This morning, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice contacted TV network executives to caution them against broadcasting Osama Bin Laden’s videotaped appeal for a Muslim uprising. Her argument, according to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, was that the video might contain secret messages to Bin Laden’s agents abroad. Secret messages? What about the obvious message? In the video, Bin Laden makes a point-by-point argument that our war on terrorism is a fraud. Why haven’t we challenged that argument?
This isn’t the way we’ve approached the material side of the war. In his speech to Congress on Sept. 20, President Bush warned, “Terror unanswered can not only bring down buildings, it can threaten the stability of legitimate governments.” But since Sunday afternoon, when TV networks around the world began airing the Bin Laden video, the United States has issued no answer. The White House seems to think that if it ignores Bin Laden’s message, the message will go away. In the war for Muslim public opinion, we’ve become pacifists.
International support for our military campaign in Afghanistan depends on three basic messages. First, terrorists are the bad guys. Second, defeating terrorism is the purpose of the campaign. Third, Muslims are our friends. Bin Laden’s video, which has saturated the Muslim world through television (chiefly the Qatar-based superstation Al Jazeera), newspapers, and word of mouth, attacks all of these premises.
Bush’s account of what motivates Bin Laden and other anti-American terrorists has always been simplistic. “They hate our freedoms,” he told Congress. “They want to drive Israel out of the Middle East. They want to drive Christians and Jews out of vast regions of Asia and Africa.” This account is true but dangerously selective. It omits other, less radical concerns that are widely shared in the Muslim world.
In the video, Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeal to these concerns by outlining their version of recent events in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. “A million innocent children are dying at this time as we speak, killed in Iraq” by U.S.-inspired sanctions, says Bin Laden. “Israeli tanks rampage across Palestine.” Therefore, the hijackers who struck the United States weren’t aggressors; they merely “stood in defense of their weak children, their brothers and sisters in Palestine and other Muslim nations.” They were striking a blow not against innocent civilians but against American “killers who have abused the blood, honor, and sanctuaries of Muslims.”
This retaliation, according to the video, wasn’t just right; it was necessary. Al-Zawahiri argues that Muslims couldn’t continue to absorb abuse. “America has committed so many crimes against the nations of Muslims [that] nobody could bear,” he says. Bin Laden ends with a warning that “neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine.” This vow has reportedly struck a chord throughout the Muslim world. It appeals to the ugly but widespread suspicion that the only way to get the United States to take Palestinian deaths seriously was to kill Americans.
Next, Bin Laden assails the Americans’ “falsehoods that they are fighting terrorism.” He argues that “hundreds of thousands, young and old, were killed” when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, as were “a million children in Iraq” under the current sanctions—and yet Americans don’t consider these mass civilian deaths criminal. From this charge of hypocrisy, he concludes that the United States is really trying “to fight Islam, to suppress people in the name of [fighting] terrorism.”
What about the many Muslim civilians and regimes who support the United States in this war? They’re not real Muslims, says Bin Laden. They’re “hypocrites” who have “backed the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child.” Their support of the military campaign in Afghanistan is “treachery,” he charges. Since this is really a war on Islam, he concludes, “Every Muslim must rise to defend his religion.”
Americans may find this presentation ludicrous, but many Arabs and Muslims in Asia and Africa don’t. They’re steeped in tales and images of Palestinian suffering at Israeli hands. They’ve been told in mosques about treacherous hypocrites throughout history who have falsely claimed to represent Islam. Bin Laden’s message tugs at them. They suspect he’s right that the United States objects to terrorism only when it’s practiced by Muslims. They’re sympathetic to the idea that, in the words of one Lebanese Christian, the United States shouldn’t be “comfortable” while Palestinians suffer.
What is Bush saying in response to these arguments? Nothing. On Monday, Fleischer brushed aside questions about Bin Laden’s message. “The President saw the tape yesterday and his reaction to it is mostly that this is really not about Osama bin Laden; this is much broader,” said Fleischer. “Any statements made by one person, Osama bin Laden or otherwise, are not what the President is focused on.” On Tuesday, when asked about Muslim protests against the bombing of Afghanistan, Bush shrugged, “The message of the Al Qaeda organization is one of evil and hate. … [People] should not protest the decisions our coalition is making, because it is in the best interests of freedom and humankind.” On Wednesday, Fleischer scoffed, “At best, Osama Bin Laden’s message is propaganda calling on people to kill Americans.”
That won’t cut it. There’s a strong, substantive case to be made against Bin Laden’s message, and Bush isn’t making it. Bush could explain that the sanctions on Iraq allow Saddam Hussein to buy food and medicine but that Saddam chooses to let Iraqi children starve. He could point out that Israeli-Palestinian violence is mutual, that the United States has criticized transgressions on both sides, and that murdering American civilians antagonizes the only country capable of persuading Israel to accept a Palestinian state. He could acknowledge the misfortunes of many Muslims while explaining that they don’t justify the deliberate killing of civilians. He could outline important differences between the context of Sept. 11 and the context of the atomic bombs that ended World War II.
Most important, Bush could drive wedges between Bin Laden and the Muslims he purports to represent. He could point out that Bin Laden, who accuses Arab regimes of paying lip service to Palestinian aspirations, has only lately and opportunistically embraced those aspirations. He could quote the Palestinian Authority’s information minister, who has said Bin Laden’s terrorism “is not the way to solve our problems.”
He could enlist a respected Muslim cleric to explain how Bin Laden twists the Quran to suit his purposes. He could give Muslims pause by reminding them that Bin Laden’s message calls on them “to destroy America” and to wage war against five billion “infidels.” On Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair made some of these points in an interview with Al Jazeera. But U.S. officials have refused to give similar interviews.
You may find Bin Laden’s message absurd. You may find its resonance in the Muslim world absurd. But surely the failure of the United States to rebut it is even more absurd. We’re at war with a man who champions the mass murder of civilians. You’d think the easiest part of the war would be persuading the world that he’s the bad guy. But in the part of the world that matters most, we’re not even answering him. Bush has sent thousands of American soldiers to Afghanistan. He expects them, if fired upon, to fire back. They’re entitled to expect the same of him.