Osama bin Laden's message to the world

Faisal Devji
21 December 2005

Osama bin Laden’s urgent attempt to reconstruct a unified and global Islam from its increasing fragmentation is only one form of a wider global predicament, says Faisal Devji, author of “Landscapes of the Jihad”.

In his address to the American people on 29 October 2004, days before they went to the polls in a bitterly contested presidential election, Osama bin Laden spoke of the profound similarities between the Muslim world and the United States. To some degree he did so with great doses of irony, comparing the Bush administration to corrupt regimes in the middle east by saying that he “found no difficulty in leading Bush and his administration on, in light of the similarity between them and the regimes in our countries, half of whom we would describe as being ruled by the military, and the other half by sons of kings and presidents. We have long experienced them.”

Faisal Devji is reviewing Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (Verso, 2005)

“This similarity”, continued bin Laden, “goes back to the visits of Bush Senior to the region. While some of our people were dazzled by America and hoped that these visits would make an impression on our countries, in fact it was he who was impressed by these monarchic and military regimes. He envied the fact that they could remain in power for decades, embezzling the nation’s funds with neither account nor regulation. So he brought tyranny and the suppression of liberties to his own country and called it the Patriot Act, implemented under the pretext of fighting terrorism.”

And so it went, with Osama bin Laden reversing the direction in which global influence is meant to flow by describing how much the United States has supposedly learnt from its clients in the middle east, from falsifying elections to endangering national security in the interests of private corporations.

Its ironical rhetoric apart, bin Laden’s speech, like all his pronouncements, was an exercise in intimacy. Unlike the foreign and exotic colours in which al-Qaida is painted in the west, its founder has always spoken of his enemies in the most familiar of terms.

Indeed the address from which I have been quoting can even be seen as Osama bin Laden’s contribution to the United States elections in the role of a candidate from abroad, the only one who recognised that an American election was a global event that required global participation. So bin Laden placed his own organisation alongside the Republicans and Democrats when he concluded his speech by appealing to the American people: “I say to you in truth that your security lies not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al-Qaida. It lies in your own hands, and whichever state does not encroach upon our security thereby ensures its own.”

Faisal Devji is assistant professor of history at New School University, New York.
His writing includes:
Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (Cornell University Press, 2005)

“A war fought for impersonal passions” (Financial Times, 25 July 2005)
Also by Faisal Devji on openDemocracy:
“Spectral voices: al-Qaida’s world wide web” (August 2005)
If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

If his sense of familiarity with the west allows Bin Laden to say that “it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team”, and that this “truly shows that al-Qaida has made gains, but on the other hand it also shows that the Bush administration has likewise profited”, this means that the Muslim world and its alleged enemies cannot be seen as autonomous and unified rivals in the manner of the Soviet Union and the United States during the cold war.

In fact Osama bin Laden’s Islam is a global entity, as global as the west itself, both being intertwined with and even internal to each other. This is why bin Laden’s calls for the United States to leave the Muslim world do not entail the return to a cold-war geopolitics of détente, but are conceived rather in terms of a global reciprocity on equal terms. Al-Qaida’s violence, then, is itself a perverse step towards this new intimacy, because it is seen by its perpetrators to be an egalitarian form of global reciprocity beyond national boundaries.

A fearful cogency

My quotations from Osama bin Laden are taken from the first published collection of his speeches, interviews and communiqués, which provides a welcome addition to the now almost unmanageably huge and highly repetitive literature on al-Qaida’s founder. The collection’s translator, James Howarth, and editor, Bruce Lawrence, have rendered both students of modern Islam as well as the general reader a signal service in making these pronouncements of the world’s most wanted man available for the first time in a single, authoritative volume.

Bin Laden’s statements are presented chronologically and divided into sections like “War in Afghanistan 2001-2002” and “War in Iraq 2003-2004”. In addition, each of his contributions is prefaced by a description that places it within a political context, with all moments of novelty or obscurity being helpfully footnoted. This book makes it absolutely clear that Osama bin Laden possesses coherent if frightening views which he argues with great and even more fearful cogency. Since the particulars of these arguments are well known and easily apprehended in this collection, I will concentrate in this review upon their more general significance.

While Messages to the World arranges and presents Bin Laden’s words in a lucid and comprehensive way, the nature of the material often militates against its own readability. But this has nothing to do with anything particularly foreign or exotic about Osama bin Laden’s words; indeed the contrary, since it is the sheer familiarity of his rhetoric that might permit readers to pass by what is of interest in it. This has a great deal to do with the repetitive character of Bin Laden’s pronouncements, though this is to be expected of what are in effect a series of exhortations, provocations and explanations. Readers therefore run the risk of seeing in these texts only what they want to. So those concerned with al-Qaida’s anti-imperialism will find plenty of evidence to support their views, while those for whom its leader’s anti-semitism is important will find an equal amount of evidence to support this view as well.

The risk of simply reading one’s own concerns into Osama bin Laden’s words is, needless to say, made many times more likely by the controversy he generates in all walks of life from politics and economics to philosophy and religion. Even the collection’s editor does not escape this risk, for in the book’s introduction Bruce Lawrence is determined to locate his hero squarely within the politics of the middle east, or even better, the Arab world. Professor Lawrence confines al-Qaida to regional issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America’s support of repressive and undemocratic local regimes or the struggle for oil and its wealth, and in doing so finds himself in agreement with the very concerns that he claims animate American or Israeli policy in the middle east. This is surely an embarrassing position for a Verso author to find himself in, since to agree with the terms of a debate while disagreeing with its details is already to hold a politics in common.

On the face of it this may seem an extravagant judgment, especially given the amount of verbiage Osama bin Laden strews along the same paths as his editor, but a little reflection should make my position clear. Professor Lawrence quite discounts the global character of al-Qaida’s jihad by condemning all the Pakistanis, Afghans, Uzbeks, Malaysians, Chechens and others who work for it to bit roles as mutes in a piece of Arabic theatre. This is to subordinate the very places in which al-Qaida operates, and which make up the vast majority of the Muslim world, to a middle east defined in the most Occidental fashion. Naturally such an approach presupposes the insignificance of Osama bin Laden’s own location somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the irrelevance of everything he says about the Muslim world in general.

The war in Iraq, of course, has brought the Arab world back into prominence, though not at all as a unified category. Iraq’s Shi’a majority, after all, is connected in distinct ways to non-Arab Shi’a populations in places like Iran, so that Iraq’s pre-eminent religious authority, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is himself an Iranian. Al-Sistani, moreover, serves as the spiritual leader of millions of Indians and Pakistanis, who contribute substantial sums as well as pilgrims and seminarians to Iraq’s Shi’a centres. It is not Iraq, however, that is a peculiarity here, but rather the middle east itself, which did not exist until the second decade of the last century. Before that it was a part of the Ottoman Empire, like the Balkans, and ruled from Istanbul, which was by rights the capital of Sunni Islam.

Even today the middle east possesses little commonality. The states of the Persian Gulf, from which Osama bin Laden himself comes, have more economic ties with south and southeast Asia, as well as with Europe and America, than they do with rest of the Arab world. In any case many of them have large foreign populations, sometimes forming demographic majorities, from places like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the Philippines, Russia and Iran.

This means that the most common language spoken in a city like Dubai might be Urdu, not Arabic. This is a place where Arab aristocrats themselves sometimes speak obscure south Asian languages learnt from the nursemaids who brought them up. In other words the middle east and its Islam are thoroughly fragmented entities, and it is perhaps out of this fragmentation that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida have emerged as necessarily global actors.

Also in openDemocracy on political Islam:
Malise Ruthven, “Cultural schizophrenia” (September 2001)
Murat Belge, “Inside the fundamentalist mind” (October 2001)
Navid Kermani, “Roots of terror: suicide, martyrdom, self-redemption and Islam” (February 2002)
Omar al-Qattan, “Disneyland Islam” (October 2002)
“Tightrope walks and chessboards: an interview with Gilles Kepel” (April 2003)
Gilles Kepel, “The war for Muslim minds” (November 2004)

A new global currency

Two elements of bin Laden’s wordy imprecations gathered in this fine volume make this clear. First, he repeatedly expresses his regret at the dissolution of the Ottoman empire and the emergence of an Arab world dominated by the west. Being under the suzerainty of Turkey does not seem to pose a problem for this most Arab of Muslims.

Second, he refers favourably to Iran several times, even taking its side against Iraq during the 1980-88 war. More than this Osama bin Laden makes not one anti-Shi’a comment and goes so far as to claim that it is only unbelief and not sins like alcoholism, murder or heresy that put someone beyond the pale of Islam. This already places him much closer to a Shi’a thinker like Aytollah Khomeini than a Sunni one like Sayyid Qutb, a proximity that is only compounded by bin Laden’s glorification of martyrdom in very Shi’a and even Iranian ways.

This social and religious fragmentation has resulted in the globalisation of Islam, making possible the combination of all sorts of disparate traits. So it is striking how much Osama bin Laden invokes Sufi or mystical practices relating to dreams, visions and divine intercession, all supposedly frowned upon by the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam he is meant to follow.

The fragmentation and globalisation of Islam does more than send British citizens of Pakistani descent to blow themselves up in Israel, for such an act poses a problem much larger than itself.

Movements like al-Qaida represent our global interrelatedness by such acts, in which any one person can be related to any other through schemes of violence or virtue. Indeed these acts function like shadows of our global interrelatedness, which possesses as yet no political form of its own.

Osama bin Laden’s Islam represents this global predicament in the fragmentation of its own history, geography and doctrine. His war against the west represents the same global predicament by making possible a universal reciprocity of violence, which has replaced failed forms of freedom or democracy as the new currency of global equality.

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