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Bin Laden reading group digs for insights

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 2006

When Osama bin Laden suggested in his latest audio message that Americans should read a particular book, its sales spiked, and columnists couldn't resist the flip comparisons to Oprah.

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But the idea of an Osama reading club is no joke at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Since last fall, about 10 professors have been gathering periodically to talk about bin Laden's own writings and speeches. They aren't experts on the leader of Al Qaeda, but whether they teach about Islam, Judaism, terrorism, or political science, they all have a stake in knowing more about him.

"There's been so little careful reflection on how bin Laden thinks," says Volney Gay, director of Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Religion and Culture, the sponsor of the interdisciplinary group. "For most of us, the media presentations ... have been 30- or 40-second summaries, [but] it struck us that he couldn't have all that power if he were simply a sociopath.... What he did was monstrous, but ... he can't be stupid."

Participants emphasize that the point is not to sympathize with bin Laden or elevate his statements as classic texts. Rather, they compare it to studying Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

"To me, as a citizen and as a human being, we have to think about the Holocaust, we have to think about terrorism, [and] universities have to throw their muscle behind these topics," Mr. Gay says. The group hopes to offer a panel discussion for the public this spring.

Until recently, it hasn't been easy for people to access bin Laden's words, partly because of government efforts to restrict the spread of his messages after 9/11.

Richard McGregor, assistant professor of Islamic studies, found some Arabic and English texts on the Internet, but he says he had to comb through much that was poorly edited or not well verified. This semester, they'll be using "Messages to the World," a new collection of bin Laden's statements.

The first step was facing the personal discomfort.

"[The texts] are oftentimes a defense of terrorism; [you're] looking into the face of mythical, massive, worldwide religious war. And at points it's stark and violent," Mr. McGregor says.

As they look through an academic lens, discussions are always respectful, but the fact that the group includes people from various countries and religious backgrounds makes for some weighty moments, says Melissa Snarr, an assistant professor in the Divinity School.

"To try to read something that's so inflammatory from those multiple perspectives creates a kind of wealth of conversation and honesty that is intriguing, but also teaches you about the depths of international conflict," she says.

Most Americans know only about bin Laden's threats to the United States and other Western powers, but he also addresses internal Middle East issues and rages against rulers such as those in his native Saudi Arabia.

"There is significance in these texts for the Islamic world, long term," McGregor says. "What are these societies supposed to do with this movement, which is revolutionary? [Bin Laden] argues that nonreligious forms of government are illegitimate and ... should be overthrown."

While bin Laden's arguments are also offensive because "he's got so much blood on his hands," McGregor adds, his language is straightforward and designed to persuade a particular audience that they are fighting a "just war" against an oppressive invader.

"For people in various Islamic countries who live in bad economic situations ... or civil societies that are barely functioning ... we can begin to have an insight into the appeal of this figure," he says.