Why bin Laden's 'confessions' keep flopping
BATON ROUGE, LA. — 'How could there be any doubt in anyone's mind any longer?" asked Secretary of State Colin Powell about reaction to the first Osama bin Laden "confession" video, released in December.
Now a new tape, or rather what looks like an old tape spliced to look current, appears on Al Jazeera television. On it, there seems to be the final, indisputable confession of guilt. One of the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 recites: "It is time to kill the Americans in their own homeland." In another scene, as grandmaster OBL himself strokes his beard in approval, a man declares 9/11 a "great victory."
If this were an episode of "Law & Order," the jury would gasp, the heroic DA would smile grimly, and the defense attorney would sink into his chair. Al Qaeda, Mr. bin Laden, et al. are, in the language of Monty Python, "incredibly guilty."
But as we read Arab and Muslim newspapers, monitor chat rooms, and discuss the 9/11 war with Middle Eastern colleagues, a dismal picture emerges.
Those who had doubts about bin Laden's guilt and even subscribed to anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories about Sept. 11, continue to concoct explanations about the content of the tape or cast doubt on its authenticity. They claim:
The tapes are complete or partial fakes. Western technological innovation is dazzling, especially to the poor of the third world. Starship Trooper bombs and cellphones, Harry Potter movies, and DVDs reinforce an impression that images and sounds can be digitized to show anything which is essentially true.
Accordingly, the tapes are often seen as Pixar-animés of bin Laden and his associates; or, key phrases or images have been morphed or inserted. One Egyptian stated, "Hollywood can [manufacture] anything why not bin Laden?" Indeed, the second tape looks faked. Is that the countryside or a studio backdrop? And the editing is very choppy.
The "confession" isn't one, but a mistranslation and there are mistakes on the tape. Arabic is an extremely difficult language to translate accurately and unambiguously into English because of the radical differences in structure and alliteration.
The "style manual" for the educated speaker of Arabic is the Holy Koran, and bin Laden speaks the purest tones of southern Arabia. (That's why John Walker Lindh went to Yemen to learn the language.) The phrases tend to be metaphorical and metaphysical, and soar into high-minded flights of complexity. Word-for-word translation often misses the point; one missing word changes everything.
For example, in the first tape, one mistake that shouldn't have been made was the terms "hajireen and Ansar," which were translated as "Mujahideen and Ansar." In Islamic history and theology, mujahideen does not go hand in hand with the Ansar, a people of the city of Medina. Also, it was quite clear from the audio that the word "Muhajireen" was uttered.
Muhajireen means "people who migrated [from Mecca to Medina]" whereas "Mujahideen" means people who "make jihad." This is how it would affect the credibility of the translator: Anybody who has knowledge of Islam knows that the Muhajireen and the Ansar were the two important groups of people in the city of Medina.
Bin Laden is just boasting to raise support and recruits: "Look upon my works, back me, I'm a winner!" It's all talk to get the approval of the angry young men of the Muslim world and the rich sheiks seeking to finance a holy war.
Alternately, the dating of the tape is wrong; he is talking about earlier bombings, such as that of the USS Cole or American military bases in Saudi Arabia. Another informant from the Gulf commented: "It could be a very hard sell lies in service of fundraising."
Bin Laden is making fun of America. The Arab and Muslim press have consistently ridiculed the notion that one man like some James Bond villain organized the mass murders of Sept. 11. So another countertheory suggests that the tape is bin Laden's parody of America's Snively Whiplash demonization of him. "Oh, I'm so guilty hah, hah!"
Here the discounters display a genius for creative interpretation. It must be a joke on the West! A student asserted that his Saudi father said, "He is saying, 'I'm the bad guy like your Texas westerns.' He is [ridiculing] Bush."
Most Westerners are bemused by such conceptions. But many Muslims from the poor to the professional-class killers of 9/11 still maintain that the war on the Taliban and Al Qaeda is nothing more than an exercise of brute force against Islam, because OBL cannot be guilty. This may be either because of the power of self-serving rationalization or because accepting the evidence would be contrary to everything they have been taught to believe about America as an enemy of Muslims.
There is no simple solution for the West to win the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim world. It would help if Islamic scholars, journalists, clerics, and community leaders echoed Secretary Powell's remarks. But even that won't shift the angry jury of the streets and souks: The divide is too deep.
David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor and a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. Mustafa Saied is the president and founder of the North American Foundation for Thought and Action.