bin Laden's permanent war

Bruce Lawrence offers this fascinating perspective on Osama bin Laden based on his public statements, i.e. "interviews with Western and Arab journalists, handwritten letters scanned onto discs, faxes, and audiotapes, and above all video recordings distributed via .. Al-Jazeera." His paints a compelling picture of a "calculating, highly literate polemicist" who was quick to take advantage of the post-9/11 fallout -- i.e. the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- to project himself as the leader of an Islamic supernation, speaking directly to disaffected educated Muslim youth to recruit them as fighters in a just religious war.

Here's an example of how he skillfully paints all things Western as real source of terror:


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!"
Though Lawrence never makes the connection, the Al Qaeda ideology sounds a lot like bin Laden's version of the war on terror, a project that "couples faith and fighting with relentless insistence on the need to act." And so it isn't surprising that it shares the same fatal weaknesses. The first being -- ironically -- the inability to distinguish between one Muslim nation from another, where Iraq is the same as Palestine as Afghanistan. Nor does he show any interest in the well-being or future of "his people": "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 result then is a project that like the war on terror is immediately seductive but yet unsatisfying in the long run:
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!"
Now why does that sound familiar? No, Bush is not bin Laden, nor can his administration's policies be equated with that of Al Qaeda. But their ideologies do resemble each other in their basic structure, irrespective of how vastly they might vary in practice. Moreover, the parallel is instructive if only because it is the first step to embracing Lawrence's prescription:
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.
Now that's good sense whether we're fighting the Bush administration at home or terrorists abroad. [LINK via Arts & Letters]
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