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Holy TerrorsThinking About Religion After September 11
By Bruce Lincoln
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2002 the University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSymmetric Dualisms: Bush and bin Laden on October 7
On Sunday, October 7, 2001, less than a month after the attacks of September 11, President Bush announced the American military response in a televised address . Within hours there came a riposte from Osama bin Laden, who had prepared a videotape in anticipation of such military action and conveyed it to the widely viewed Arabic language network al-Jazeera, with instructions that it should be released shortly after Bush's broadcast.
Within the Muslim world, the bin Laden tape met an enthusiastic reception, and it presented many Westerners with their first sustained, relatively unmediated view of this man. Although his language and self-presentation were primarily aimed at a Muslim audience, bin Laden's charisma was still evident, even to a Western audience relatively unfamiliar with the cultural codes on which he drew and relatively unsympathetic to the arguments he offered. Given that the tape showed him as articulate in his speech, coherent in his views, passionate in his commitments, also able to rebut Bush on certain points and to highlight others the president chose to ignore, it complicated attempts to demonize him. Treating control of the airwaves as a military objective, the Bush administration quickly prevailed on AmericanTV networks not to broadcast any further tapes from bin Laden. Rather, they should limit themselves to excerpts only, accompanied by "appropriate commentary" by responsible journalists, who could be counted on to tell the desired story. Government officials also pressured print media to adopt similar policies.
The censorship thus imposed effectively deprived most Americans of the opportunity to hear bin Laden and to improve their regrettably slim and shallow understanding of this man: his grievances, goals, dreams, and delusions; his relative degree of rationality, as compared to the genuinely monstrous qualities of his ressentiment. Further exposure might make him all the more repugnant to American audiences or might enhance his charismatic aura, but it would surely help create a better-informed public: the basis of any democratic society and the proper ground from which policy ought to emerge. Although the administration has voiced fears about providing opportunities for propaganda and the transmission of coded messages to underground operatives, officials are clearly uncomfortable with anything that might permit a nuanced perception of bin Laden and create sympathy for him on any point. Far better to keep him a cartoonish stereotype of Orientalist fantasy: the "Mad Mullah," a wild-eyed, turbaned, and bearded fanatic, whose innate irrationality precludes taking him seriously but makes him a serious danger.
If in the future we will hear bin Laden only in snippets carefully chosen and packaged for our consumption, it becomes all the more important to listen closely-and critically-to his tape of October 7, for it is a subtle, complex rhetorical performance and a revealing piece of evidence. The same can be said of President Bush's speech. Indeed, it is useful to study the two texts in tandem, for they show unexpected similarities, as well as instructive differences.
Both men constructed a Manichaean struggle, where Sons of Light confront Sons of Darkness, and all must enlist on one side or another, without possibility of neutrality, hesitation, or middle ground. Bin Laden stated that the events of September 11 produced a radical estrangement and categorical division between two rival camps. His discourse, moreover, helps construct and exacerbate that division, as does the broader discourse in which he participates, which helped shape practices culminating in the 11th. "I tell them that these events have divided the world into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels. May God shield us and you from them" (§9). Bush made the same point in the central paragraph of his text, pressing a complex and variegated world into the same tidy schema of two rival camps. The orienting binaries of this structure-good/evil, hero/villain, threatened/threat-are much the same for Bush as for bin Laden, but, predictably enough, he assigned the roles in opposite fashion. "Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers, themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril" (§12).
Bin Laden's pronouncement "May God shield us and you from them" (§9) is particularly revealing for the way it establishes (and manipulates) relations among four entities, three of them marked by pronouns. Two of the pronouns-"us" and "them"-are set in opposition to each other, and the third ("you") is suspended between these two parties. The task this text takes for itself is to draw that "you" into close association with "us" and away from the enemy "them." It does this by aligning the sole noun of the phrase and its transcendent marker unambiguously with the "us": "May God shield us-and you-from them" (§9). In similar fashion, but working with different symbolic codes, Bush tried to discourage support for the enemy by consigning any would-be sympathizers to perdition: "And they will take that lonely path at their own peril" (§12).
To nail down the negative side of his binary structure, the president denounced his adversaries-not just the bombers of the September 11, but any government associated with them-as outlaws, murderers, and killers (§12). In other passages he called his adversaries "barbaric criminals" (§9) who harbored "evil plans" (§6). For the most part, however, his favored term was "terrorists," a phrase repeated so often in his and in common parlance that its meaning has come to seem transparent and its appropriateness self-evident (§§1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 13). Still, it is worth specifying the semantics of what has become the key signifier in our contemporary political discourse. As a rule, it is reserved for nonstate groups (often, but not necessarily, Islamist) who use violence, including surreptitious attacks against civilians and others, to advance political goals that pit them in opposition to state structures, policies, and ruling elites.
There are, however, some telling exceptions that reveal how loaded this terminology is. The Contras in Nicaragua, for instance, also RENAMO in Mozambique, UNITA in Angola, and the Mujahedin in Afghanistan when Afghanistan was Soviet-controlled all met the requirements of the above definition. But having been created by the CIA as proxies to harass regimes that incurred American disfavor, they could hardly be called "terrorists" in official parlance. Rather, "our" terrorists were usually dubbed "freedom fighters" when they had to be acknowledged: a term bin Laden, his al Qaeda network, and numerous other groups locked in struggle against powerful states would also surely claim for themselves.
Like Bush, bin Laden was also relentless in his use of a key signifier to denounce and demonize his enemies. His term of choice was "infidels," which he repeated five times in a relatively short address (§§3, 6, 8, 9, 11). The Quranic resonances of this word were useful to him, as was its literal denotation ("unbeliever," "enemy of the faith"). In bin Laden's usage, however, it acquired a more specific and pointed contemporary referent, designating non-Muslim states that project their military, political, economic, and cultural power into spaces Muslims regard as most holy. These "infidels" include, above all, the United States, whose stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia (home to Mecca and Medina) has been a prime concern of bin Laden's since the 1991 Gulf War (§§10, 11). More recently, he had begun to make similar points regarding the American-backed Israeli presence in Palestine, home of Jerusalem, Islam's third most sacred city (§§3, 4, 11).
The moral failings bin Laden attributed to infidels include vanity (§6), arrogance (§1), and duplicity (§7), along with callous and wanton violence (§§4, 5, 7). Their offenses also consistently have a religious character, since they not only violate Islamic law, but are actively directed against Muslims and the Islamic community. President Bush is thus "the head of international infidels" (§§6, 8), America "the modern world's symbol of paganism" (§8), and for many decades Americans have been "killers who toyed with the blood, honor and sanctities of Muslims" (§4). Accordingly, in the opening words of bin Laden's text, September 11 is construed as nothing less than the visitation of divine vengeance on a sinful nation: "Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed. Grace and gratitude to God" (§1; cf. §4).
While most of the characters who inhabit the two texts are noble heroes, outrageous villains, or waverers called to choose between these two rival camps, there is another set of cardboard figures whose features are equally determined by their propagandistic utility. This consists of children in danger who are menaced by one side and protected by the other. Bush evoked such images in three passages. In the first and most straightforward, he spoke to the situation of "the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan" (§7). Notwithstanding the fact that he was bombing their country, he portrayed American action as directed against a political regime and a terrorist apparatus, not the Afghani people. The bombings were "carefully targeted actions" (§2) directed against military targets, specifically "al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime" (§1; cf. §6). To the suffering people of the country, and above all the innocent children, he promised airdrops of food, medicine, and supplies as a token of American friendship. "The oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies" (§7; cf. §8).
In a second passage Bush began by gesturing toward traditional associations of America with "freedom" (an evocative and polyvalent signifier that deserves more attention than is possible here), then quickly dilated this notion. By the time he was finished, he had positioned the United States as champion of freedom throughout the globe, hedge against darkness, and protector of the weak. In this context he conjured up the specter of frightened children. "We defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear" (§14).
Having dealt with starving Afghani children and frightened children in foreign lands, Bush returned to address the situation of American children in the least successful passage of an otherwise deft rhetorical performance. This was the cloying paragraph toward the conclusion of his address, in which he cited a letter he received "from a 4th-grade girl, with a father in the military. 'As much as I don't want my Dad to fight,' she wrote, 'I'm willing to give him to you'" (§21). The other children Bush described had entered his narrative only as objects: objects of suffering, pity, fear, and terrible circumstances far beyond their control; objects who had been worked on by evil others to their detriment; and objects to be worked on in the future by a moral, sympathetic American self, concerned to restore their well-being. This American girl was different, however. Although threatened by menacing forces herself, she responds as a subject in ways Bush offered as a model of how proper Americans do and ought to behave: courageous, self-sacrificing, and resolute (also utterly unquestioning of their leaders).
Bin Laden's concerns for children were more local and more pointed, being most immediately focused on the plight of Iraqi children who are deprived of food, medical supplies, and sometimes also their lives by the American embargo, which has now lasted for more than a decade. Relatively little discussed in the West, this issue occasions deep concern in the Middle East, where it is often taken to reveal the cruelty of which Americans are capable and the double standard they employ in their dealings with Muslims. Bin Laden takes this analysis one step further. By connecting the Iraqi embargo to the specter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he charges the United States with war crimes and crimes against humanity, while subtly inserting racism in the indictment. For it would seem that Americans are capable of such atrocities only when their enemies are nonwhite. "They have been telling the world falsehoods that they are fighting terrorism. In a nation at the far end of the world, Japan, hundreds of thousands, young and old, were killed and this is not a world crime. To them it is not a clear issue. A million children in Iraq, to them this is not a clear issue" (§7).
Could bin Laden have anticipated that Bush would represent himself as a protector of children? If so, his emphasis on the Iraqi young amounts to a further charge of hypocrisy. Pressing to make the most of this, he hyperbolically overstated the extent of their sufferings. However credible or incredible one might find his figure of a million victims (§4), the Iraqi children became a trope for the situation of all Muslims, whose weakness has exposed them to Western aggression, particularly in the last century. The indictment bin Laden leveled also had a double edge to it. Aimed at the United States in the first place, it landed on Muslim leaders who have failed to speak out against the embargo, in the second. "A million innocent children are dying at this time as we speak, killed in Iraq without any guilt. We hear no denunciation, we hear no edict from the hereditary rulers" (§4). Against this background, bin Laden positioned himself and his followers as the most courageous and righteous defenders of their people: "those [who] have stood in defense of their weak children" (§3).
For all that Bush and bin Laden both represented themselves as righteous protectors of the weak, the two men projected very different types of authority. Bush's is official and governmental, grounded in elections, laws, and the Constitution of a nation-state. In truth, it is probably misleading to regard Bush as an individual speaker, and this for two reasons. First, he surely was not the author of his address in any conventional sense. Rather, he read a text coauthored by unnamed members of his staff. The words themselves were theirs as well as his, and he spoke as the representative and director of this apparatus. Second, and much more important, he spoke in his official capacity as head of state, representing the state and, beyond that, the nation. Or, to put it more precisely, the American state spoke to the American nation through him as its representation and conduit.
In partial acknowledgment, but also partial concealment of these intricacies, Bush began his address by alluding to the state authority vested first in his office and second in his person ("Good afternoon. On my orders the United States military has begun strikes" [§1]). At two other points, he made explicit reference to his title and office, proudly placing himself among American presidents (§13) and commanders in chief (§18). Noting that he spoke "from the Treaty Room of the White House, a place where American Presidents have worked for peace" (§13), he was surrounded by flags as he defined the struggle in terms of his nation's traditional ideals. These center on peace (mentioned four times in §13, including the assertion "We're a peaceful nation"), justice (especially in his charge to the troops, "Your goal is just" [§20; cf. §6]), and freedom (mentioned four times in §14 and used, somewhat lamely, to euphemize the mission: "The name of today's military operation is Enduring Freedom"). Two of these values recur in his final clarion cry, "Peace and freedom will prevail" (§23), and the third is probably implicit. No American call to arms is conceivable without enumeration of these cardinal virtues, but of particular analytic interest at present is their distinctly secular nature.
Excerpted from Holy Terrors by Bruce Lincoln Copyright © 2002 by the University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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