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February 16, 2007
Kevin Barrett talks to Bruce Lawrence of Duke University about the Bin Laden confession tapes which Lawrence says are bogus and that he knows people who work for the United States government who agree with him off the record.
The New Yorker | August 22, 2005
by Lauren Collins
Bruce Lawrence, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, lives near Durham, North Carolina, with his wife, Miriam Cooke, a scholar of modern Arabic literature. "Our house is on a hill, and we have a guesthouse-library that we use as a retreat," he said the other day. "We sit up there a couple of nights a week, and we meditate and sometimes we read poetry aloud. I'll say, 'Let's read some of what we're working on,' and then I'll read some of the stuff from O.B.L.' "
By "O.B.L.," Lawrence means Osama bin Laden. By "stuff," he means bin Laden's speeches, interviews, and statements. Lawrence, a respected Arabist, has agreed, at the request of Verso Books, to edit and write an introduction to "Messages to the World," a compendium of bin Laden's communiqués from 1994 to 2004. (This is the first time that the major texts will be available in English in their entirety.) In November, Verso—an independentpress known for publishing leftist writers such as Slavoj Zizek and Alexander Cockburn—will issue twenty thousand copies of the book, in paperback, to be sold at $16.95 each. (Lawrence has accepted a smaller than usual fee, of five thousand dollars. )
"I'm really not a fan of O.B.L., but I'm not happy with the reporting on him, because it's been so piecemeal and generalized," Lawrence said. He believes that the project will afford readers the opportunity to understand bin Laden in his own words. "He has to be decoded if he's going to be defeated." Besides, as Lawrence explained, "Osama may be the world's worst terrorist, but he's also one of the best prose writers in Arabic." (The historian Bernard Lewis has called bin Laden's prose "eloquent, at times even poetic.")
Among the many difficulties inherent in editing a wanted man is access: some of the texts are as elusive as bin Laden himself. "One can't go to the Library of Congress and ask for the Osama bin Laden file," Lawrence said. A speech from 2003, for instance, disappeared from the Internet a few days after a Verso employee tracked it down. Others have been heavily censored by translators or publishers. "Places where bin Laden says that people like King Fahd are apostates have been excised," Lawrence said. "And he's hell on the guy who's the interior minister!" One fatwa, known as the Ladenese Epistle, was published in English translation by a London-based newspaper, but the newspaper is refusing to make the original available to Lawrence. "I've put out an all-points bulletin to try to get an Arabic researcher to go to the British Library to see if it can be found," he said. Even the texts that are readily accessible have been corrupted by the process of serialization—the original disseminated through an outlet like Al Jazeera, then transcribed by Arabic newspapers, then translated for English-speaking media, and so on, until the intended meaning and inflection devolve into hearsay.
"The transcripts are horrendous," Lawrence said. "The Arabic is flat and sometimes just wrong." While fragmentation, misspellings, and poor grammar and punctuation muddle the existing translations, the new ones—twenty-seven, with a special appendix for fakes—will reflect bin Laden's prose as Lawrence reads it: stark, lean, free of colloquialism, resonant in multiple registers. "His language is like Chaucer's in its archaic expression," Lawrence said.
He went on, "His attraction for a certain audience is that he uses a direct style of speech, removing himself to the third-person singular"—"Osama did not kill all those people" is a typical regular-guy feint—"and has a repertoire of references to early Islam, to scripture, to anecdote, and to poetry."
Bin Laden's rhetorical arsenal also includes casuistic logic (while he claims not to approve of killing innocents, when asked about killing Americans he reasons that, since Americans pay taxes, there's no such thing as an American innocent) and metonymy ("Oh, God. It really gets complex when he uses a phrase like 'Al Jazeera,' which literally means 'peninsula,' but is taken to mean 'Saudi Arabia' "). He's fond of historical allusion. ("At one point, he says, 'First there was Richard the Lionhearted, then there was Barbarossa, and now there's Bush.' ") In another speech, he alludes to an Iranian proverb: the mad goat who roughs the ground is the one who steps on the blade. "He's saying that the Zio-American crusader alliance is the equivalent of the mad goat," Lawrence explained. He even detects a dark sense of humor in bin Laden's writings: "In one of the translations, he talks about Uncle Sam. In Arabic, Uncle Sam is 'Amm Sam'— it rhymes, you see. The Arabic word samm means poison, and an uncle, in Arabic, is supposed to be someone you can trust."
For all the richness that Lawrence finds in his subject's language, he considers bin Laden's calm, affectless delivery to be strangely at odds with his message of vengeance. "You read this stuff and you say, wait a minute—how does he manage to get people excited when he's such a monotone speaker? It's as if his anti-charisma were a form of charisma. He's almost like Ed Muskie."
Not many people know that, after September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden issued a statement on tape that he had nothing to do with the attacks on America and that such actions were against the teachings of Islam. Americans were prevented from accessing this information because we were told that Osama could possibly have an embedded "secret code" in the tape that would alert other terrorists cells to "activate" and target other American cities.
Here is the transcript of what you were not allowed to hear from Osama bin Laden's own mouth:
"I was not involved in the September 11 attacks in the United States nor did I have knowledge of the attacks. There exists a government within a government within the United States. The United States should try to trace the perpetrators of these attacks within itself; to the people who want to make the present century a century of conflict between Islam and Christianity. That secret government must be asked as to who carried out the attacks. ... The American system is totally in control of the Jews, whose first priority is Israel, not the United States." (25)
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