OSAMA BIN LADEN'S STRENGTH as an orator has always been his ethos. He is an eloquent and seemingly honest speaker, proud of his role in the attacks of 9/11, a principled spokesman for radical Islam's war against the West. Though bin Laden may not have penned all his words personally, the force of his ideas always shines through. As Bruce Lawrence notes in Messages to the World, "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."
In bin Laden's last video--released on October 29, 2004, on the eve of America's presidential election--bin Laden mocked President Bush: "Free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush's claim that we hate freedom. If so, then let him explain to us why we don't strike--for example--Sweden?" But even while skewering President Bush for his simplistic framing of the conflict, bin Laden has been hesitant to explain the roots of the struggle to a Western audience. (His rhetoric differs when the target audience is Western rather than Muslim.) The closest he has come was the October 2004 video, where bin Laden outlined his grievances at length and urged his audience to look for 9/11's "causes in order to prevent it from happening again."
This vagueness has led some commentators to conclude that bin Laden is fundamentally a political terrorist rather than a religious one. The sociologist Michael Mann wrote, "There is a simple reason why he attacked the United States: American imperialism. As long as America seeks to control the Middle East, he and people like him will be its enemy." Doug Bandow of the American Conservative Defense Alliance--after quoting bin Laden's quip about Sweden--declared that al-Qaeda's attacks are "in pursuit of specific geopolitical objectives. The evidence is overwhelming that they attack Americans because they believe Americans are at war with them."
A NUMBER OF COMMENTATORS have described bin Laden's latest video, released yesterday, as breaking new ground--and it does.
One way the tape does not break new ground is through the breadth of topics covered. The video is somewhat of a tour de force. Bin Laden's complaints run the gamut from the invasion of Iraq to Hollywood, global warming, and interest-bearing loans. The authorities he cites to bolster his case include Noam Chomsky, Michael Scheuer, and a soldier he calls only "Joshua" (presumably from a mid-summer ABC News report). But broad lists of grievances and a complex narrative have always been signatures of bin Laden's rhetoric. This is not the first time he mentioned the Kyoto Protocol, nor is it the first time he cited leftist intellectuals.
One discernable shift in this speech is that bin Laden is far friendlier to the Jews than ever before. He declares that if the Nazi holocaust had occurred closer to Muslim countries, "most of the Jews would have been saved by taking refuge with us." Bin Laden also recalls how Jews found shelter in Muslim countries during the Spanish Inquisition.
A second discernible shift is that the speech is more anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist than past work. Bruce Lawrence writes in Messages to the World, "The word 'imperialism' does not occur once in any of the messages he has sent out. He defines the enemy differently. For him, jihad is aimed not at an imperium, but at 'global unbelief'." But this speech is more explicit. Bin Laden describes the media as "a tool of the colonialist empires," and refers to America as an empire twice, predicting its collapse. More to the point, he says that capitalism lies at the heart of the current struggle. In the West, bin Laden says, "those with real power and influence are those with the most capital." He continues:
And since the democratic system permits major corporations to back candidates, be they presidential or congressional, there shouldn't be any cause for astonishment . . . in the Democrats' failure to stop the war. . . . As you liberated yourselves before from the slavery of monks, kings, and feudalism, you should liberate yourselves from the deception, shackles and attrition of the capitalist system.