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.
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.
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