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Bin Laden reading group digs for insights

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Students are starting to look for such insights, too. Bin Laden's texts are being used in courses not only at Vanderbilt, but also at other schools such as Emory University in Atlanta and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

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Professor Snarr covers religious terrorism in one of her classes, and she sees many parallels between the rhetoric of bin Laden and that of extremist Christian groups.

Paul Hill, who murdered a doctor who performed abortions, made similar "just war" arguments, she says.

For her students in the Divinity School, "their first reaction is deep disappointment that religion can be used in these ways," Snarr says.

But they want to understand how religion, nationalism, and violence intersect, so they can foster reconciliation and healing, she says.

Katherine Carroll, an assistant dean and political scientist who's teaching a class on terrorism at Vanderbilt, recently joined the discussion group - in part to keep up with her students' fascination with Al Qaeda.

"The idea that Osama bin Laden ... is only acting because he hates the West and hates our freedom, and it's not anything more complicated than that - that's not plausible to the vast majority of my students," she says. "At least they want to decide for themselves if that's the case, by looking at his speeches, by reading about him."

She looks forward to learning more about the religious references in bin Laden's texts - that is, if she can keep up with the reading.

"When you're reading terrorism for your job and reading it in your spare time, sometimes you just can't take it any more," she says with a laugh.

The other source of humor for the group? Speculating whether they might get themselves into trouble with the Department of Homeland Security.

"[When] we were downloading off the Internet ... I was joking that I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up on a watch list," Snarr says. "It is more of a joking level because all of us can justify it within the work we do, but ... especially since the news of the wiretapping came out, it makes you think about the preparation you do for teaching in ways you haven't necessarily thought of before."

Bin Laden rails at Saudi leaders and 'Crusader' plots

Among the texts examined by a group of Vanderbilt professors is a December 2004 statement by Osama bin Laden addressing Muslims within and outside Saudi Arabia. Originally posted on the website of the Global Islamic Media Front, it condemns the ruling dynasties in places such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and alleges that conspiracies are at work at several levels.

The following excerpt summarizes a common historical perspective in Islamist thought, says Vanderbilt's Richard McGregor, though at points it's a paranoid one, in his judgment:

"These oppressive, traitorous ruling families in the region today, who persecute every reform movement and impose upon their peoples policies that are against their religion and their worldly interests, are the very same families who helped the Crusaders against the Muslims a century ago. And they are doing this in collaboration with America and its allies. This represents a continuation of the previous Crusader wars against the Islamic world. The extent to which the Zionist-Crusader alliance controls the internal policies of our countries has become all too clear to us. For when it comes to American intervention in internal affairs, where do we start?"

Source: "Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden," edited by Bruce Lawrence, an Islamic scholar at Duke University (Verso, 2005).