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Behind Enemy Lines | The Nation

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Behind Enemy Lines

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Indeed, Muslim suffering, according to bin Laden, spans the globe--in Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tajikistan, Burma, Somalia, Eritrea, among other places--and though these regions and their conflicts are disconnected in space and time, they are a single struggle because all of them run along the same civilizational fault line that divides Muslims from the West. Bruce Lawrence's anthology includes one of bin Laden's most fascinating interviews, a tough, freewheeling discussion with Al Jazeera's Taysir Alluni in 2001. At one point, Alluni asked bin Laden for his opinion of Samuel Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations. Bin Laden, apparently referring to the book's title alone, replied, "I say that there is no doubt about this." Western countries, he argues, historically have sought to divide and conquer the umma, a word that is often translated into English as "the Muslim nation." In bin Laden's sense of the term, this is an accurate translation, although it is by no means the only way to express the concept. The umma could just as well be regarded as a diverse community of believers, scattered throughout the world, harmoniously mixed among peoples of various faiths and cultures. But for Al Qaeda's adherents it represents a kind of modern nation-state, a vast monoculture that, in its ideal form, must be contained and protected by vast borders. Bin Laden has many ways of referring to this community--the Nation of Monotheism, the Nation of Honor and Respect, the Nation of Martyrdom, the Nation That Desires Death More Than You Desire Life, the Nation of Victory and Success That God Has Promised--but in each instance, his imagined umma is the same: a sovereign expanse populated by one kind of people, governed by one system of thought and purged of all others.

About the Author

Raffi Khatchadourian
Raffi Khatchadourian has written on militant Islam in Central Asia and North Africa for several publications, including...

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When George Kennan set out for the Caucasus in 1870, few if any Americans had explored the highlands of Dagestan, Chechnya and the wild frontiers of imperial Russia. And with good reason.

This forms the basis of bin Laden's preoccupation with the "fragmentation" of the Muslim world, and it inevitably has led him to examine the cause of that disunity. For decades other Islamists focused their jihad upon the "near enemy," the corrupt autocrats--some secular, others religious--who rule the Middle East, but by the 1990s these movements had either been smashed or had collapsed under their own weight. Bin Laden's response to that failure has been to turn to the "head of the snake," the United States--the distant reptilian juggernaut that provides the "near enemy" with military and financial backing, acts inscrutably to satisfy its economic hunger, is limitless in its political manipulations and has little regard for the people who live beyond its imperial horizons. Bin Laden often frames his jihad against the United States as a religious conflict, and he has taken endless pleasure in Bush's ill-considered comparison of the "war on terror" to the Crusades. ("The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouth," bin Laden remarked.) But more often than not, he appears to be concerned with questions of lost Muslim territory and the imbalance of global wealth, which so dramatically tilts in the West's favor. At times he likens the United States to ancient Rome, a ruthless and expansionist power that propagates its own brand of terror throughout the world. In 1998 bin Laden asked an American journalist, "Was it not your country that bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Were there not women and children and civilians and noncombatants there? You were the people who invented this terrible game, and we as Muslims have to use those same tactics against you."

The function of propaganda, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, "is not to make an objective study of the truth" but to incite. Bin Laden regards himself as an instigator. To build an effective case for his jihad, bin Laden distorts figures and facts, commits errors of omission and builds arguments upon theological logic that is widely repudiated. He is contradictory. In one breath, he is able to claim: "Many people in the West are good and gentle people. I have already said that we are not hostile to the United States. We are against the system which makes nations slaves of the United States." In another, he says that "the American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their government," and therefore, "the American people are not innocent." As he tells it, the jihadi movement brought down the Soviet Union entirely on its own in the mountains of Afghanistan (apparently without any lift from the $3 billion in US aid provided through Pakistan and other countries). He overlooks the nationalist dimension of certain conflicts, like the one in Chechnya, which he maintains are primarily about Islam. He ignores regions where America has sided with Muslims, such as Kosovo. When all but 500 US troops finally left Saudi Arabia in 2003, he quietly dropped this grievance from his rhetoric.

Still, despite these knots and inconsistencies, bin Laden's message resonates with millions of Muslims, because the larger threads of his narrative are spun from reality. Lawrence reminds us of Madeleine Albright's 1996 exchange with Lesley Stahl on the human toll of sanctions against Iraq. (Stahl: "We have heard that a half-million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima." Albright: "We think the price is worth it.") More broadly, Lawrence notes, the umma has been attacked by Western countries in one form or another for two centuries, "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" and so on to the present. "All the lines of intrusion and violence historically run in one direction." This is partly why, in a study conducted last October across the Arab world by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, more than half the respondents said they found some form of legitimacy in bin Laden's pronouncements. (Thirty-five percent said they sympathized with him for "standing up" to the United States; 19 percent said they sympathized with his position on various Muslim causes.) Very few Arabs said they wanted to live in an authoritarian theocracy like the Taliban's Afghanistan, and few agreed with Al Qaeda's methods. But tellingly, bin Laden rarely says much about the society he wishes to construct, and he is always careful to describe Al Qaeda's violence as "a reaction to events in our land." If anything, he is a canny politician who knows his audience.

In fact, those who have spent the most time studying bin Laden appear to nurture a cautious respect for what he has been able to achieve. "Not since Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser galvanized the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s with his vision of Arab nationalism married to socialism has an Arab political figure had as much impact on the world," writes Peter Bergen in The Osama bin Laden I Know, an "oral history" of bin Laden's life. The book is a prismatic biography of Al Qaeda's leader assembled from jihadi documents--some never before quoted in English--and from the testimony of militants, journalists, relatives and teachers who knew him personally. Bergen, a former CNN producer, conducted more than fifty of the interviews, and his story unfolds with the ease and vividness of a TV documentary. After several pages, the book's myriad accounts--not all of them in agreement, and many deeply biased--begin to form a composite portrait that is among the most honest we have. Bergen is explicit about his project: to peer behind the multiple layers of propaganda that have obscured bin Laden's actions. He hopes, among other things, to get a fix on the development of bin Laden's worldview, the depth of his influence, the precise nature of his demands and, perhaps most interesting, how he has been living these many years.

What Bergen's book makes clear is that Al Qaeda's soft-spoken leader possesses a magnetic aura. Bin Laden exhibits a combination of piety, discipline, self-reliance and sincerity that give his words the imprimatur of authority for many Muslims. When, for instance, Abu Jandal, bin Laden's former bodyguard, describes their time in Afghanistan, he sounds as though he were recounting a parable:

We never really felt afraid as long as we were with that man.... He was consistently very generous with others. No one ever came to ask for financial assistance and was rebuffed. An Arab brother who wished to travel abroad came and explained his difficult circumstances to him. Sheikh Osama went into the house, came out with whatever money his family had, which was around $100, and gave it to the man. I was aware of the Sheikh's financial situation and said: "Why did you not leave a part of that money for us. Those who are staying here are more deserving than those who are leaving." He replied: "Our situation is not hard. God will send us money." For five days after this incident we had nothing to eat except pomegranates that grew around his house although they were not yet ripe. We ate raw pomegranates with bread, three times a day. I believe that God raised Osama bin Laden to a high status because despite his great wealth, he was very modest, and attached only to what rewards God would give him.

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