The Statements of Osama bin Laden

Also in the Boston Review, Khaled Abou El Fadl reviews Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden.

In some ways, bin Laden is a historical anomaly. He is a natural byproduct of Wahhabi theology but hardly a theologian himself. Despite his many speeches and writings, he does not seem keen about leaving behind a legacy of interpretations or a coherent system of thought that would inspire generations of Muslims after he is gone. Something of a theological parasite, he seems content with tapping into everything cruel and intolerant in the vast Islamic tradition. Likewise, his revolutionary credentials are suspect; although he speaks of ending oppression and injustice, his vision is full of nightmares. Revolutionaries usually promise a better world after destroying the old—there is at least the hint of a utopian dream that draws in young idealists. The rhetoric of defensive jihad suggests that bin Laden sees himself as a different kind of revolutionary—a national liberator or freedom fighter—and indeed, many secular Muslims and Christian Arabs do sympathize with him on that basis.

But between the three choices—theologian, revolutionary, or Crusader—bin Laden is most like a Crusader. The Crusades were ostensibly about gaining control of holy sites, but in reality this was just an excuse for waging war without the constraints of morality. Not bothering with such technicalities as who actually lived on the land, the Crusaders believed that their acts of unmitigated aggression were defensive wars, and, like bin Laden, the Crusaders thrived on narratives of victimization. Both bin Laden and the Crusaders transformed the evil of vengeance into a virtue. Bin Laden fancies himself the defender of Islam, and Crusaders fancied themselves the defenders of Christendom. But most tragically, the Crusaders and bin Laden exploited their religious traditions to commit atrocities in God’s holy name.