups wouldn't be in power, or even if they gained power, they would have a different notion of what powersharing is than bin Laden. Even if you were to have an Islamic supernation, what would be its ethos? What would be its outlook, and what would be its rules of governance? Very different for Hassan al Turabi in the Sudan--who has said again and again you must have relationships with Christians, for Mullah Omar in Afghanistan, or [for] bin Laden as an itinerant ruler.

How do bin Laden's speeches and letters help us to understand the man?

In one sense, it's impossible to understand him unless you see him in what I would call the twilight of the twentieth century and the bright light of the twenty-first century. He's a product of the Internet, of satellite TV. In our book, we show that of these twenty-four communiquÈs, over half of them [were broadcast] from Qatar by

Al Jazeera, which broadcasts in Arabic.

If you think about that, the whole way in which he can construct and project his image is predicated on getting it out in Arabic to an audience that, ten years ago, was not available.

Who is that audience?

His audience is not just Muslims, but Arabic-speaking Muslims who have access to satellite TV and the Internet, and travel. It's not the dispossessed. He's not preaching to the Arab masses. This is not Gamel Abdul Nasser, from the Fifties. He's a product of this information age. He understands that media isn't just reporting. Media is itself a kind of way of influencing the nature of how reality is perceived. What he's doing is using a sort of, if you will, neutral media, and saying, "Oh, I'm going to show you exactly how Muslims have been the victims."