Bin Laden's Worldview

Sunday, December 18, 2005

You started it: Above all, this is the theme of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (Verso; paperback, $16.95). Al Qaeda's leader here exhorts Arabs to join what he sees as a purely defensive holy struggle against a bloodthirsty, crusading United States determined to assault Islam, as well as against the U.S.-backed puppet regimes keeping Arabs in chains and the sinister Jewish conspiracy lurking behind it all. Terrorists, after all, do not see themselves as villains but as altruists.

This all sounds thunderous, but to understand bin Laden's appeal, you need to hear his voice: gentle, quiet, even serene -- the rants of a demagogue couched in the calm, soothing tones of a friend who wants only to explain the world as it is. Since 9/11, that voice has become chillingly familiar in the Arab world, but few Westerners have had much chance to hear it. Reading these 24 statements -- made by bin Laden over the course of a bloody decade, translated by James Howarth and set in context by Duke University religion professor Bruce Lawrence -- helps rectify that, making this book a sort of Mein Kampf for the age of global jihad.

Arabic speakers will have to vouch for the reliability of the translations, but they read cleanly enough and suggest a man who is relishing his attempts to win the war for Muslim minds. Mocking President Bush's decision to carry on reading to Florida schoolchildren after hearing of the first strike on the Twin Towers, bin Laden sneers in an Oct. 2004 videotape, "It seems that a little girl's story about a goat and its butting was more important than dealing with aeroplanes and their butting into skyscrapers" -- a jape made even worse by a nasty pun, since the Arabic word for skyscraper is, literally, "cloud-butter.

With such insights into the way bin Laden's mind works, this ugly but necessary book reminds us of the rhetorical talent and ideological ambition of America's most dangerous foe. It also exemplifies Orwell's grim view of political speech as "the defence of the indefensible."

-- Warren Bass

© 2005 The Washington Post Company