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Messages To The World by Osama bin Laden

reviewed by Thom Hartmann

In the Fifth Century BCE, in his "Art Of War," Sun Tzu wrote: "I say: Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle."

Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, responsible for 9/11 or not, has become the modern embodiment of the "enemy" of the United States and western civilization in general. To pass up an opportunity to delve into his thought processes and public declarations would be tantamount to the mistake the rest of Europe made in ignoring Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

Those who argue against reading bin Laden fail the test of Sun Tzu. For example, an English translation of "Mein Kampf" was first published in the US in 1937, but the US publisher removed nearly all of Hitler's anti-Semitic remarks and promises of future behavior against the Jews. This so alarmed Alan Cranston, then a reporter for UPI and later the US Senator from California, that he had the original German edition - by then a major bestseller in Germany - fully translated into English and published it himself in 1938, along with his own notes pointing out Hitler's rants, so Americans could see what Hitler was truly predicting he would do and why.

In 1939, Hitler successfully sued Cranston in a Connecticut court for copyright infringement, and Cranston's full and honest version of Hitler's words - chillingly fulfilled in the following few years - was pulled from US shelves until after Hitler's death. It wasn't until after the end of World War II that average Americans began to really know their enemy, his rationalizations, or his motivations.

Unlike Hitler, bin Laden has not employed a copyright attorney in the US to block publication of his work, and this translation by James Howarth, edited by Bruce Lawrence, is both enlightening and chilling. At times bin Laden is a poet (apparently most of the time in the original Arabic); others a polemicist; others a preacher; others a prophet; others a revolutionary; others apparently an ordinary man asking for ordinary justice in the world; others a messianic freak who may well be convinced that he, himself, is the reincarnation of Saladin or implicitly even the much-prophesized Mahdi (a Muslim variation of the Christian prophecy of the second coming of Jesus).

The most insightful commentary on bin Laden's writings comes from Bruce Lawrence's introduction to this compilation:

[W]hat is crystal clear is that these messages are not ghostwritten tracts of the kind supplied by professional speechwriters to many politicians in the West, whether American Presidents, European Prime Ministers, or their Middle-Eastern counterparts. They speak in the authentic, compelling voice of a visionary, with what can only be called a powerful lyricism. Bernard Lewis, no friend of radical Islam, describes a typical message published below as "a magnificent piece of eloquent, at times even poetic Arabic prose." Bin Laden's standing in the Muslim world is inseparable from these literary gifts.

Beyond the organizer and polemicist lies, finally, the hero. To Westerners for whom bin Laden is the incarnation of villainy, this may seem the last word in perversity. But for millions of Muslims around the world, including many who have no sympathy with terrorism, bin laden is an heroic figure. His worldwide charisma is based not just on his success in so far eluding Americans and their allies, exhilarating as that may be for many ordinary Muslims. It is because his personal reputation for probity, austerity, dignity, and courage contrasts so starkly with the mismanagement, bordering on incompetence, of most Arab regimes. Unlike the latter, bin Laden has demonstrated that he can forego the temptations of wealth, that he dares to strike powerful wrongdoers, and that he refuses to bend before superior might.

"Bin Laden is seen by millions of his co-religionists - because of his defense of Islam, personal piety, physical bravery, integrity and generosity - as an Islamic hero, as that faith's ideal type, and almost as a modern-day Saladin," reports Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA unit charged with hunting bin Laden. "For nearly a decade now," observes Scheuer, "bin Laden has demonstrated patience, brilliant planning, managerial expertise, sound strategic and tactical sense, admirable character traits, eloquence, and focused, limited war aims. He has never, to my knowledge, behaved or spoken in a way that could be described as 'irrational in the extreme.'" Indeed, for all the terror sown by his actions, concludes, Scheuer, "there is no reason, based on the information at hand, to believe bin Laden is anything other than what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim. As a historical figure, viewed from any angle, Osama bin Laden is a great man, one who smashed the expected unfolding of universal post-cold war peace."

These encomia express, no doubt, the not uncommon admiration felt by a professional for a particularly skilled enemy - with the kind of over-statement to be found, for example, in the writings of the British military historian Liddell Hart about German generals in World War Two. Yet even discounting their hyperbole, such CIA tributes are striking; they provoke further reflection on the man behind the many personae.

How are such eulogies, from friend and foe alike, to be reconciled with the actions for which bin Laden has been responsible? Is the West wrong to call him a terrorist? His messages make it clear that, by his own admission, the answer is no. Bin Laden freely concedes that he has practiced terror.

What the messages invariably go on to say, however, is that this is a reactive terror - a response to what he perceives as the much greater terror exercised by the West over an incomparably longer period of time.

Definitions of terrorism vary widely: it is well known that many who are now hailed as freedom fighters in their own communities, and accepted as respectable statesmen by the powers that be, were once denounced as terrorists, responsible for killing innocent civilians - Israeli leaders like Begin and Sharon prominent among them. In this sense, bin Laden's principal innovation has been to organize terrorist actions thousands of miles away from the territories he is seeking to liberate.

But this, he insists, is itself only retaliation for innumerable prior acts of aggression by the West in the Muslim world, thousands of miles away from Christian homelands. For 200 years now, the umma (Islamic global community, or supernation), has been under attack, from the first French invasion of Egypt in the last years of the 18th century and the seizure of the Maghreb in the 19th century, the British grab for Egypt and the Italian for Libya, the carve-up of the whole Middle East by Britain and France at the end of World War One, the sponsorship of Jewish colonization of Palestine, the suborning of nominally independent rulers in the Arabian peninsula, down to contemporary American control of the entire region.

Is this an exaggerated description of the unbalanced relationship between the west and the Muslim world? There are no Arab military bases in Texas or California, no Arab contract mercenaries stationed in Britain or France, no Arab fleets in the Gulf of Mexico, no Arab-sponsored schemes of forcible settlement in the Mid-West. All the lines of intrusion and violence historically run in one direction.

Yet such aggression does not condone bin Laden's acts of terror; they are abhorrent not only to Westerners, but also to many Arabs.

Yet in the Middle East, few can forget the much heavier loss of life caused by centuries of Western domination. Bin Laden's victims number perhaps 5,000 - about half as many as the number of civilians said to have died under American bombs in Afghanistan. As he never ceases to point out, the West has killed far larger numbers in the region within living memory. The liberal use of poison gas and aerial strafing of Iraqi villages by Winston Churchill in the 1920s, the crushing of the Palestinian uprising of the 1930s, France's colonial war in Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, have been followed now by deaths through malnutrition and disease inflicted on the children of Iraq in the 1990s, due to UN sanctions.

Bin Laden, ever alert to the principle of reciprocity, dwells insistently on the enormity of Iraq's suffering. He exaggerates its size: starting with 600,000 victims, he ends with 1.5 million, while the real figure was nearer 300,000. Yet he is correct about the staggering disproportion in the numbers of those who killed on both sides.

"Because you have killed," he warns Westerners, "we must kill. Your innocents are not less innocent than ours." ...

Even though nothing can ever justify bin Laden's own retaliatory killing of innocents, the indifference of Western leaders to the atrocities committed against Muslims helps explain why, despite widespread revulsion at his use of terror, he continues to be so admired and even trusted by ordinary people in the Middle East.

The Republican response to bin Laden's actions -- from General Boykin proclaiming that his God is bigger than the Muslim God, to the death of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians at American hands, to the bombastic rhetoric that continues to this day and is now increasingly directed against Iran -- demonstrates that they fail to understand both bin Laden and the billion-person constituency he claims to represent.

When Bin Laden writes about Bush and Blair, his words resonate across much of the Islamic world. Here's an excerpt from his sermon "Among A Band Of Knights" from February 14, 2003, the month before the US and the UK invaded Iraq:

The Bush-Blair axis claims that it wants to annihilate terrorism, but it is no longer a secret - even to the masses - that it really wants to annihilate Islam. Furthermore, in their speeches and statements, the rulers of the region affirm their support for Bush in his "war on terror," i.e. his war on Islam and Muslims. This is clear treachery against our religious community and our umma, relying on the blessing of the government-backed scholars and corrupt ministers.

Nor can there be any doubt that the current preparation for an attack on Iraq is anything other than the latest in a continuous series of aggressions on the countries of the region, including Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Sudan. ... People are living in constant fear and alarm, expecting death to come at any moment from a missile or bomb destroying their house and killing their womenfolk. How will we respond to our Lord on the Day of Judgment?"

Bin Laden's screeds are far-ranging and broad, and include some of the most vicious anti-Semitic rants published in the west since Mein Kampf. I often winced reading them. Yet we must know who our enemy is, how he is speaking, and which of his words are not only resonating across the world but reflecting what is repeated daily in much of the Muslim world's media.

In particular, we must read what bin Laden says about 9/11, why it happened, it's relationship to the Bush family and the House of Saud, and its meaning for the future of the West. That lecture begins on page 237, and alone is worth the cost of the book.

And then we must prepare. Not stupidly and blindly and angrily as Republicans would have us respond to bin Laden (or as bin Laden has responded to us), but wisely, as Sun Tzu counseled 2500 years ago:

"Those who excel in war first cultivate their own humanity and justice and maintain their laws and institutions. By these means they make their governments invincible."


* * *

Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author, and host of the top-ranked nationally syndicated daily progressive talk. www.thomhartmann.com

His 17 published books include "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal Protection," "We The People: A Call To Take Back America," "What Would Jefferson Do?" and "Ultimate Sacrifice." His most recent book is "Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class and What We Can Do About It."

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“The horrific blast sent women engulfed in flames screaming through the streets. Two preteen girls embraced each other as they burned to death, witnesses said…a woman who clutched her infant child as she bled from a wound in her neck. ‘She mumbled some words incoherently,’ said Um Ali, 40. ‘Then she fell at my doorstep and died.'' This isn’t freedom and democracy, this isn’t progress, this is unspeakable horror unleashed by George Bush’s preemptive unnecessary war! My God, when is it going to end!

Monday, 25 September 2006 07:18

BuzzFlash Mailbag for September 25, 2006


Subject: Who Cares About bin Laden?

"I don't know where bin Laden is.
I have no idea and really don't care.
It's not that important. It's not our priority." I am truly not that concerned about him." - G.W. Bush, 3/13/02 (The New American, 4/8/02)

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