Bin Laden's new image: younger, more Marxist
The former multimillionaire now blames global capitalism and class for the tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
AFTER A THREE-YEAR absence, Osama bin Laden has resurfaced in another of his rousing videotapes, only this time with a new image and a new message. Projecting a younger look, Mr. bin Laden gives his most ideological address since the early 1990s with an assault on capitalism and liberal democracy loaded with Marxist and socialist terms. Indeed, this new bin Laden sounds more like Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary, than some of his rifle-toting Al Qaeda cohorts.
Gone is bin Laden's vintage militaristic appearance. He has exchanged his fatigues and Kalashnikov for a white robe, circular cap, and beige cloak, giving him an aura of clerical wisdom. The new bin Laden portrays himself as a spiritual figure, not a grizzled soldier.
His gray beard is dyed black and trimmed neatly, which is actually an old tradition dating back to the birth of Islam; the prophet Muhammad reportedly dyed his hair and recommended, while at war, that his commanders and soldiers dye theirs to strike fear in the enemy.
In the video, bin Laden addresses Americans and rails against the ills of economic exploitation, multinational corporations, and globalization. He tells them to liberate themselves from "the deception, shackles, and attrition of the capitalist system." Similar to his incitement of Muslims against their oppressive, "apostate" rulers and the meddlesome West, bin Laden now seems to be trying to galvanize Americans against their own harsh socioeconomic and political system.
"Poor and exploited Americans, unite against your capitalist laws that make the rich richer and the poor poorer," the former multimillionaire businessman tells the camera. Never before has bin Laden utilized the grandiose language of Marxism in his statements to the American people. And yet, he says, Muslims and Americans are alike; they are both victims of the capitalist system, which "seeks to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations under the label of 'globalization' in order to protect democracy."
While in the past bin Laden emphasized the clash of cultures and religions as the basis for confrontation, he now talks about commonalities of victimhood and suffering. He blames the global system of capital and class for the tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the poverty of Africa, and "the reeling of many [Americans] under the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes, and real estate mortgages." According to the new bin Laden, big capital, class interests, and multinationals – not religion or culture – are responsible for perpetuating war and killing.
Similarly, bin Laden had never before made distinctions between the American people and their leaders, but now he says that Americans, like Muslims, are victims of profiteering and the corporations that control the political process and media.
Even though this new video is a dramatic departure from his usual religious rhetoric, bin Laden tells Americans to convert because Islam will set them "free," ridding them of the "warmongering owners of the major corporations." Religion is offered as a means to resolve the crisis of exploitative capital and war industry.
Surprisingly, the son of Arabia, known for his religious intolerance and fanaticism, is eager not to offend the religious sensibility of Americans. He urges them to read the Koran and learn firsthand about Islam and how the "prophet" Jesus and his mother are mentioned dozens of times. "Don't be turned away from Islam by the terrible situation of the Muslims today," he says, reading from papers in front of him, "for our rulers in general abandoned Islam many decades ago, but our fore-fathers were the leaders and pioneers of the world for many centuries, when they held firmly to Islam."
Intentionally or unintentionally, bin Laden is venturing into a new ideological terrain. He is blurring the lines between jihadist messianism and Marxist utopia, which might, in turn, throw his die-hard Salafi supporters off balance.
Militant Salafism, a hard-line sect within Sunni Islam, follows a literalist interpretation of the Koran and is suspicious of philosophical innovation. Marx's conception of material history, rendered exclusively in terms of economic impulses, is thus incompatible with Al Qaeda's brand of Islamicism.
What will Salafis make of bin Laden's recent choice to emphasize a socialist critique of Western capitalist-democracy rather than Koranic legitimization? Militant Islamists are most likely elated by the emergence of their beloved sheikh, but at the same time bewildered by his ideological language and terms of references.
While US officials scrutinize the video for clues of new attacks, they seem to be losing sight of its strategic propagandist value. Bin Laden does not have to give signals to strike inside the US. Al Qaeda Central and the US are already waging war, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2, is apparently the operational commander these days, not bin Laden.
Bin Laden's address is a new twist in the ideological struggle for hearts and minds, mostly because it targets Westerners and Americans. Obviously, bin Laden and his senior associates feel confident to expand their propaganda campaign in the other war – the war of ideas.
Fawaz A. Gerges, who has just returned from a 15-month sabbatical in the Middle East, is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy" and "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."