Analysis: Osama bin Laden the Progressive?

by Matthew Morris

The latest video from Osama Bin Laden sounds less like a threat from a terrorist responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans and more like the speech of a leftist university professor or populist politician.

In fact, the speech carries no direct threats but is instead a lengthy criticism of American policies on issues from global warming to campaign finance reform. Bin Laden supports his Marxist critique of contemporary American society with arguments that sound remarkably like leftist publications and scholars who criticize globalization, capitalism and neoliberalism. He says American politicians are servants of the major corporations and blames the problems of the world on capitalism and democracy:

If you were to ponder it well, you would find that in the end, it is a system harsher and fiercer than your systems in the Middle Ages. The capitalist system seeks to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations under the label of “globalization” in order to protect democracy.

And Iraq and Afghanistan and their tragedies; and the reeling of many of you under the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes and real estate mortgages; global warming and its woes; and the abject poverty and tragic hunger in Africa: all of this is but one side of the grim face of this global system.

Hugo Chavez delivers similar messages enthusiastically to anyone who will listen. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has sent us several letters to this effect. But in this message, Bin Laden paints himself as “progressive” rather than “extremist”:

The holocaust of the Jews was carried out by your brethren in the middle of Europe, but had it been closer to our countries, most of the Jews would have been saved by taking refuge with us.

He gives a recommended reading list of U.S. authors* before inviting Americans to embrace Islam and receive the benefits of peace, salvation and lower taxes.

Principles

Bin Laden’s latest video illustrates the communication principles of Pragmatic Complexity. In a CSC white paper released this spring, Corman, Trethewey and Goodall describe Pragmatic Complexity (PC) as a 21st century model of communication that replaces the older transmission model of communication. They describe the following four principles for PC:

  1. Deemphasize control and embrace complexity – Reality and communication in our mediated world are increasingly complex. Communication is not a simple matter of getting a message to a receiver, but involves work on both sides in creating meaning. Multiple interpretations are possible.
  2. Replace repetition with variation – Simply repeating the same message is no guarantee of clarity and may in fact reinforce misunderstandings. Instead, changing tactics is a better way of adapting to the complex systems involved in today’s communication.
  3. Consider disruptive moves – If a hostile audience has a ready response to your rhetoric, a change in rhetoric can disrupt their prior interpretations of your messages and allow for new avenues of understanding.
  4. Expect and plan for failure – Communicators should stop assuming that their messages will be understood as intended. Expecting failure can help generate success as changes in message strategy are tested and revised.

Analysis

Although it is doubtful that Bin Laden is consciously using Pragmatic Complexity as a communication model, his latest video release does effectively use the principles of PC.

The evidence that Bin Laden is embracing complexity can be found in a sampling of the responses to the video. Anne Applebaum of Slate.com argues that this video really is an attempt to convert Americans to Bin Laden’s radical version of Islam and develop independent terrorist cells within the U.S. Robert Spencer of Jihadwatch.org believes that the new video represents a threat on the part of Bin Laden, citing the requirement that Muslims invite unbelievers to accept Islam before initiating Jihad against them (as well as Bin Laden’s black-dyed beard, supposedly popular among Muslim warriors) as indications of his continuing belligerence. An even more disturbing possibility is raised by Reza Aslan of Slate.com, who analyzed the changing dynamic of Al-Qaeda rhetoric and found that the increasingly Leftist rhetoric unites anyone who sees themselves as oppressed by the American Empire under “a single anti-American narrative.”

So, multiple possible audiences and messages are contained within this video: Americans should convert to Islam. Other Muslims should know the Jihad continues and that Bin Laden is following Islamic law. Bush and the Democrats should be aware that Bin Laden is a player in American and International politics. Other adversaries of the United States (Chavez, Ahmadinejad, etc.) should stand in solidarity in the fight against “Imperialism.”

Bin Laden also disrupts previous expectations by using American scholars to support his own arguments, making a case that might cause some Americans to forget that his goal is the defeat and destruction of the United States and its allies by any means possible. By varying his message and disrupting the normal channels of communication between America and Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden hopes to further the discontent within American society by reminding us of the same problems our presidential candidates are currently in the process of promising to solve.

Finally, a traditional understanding of message “success” does not apply to Bin Laden’s message. It is safe to assume that most Americans reading the transcript will probably not decide to convert to Islam. But if some do, Bin Laden gains resources in new terrorist cells. If we don’t convert, Bin Laden has an excuse to continue his jihad and kill more Americans. And, whether we convert or not, Bin Laden’s new message strategy might build solidarity among U.S. enemies and at the same time create a more “rational” image among Americans themselves. So, according to PC, by releasing this video Bin Laden has made another successful attack in the war of ideas.

Further Reading

*Osama Bin Laden’s Further Reading

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  1. [...] Analysis: Osama bin Laden the Progressive? From: COMOPS Journal | Date: 9/18/2007 | Author: Morris, Matthew [...]

  2. [...] continues the message he so eloquently presented in his seminal 2007 recording that celebrated his embrace of progressive liberal ideals, which he believes dovetail perfectly with his outlook of world peace and Islamic jihad – a [...]