There is something obscene about reading the self-justifications of an acknowledged mass murderer. But what makes the collected speeches, interviews, Web postings and other public statements of Osama bin Laden different from, say, “Helter Skelter,” is that bin Laden is not clinically mad. He gives reasons for his actions that, while morally outrageous and religiously irresponsible, could be accepted by otherwise logical people who shared his premises. This makes him more, not less, dangerous than the Charles Mansons among us. Bin Laden has an audience, of which he is acutely aware — a fact made particularly clear by his recent offer of a “truce” with America. His words, as much as his deeds, aim to convince others to embrace his view of the world and act accordingly.
Without words, in fact, bin Laden’s violence could not achieve its stated goals. By his own account, bin Laden is neither a nihilist nor a millenarian. He does not claim to embrace violence for its own sake or in the hope of hastening the apocalypse. Rather, he purports to fulfill the twin duties of calling nonbelievers to Islam and defending the Muslim community from attack.
The goal of jihad (presented by bin Laden as a matter of self-defense) needs words because bin Laden has no sizable army at his back. Unable to subjugate the West, bin Laden thinks his best bet is to inflict harm — human and economic — and then blackmail his target. For bin Laden, then, actual violence is instrumental. It is the interpretation of violence that is the very essence of his religious and political program. To hold his explanation in one’s hands is to confront his reason for being.
“Messages to the World” is almost too well produced. Bound in an attractive orange wrapper and printed on excellent paper, it comes decorated with a thumbnail painting of the man himself, garbed in one of his allusive, carefully constructed outfits. The peaks of the Hindu Kush loom in the background, reminders of the Tora Bora debacle. James Howarth’s English translation is idiomatic and creditable. Bruce Lawrence’s notes are occasionally idiosyncratic — why refute the claim that the United States created the AIDS virus but not the argument that “Rumsfeld, the butcher of Vietnam,” is responsible for two million deaths? And Lawrence’s introduction could have done without the puzzling comparison to Che Guevara. For the most part, though, the contextual explanations provided in the volume will be helpful to those uninitiated in the discourses of contemporary Islamic radicalism.
The real contribution of this book is what it tells us about bin Laden’s own development. Beginning as a trenchant critic of the Saudi government, he becomes an advocate of global religious war and the intentional killing of civilians, including women and children. This “progress” tells us something potentially useful about the path of radical Islamic ideology in recent years.
A product of his Saudi milieu, the young bin Laden recognized the moral authority of the religious scholars who enjoy quasi-official status in the kingdom as the people who legitimate the rule of the royal family. His first major public statement, made in 1994, when he was 37 years old and had been living in exile in Sudan for three years, took the form of an open letter to Sheik Abdelaziz bin Baz, then the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and a man widely considered to be both a religious conservative and a credible Islamic scholar. In the letter, bin Laden addressed bin Baz respectfully, urging him to retract fatwas that authorized the presence of foreign troops in the kingdom and validated the Oslo accords. Bin Laden presented himself not as a religious authority in his own right — in fact, he has no scholarly qualifications — but as a supporter of dissident Saudi religious scholars who had been silenced by the Saudi government.
By 1997, however, bin Laden had begun to abandon this deferential stance and assume for himself the role (as he put it in an interview with the journalist Peter Arnett) of “enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong,” since Islamic scholars seemed incapable of fulfilling this traditional duty themselves. He was on a course that would eventually lead to the conclusion that listening to scholars who err is “tantamount to worshiping them rather than God.” From here it was but a short step to try to replace the scholars, offering his own interpretations of Islamic texts and traditions and presenting them as binding on believers.
Bin Laden’s “legal” innovations are not minor. Following some other radicals, he frequently speaks of the war against Christians and Jews as an individual duty of every Muslim. But according to Islamic law, only defensive jihad is an individual duty; offensive jihad is a collective duty of the Muslim community, to be prosecuted only under the command of a responsible leader.
As classically understood, the law of jihad prohibits the killing of innocents. In 1996, bin Laden denied having targeted civilians, and in 1997 he condemned the United States government’s hypocrisy in not calling the bombing of Hiroshima terrorism. Over time, though, bin Laden has come to endorse the targeting of civilians. In November 2001, for example, when asked in an interview whether the killing of civilians (including Muslims) on Sept. 11 was justified, he argued that revenge killings of Americans were justified, and pointed out that Islamic law allows believers to attack invaders even when the enemy uses human shields. But this classical position was originally intended as a legal justification for the accidental killing of civilians under very limited circumstances — not a basis for intentionally targeting noncombatants. Later, in an open letter to Americans posted on the Internet in 2002, bin Laden appears to have abandoned this pseudoscholarly argument in favor of the perverse claim that since the United States is a democracy, all citizens bear responsibility for its government’s actions, and civilians are therefore fair targets.
The shift in authority away from the scholars and to the individual is sometimes seen as a feature of an Islamic reformation. If so, its harmful consequences need to be recognized alongside whatever promise it may hold. The individual duty of jihad and the targeting of innocents are the two indispensable pillars of the jihadi movement as it exists today. Bin Laden’s move to supplant the scholarly tradition, arrogate authority to himself and embrace violence on a grand scale represents a power grab of historic significance. When bin Laden says he is engaged in a war of religion, he is doing more than trying to mobilize Muslims — he is trying to make himself their legitimate decision maker, and thus their leader.
Ultimately, bin Laden’s innovations matter because they point the way to defeating his arguments. Attacks on Muslim civilians in Iraq and Jordan have begun to create some backlash, and the targeting of civilians is once again an issue among jihadis and other Muslims in a way it has not been since 9/11. In the long run, the only way to cut off the international jihadi movement at the root is for Muslims to conclude that their own religious tradition does not countenance the deviations of recent years.
Putting bin Laden’s words on paper helps show him for what he is — a Muslim out of the mainstream, distorting the faith to justify murder. In the end, the most constructive thing one can do with a book like this one is to use it against itself, as a tool in the fight against terrorism.
Noah Feldman is a professor of law at New York University. His most recent book is “Divided by God.”