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Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden

Edited and Introduced by Bruce Lawrence

(Verso / 224pp. / 10.99)

Review by Simon Kovar

THIS volume repays attention for two reasons. The first is that it leaves the reader in no doubt about the ideology or intent of its subject; and, as Bruce Lawrence argues, bin Laden must be understood if he is to be defeated. The second is that it gives some insight into the Left’s understanding of ‘political Islam’. Lawrence believes that bin Laden’s terrorism is essentially a response to the West’s “much greater” terrorism. He quotes approvingly from Michael Mann: “Despite the religious rhetoric and the bloody means, bin Laden is a rational man. There is a simple reason why he attacked the US: American imperialism”. For Lawrence et al., the equation is simple: remove this reason and bin Laden’s war will cease.

It is true that bin Laden’s statements define his jihad as reactive: that is, as a legitimate response to Western aggression against Muslims, and one that will cease once its causes have been removed. But let us be clear about what he perceives those causes to be. They include the “Crusader-Jewish” presence in all the lands of Islam. By this he is not referring solely to the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan, or to Israel’s incursions beyond its 1967 borders. He is referring to the entirety of Israel-Palestine, and (a tricky one for the EU) to Moorish Spain. Bin Laden goes further: “In our religion, it is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country” (emphasis added). Lawrence et al. might view giving bin Laden what he wants as a “rational” response to the threat of terrorism, but moral honesty requires that we call this solution what it is: ethnic cleansing as a mode of appeasement.

History, of course, teaches us that such fantasies can never be satisfied. And here we come to a second problem with Lawrence’s analysis, one he himself alludes to in his introduction but does not resolve. While “rationality” might tell us that bin Laden’s foe is “American imperialism”, bin Laden himself has an intriguing habit of telling us that his real concern is actually something else: what he calls “global unbelief”. The unbelievers are the Jews, the Christians, and more generally, the liberal, “permissive” societies of the West, epitomised by the US, although bin Laden is explicit in identifying the Jews as the root evil. There can be no permanent peace with the Jews, he states, and scripture demands their annihilation before the Day of Judgement may arrive. American society – its economy, media and politics – is subordinated to the Jews. More generally: “Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians”.

Bin Laden is explicit in his view that the current war is “fundamentally religious”; the enmity is “doctrinal”. His societal ideal – his model for the restored Caliphate – is revealed to be Taliban-governed Afghanistan. Is this all merely a code for hostility to American imperialism? One of the statements included in this volume, dated from October 2002, sets out to answer directly the question “What do we want from you?”, and provides a helpful itemisation. “The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam”, bin Laden writes. His second and third points go on to refer to the irreligion and immorality of American society, and to the fact that, “rather than ruling by the sharia of God”, Americans “choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire”. American foreign policy does not get a mention until point four.

“I’m really not a fan of OBL”, Lawrence assures us in an interview press-released to coincide with the publication of this volume. Well, it’s good to clear that one up, Bruce, because I fear that “OBL” doesn’t like us very much either. But what are we to make of an analysis that sees “logic” in capitulation to bin Laden’s demands, when these include the Taliban as a model of good governance, support for the Indonesian butchers of East Timor, opposition to any Western intervention to prevent the genocide in Darfur, and the annihilation of the Jews? I am reminded of Nehru’s account of his meeting with French and British statesman during the Czechoslo-vak crisis of 1938. “Appeasement seemed to be a feeble word for it”, he wrote. “There was behind it not only a fear of Hitler, but a sneaking admiration for him”.

Simon Kovar is a Contributing Editor of The Liberal.

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