Osama bin Laden’s cut-and-paste job
The al-Qaeda frontman’s latest address to the American people wouldn’t sound out of place in mainstream US politics.
‘Praise be to God, who created people to worship Him, ordered them to be just, and permitted the wronged to mete out fair punishment to the wrongdoer.’ And so, with crushingly predictable bombast, Osama bin Laden’s latest message to the American people begins.
Bin Laden’s addresses to the American people are a bit like the Queen’s speech in the UK. For a start, they’re annual, roughly coinciding with the anniversary of 9/11; second, most people dismiss them as the rants of some weird medieval type; and, third, those who see great meaning in them are usually maladjusted.
Yet, the most striking thing about bin Laden’s latest 11-minute offering is just how familiar much of it is. Some parts could have been written by certain sections of the anti-war movement.
First, there’s the cynical invocation of the cause of the Palestinians: ‘I say that we have made it clear and stated so many times that the cause of the quarrel with you is your support for your Israeli allies, who have occupied our land, Palestine.’ Then, there’s his view that the White House ‘is in fact a hostage in the hands of pressure groups, especially major corporations and the Israeli lobby’. There’s also the suggestion that Barack Obama risks assassination if he resists the Jewish/big-money conspiracy: ‘The White House leader… regardless of who he is, is like a train driver who cannot but travel on the railways designed by these pressure groups. Otherwise, his way would be blocked and he would fear that his destiny would be like that of former President Kennedy and his brother.’ And, finally, there’s the triumphant defeatism: ‘You are fighting a desperate, losing war that is in favour of others. There seems to be no end in sight for this war.’
Of course there are differences between bin Laden’s addresses and Stop the War press releases, most noticeably his inability to resist dropping in a reference to God every other paragraph. A pretty innocuous passage about neo-conservatives will suddenly be interrupted by a ‘praise be to God’. A sentence about ‘exorbitant usury’ will be punctured by a ‘God willing’. Bin Laden burps religion.
But beyond differences in style, the content of bin Laden’s latest address is, in terms of opposition to the War on Terror, almost banal. From talk of an Israeli influence on foreign policy to blaming neo-conservative forces at work in the White House, its criticism echoes those of mainstream opponents in the West. As a commentator at the Christian Science Monitor notes, ‘much of his commentary would be right at home in a stump speech in the US, either Republican or Democrat’.
At Antiwar.com, another commentator finds himself forced to concede that bin Laden has a point: ‘A government held hostage by pressure groups: who can argue with that? The corporate powers-that-be have long considered the US military their private police force and have acted accordingly, using it to secure their profit margins ever since America’s debut on the world stage as a full-fledged imperial power. As for the decisive influence of the Israel lobby, it is indisputable.’
That bin Laden’s views seem so politically acceptable even in the terms of mainstream Republican-Democrat discourse, and, moreover, that his criticisms seem, to some pundits at least, so correct, is a testament less to bin Laden’s savviness or his unerring insight into American politics than to his use of the internet. For bin Laden’s great skill, if you can call it that, is to parrot what critics in the West say about America. So, when he’s not belching up bits of the Koran, he’s regurgitating the complaints and conspiracies of the blogosphere.
His ability to mirror Western self-criticism is not new, of course. His ‘Letter to America’ in 2002, for instance, played upon an all-too-Western disenchantment with consumerism. ‘You are a nation’, he shouted, ‘that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools calling upon customers to purchase them’. And if the objectification of women in consumer society wasn’t offensive enough for bin Laden, long-time fan of the female-friendly Taliban, he was also pretty angry at the US’s Kyoto-flouting amount of carbon emissions: ‘You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history. Despite this you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries.’ From the vacuousness of consumer culture to the plight of nature, no Western born-and-bred critique of modernity was beyond bin Laden.
As Brendan O’Neill pointed out in 2005, even bin Laden’s support for Palestine was less a long-held cause than one adopted in light of Western attempts to understand the reasons for 9/11. This is indicated in an interview with an al-Jazeera journalist in October 2001. When asked by the journalist why he has only recently ‘foregrounded the Palestinian issue and relegated, so to speak, the issue of Saudi Arabia’, which he previously had ‘concentrated’ on, bin Laden replied: ‘Some of the events of recent times might foreground a certain issue, so we move in that direction, without ignoring the other.’
In his recent message, the cynical opportunism is as prevalent as ever. In fact, bin Laden literally draws his criticism of America from the West. First he mentions a book called Apology of a Hired Assassin, by a former CIA agent whose ‘conscience awoke in his eighth decade’. This, many have noted, is probably a confused allusion to the 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hitman by a putative NSA agent, John Perkins. It was written when he was in his eighties.
And then there’s the source for bin Laden’s Jewish-conspiracy accusation, a 2007 book called, cunningly enough,The Israel Lobby, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, two American academics. Bin Laden proudly tells Americans that if they read these books, ‘you will be thoroughly shocked at the magnitude of deception that has been practised against you’. Shocked? Hardly. Conspiracy thinking, whether it concentrates on a Jewish cabal at the centre of global power or the influence of shady international corporations, is prevalent across Western public life; from the hit TV series 24 to anti-war demos.
Bin Laden’s talent for paraphrasing Western self-criticism is also, perhaps, a source of the increasing lack of interest in his pronouncements. Now, as little more than a ghost of an actual threat, he is limited almost entirely to pompously rewording what too many critics of America think they already know. In large part a product of the West, bin Laden and al-Qaeda no longer quite meet its needs. He feels like yesterday’s bomber. The muted reaction to bin Laden’s latest polemic simply reveals what al-Qaeda and its bearded frontman always were: a tribute act to Western decadence.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
Faisal Devji viewed Osama bin Laden as a celebrity terrorist of the MTV era. Brendan O’Neill wondered if bin Laden is an environmentalist and suggested that al-Qaeda’s leaders have picked up on the Western politics of victimhood. He also thought bin Laden was little more than a media whore. Philip Hammond concluded that al-Qaeda is neither big nor clever. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror
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