In the latest issue of The National Interest I analyzed the political differences between the kind of bin Laden speeches produced for and broadcast by Arab satellite television stations like al-Jazeera and the kind of jihadi videos produced for and disseminated through internet forums. The former, broadcast on satellite television, were aimed at a mass audience and sought the kind of rhetoric, narrative, and imagery that would appeal to the Arab "median voter" - someone who cares deeply about issues like Palestine, Iraq or local corruption but isn't really sold on al-Qaeda style Islamism. The latter, disseminated through the jihadi forums, were aimed at an already interested and at least partially mobilized audience - someone who cares enough to go searching through various internet sites looking for the latest Zarqawi video. How does that argument hold up in light of the near-simultaneous release of major public statements by bin Laden and Zarqawi?
First, bin Laden's tape very much fit the mold, even without the video. Released directly (evidently) to al-Jazeera and broadcast there, it clearly spoke to the "median Arab/Muslim voter" and not only to the already converted. Its references were to issues already salient to mainstream Arab audiences - the Danish cartoons, Palestine, Iraq, even the Sudan - rather than focusing on issues of concern primarily to the jihadist base. Bin Laden's comments on Palestine clearly showed his willingness to be pragmatic: if Arabs were upset by the way the West (and Arab regimes friendly with the West) were treating Hamas, then ideological purity (rejection of participation in elections) be damned.
Second, Zarqawi's video also largely played to type. Released on the internet to Zarqawi friendly forums, it aimed at an audience of committed jihadists. The prominent featuring of Zarqawi personally struck me as another response (like this one a few weeks ago) to the widely-disseminated rumours of his demotion from a position of leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The themes and imagery echoed many al-Qaeda recruitment videos I've seen, and the tape seemed intended more for asserting Zarqawi's leadership of a successful jihad than for Western or mainstream consumption.
But as well as the broad contours of the two videos fit the simple dichotomy I proposed in that article, other aspects of them challenge it - in particular, the extremely rapid migration of Zarqawi's video from the internet onto satellite television, alongside Ayman al-Zawahiri's video released directly to the internet last month. Whether these videos should be seen as complementary or competitive is a fascinating question which I won't dwell on now, but to which I hope to return soon.
What really interests me here is the wide and fast broadcast of the Zarqawi video. Where in the past Zarqawi's video would have been consumed primarily by an audience of jihadis and prospective jihadis, this time it was picked and widely broadcast within days - reaching the same audience as bin Laden's, or even bigger since its visuals got so much play. And not only by al-Jazeera or even the Arab media: several colleagues told me this morning of seeing the video on CNN, MSNBC and other American networks. The rapid move of Zarqawi's video from the internet to television broadcast is important for a couple of reasons.
First, and most obviously, it dramatically increases the reach of the jihadis who had been producing primarily for the internet forums. Whether that strengthens them is not immediately obvious. Since they were produced for a distinctive audience, they might not travel well and could backfire when viewed by different audiences with different norms and expectations. But if the Zarqawi tape establishes a pattern, it could change the production of the videos - certainly these producers have proven very adept at making such adjustments in the past. According to some sources, beheading videos are largely gone already, replaced by videos glorifying successful operations against American or Iraqi military targets.
Second, the widespread broadcast of Zarqawi's video powerfully reinforces an argument I've made about the increasingly impossibility of controlling media content. As the Arab media environment becomes more and more competitive and diverse, no single station - not even al-Jazeera - can unilaterally set standards any more. If al-Jazeera chose not to air bin Laden or Zawahiri tapes, I argued, some other station would do so and get its own temporary ratings boost. When al-Jazeera refused to air a third Jill Carroll video, a private Kuwaiti TV station did. The trajectory of this Zarqawi video pretty much clinches the argument: if al-Jazeera had refused to air bin Laden's tape, its producers would have just put it up on the internet and within days every TV station in the world would be airing it. That's not a normative argument about whether or not al-Jazeera should air the tapes, just an acknowledgement of reality in today's Arab and global media environment.
One video does not make for a trend, of course. But just the other
day, al-Arabiya broadcast an al-Qaeda video found on the internet, and
last month an Ayman al-Zawahiri video got wide play not too long ago even though al-Jazeera chose not to air it (an al-Jazeera official told me that they didn't air it because it was an old video circulating on the internet and therefore neither newsworthy nor an exclusive). Nor is it entirely new - all those hostage videos from Iraq followed a similar path. But it does seem to me that something different is going on here.. something worth thinking about.
One quick thing: I'm struck at how quickly so many people are rushing
to the conclusion that bin Laden's message "fell on silent ears" or
demonstrated his isolation. Based on what evidence? That the Sudanese
government and Hamas - both explicitly criticized by al-Qaeda -
rejected his statements? That some Arab newspapers - explicitly
criticized in the speech - criticized the speech? That the American government said so?
Bin Laden doesn't necessarily care about the same things that Americans do.
The full transcript of his speech, as I pointed out yesterday, suggests
that the battle to shape identities and to sharpen the frame of a clash
of civilizations takes top billing - not Iraq or any of the particular issues (Darfur, Hamas) which are dominating our headlines and op-eds. I'd direct attention back to the whole Danish cartoons episode (as did bin Laden, at great length): it came out of nowhere for most Western and mainstream Arab analysts alike, and incredibly quickly came to dominate the public agenda for weeks and weeks. The potency of that issue, the speed with which it caught on and the intensity with which it was felt, suggests that the project of reshaping Arab/Muslim identities and reframing the politics of meaning is proceeding rather well.... even if bin Laden and al-Qaeda face intense competition in the struggle to assert leadership over the Islamist project.
Maybe bin Laden's rhetoric
failed to reach Arab or Muslim audiences, but to conclude that right
now is pure wishful thinking. Or else it's spin, which is fine - in a
battle of perceptions, of course each side will and should try to control
perceptions - but only as long as we understand it for what it is.
(Oh, one other thought: whether or not to intervene in Darfur is a tough question, with good arguments on both sides. Doing so because bin Laden said we shouldn't is... stupid. Doesn't anyone remember bin Laden's November 2004 speech, when he bragged about how it is "easy for us to provoke and bait this
administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the
furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written
al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to
suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving
for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private
Some selected responses to bin Laden's tape which caught my eye this morning. There's an English translation up at al-Jazeera's English site, but I should warn people that it's not a very good one and seems exceedingly truncated compared to the Arabic transcript. There actually hasn't been a ton of significant commentary on bin Laden - the Dahab bombing and Palestinian intramural struggles seem to have captured the news agenda (along with Jordan's unveiling of its evidence against Hamas, which I hope to have time to write about this afternoon). Neither al-Quds al-Arabi nor al-Hayat had any commentaries on it today, while al-Sharq al-Awsat had a couple.
For Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi-owned and anti-Islamist newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, the most dangerous and important part of bin Laden's speech was "the incitement against Arab thinkers and liberal writers", particularly Saudis. That's understandable, I think. Al-Homayed argues that what's new in the speech is the explicit targeting of liberal writers and media, with "liberal" defined as everyone who is not on al-Qaeda's side. He mentions that the Saudi government has found a "blacklist" of targeted Saudi writers - I actually found such a blacklist circulating on a jihadi chatroom under the name "Secret File of the Unclean Media" and blogged about it a long time ago, but didn't link to it for reasons which should be obvious. Al-Homayed takes the threat against intellectuals seriously, pointing back to assaults against secular intellectuals in Egpyt from Farag Fouda to Naguib Mahfouz.
Mishari Zaydi, one of the best writers on Islamist politics right now, titles his commentary on the speech "Osama the African." He compares bin Laden to a character in a novel by Amin Maalouf, as Osama travels from Jiddah to Riyadh, Khartoum to Kabul, never seeking the truth or caring about where he lives but only caring about trying to change the world. For Zaydi, the intervention in the Darfur crisis is the most significant novelty in bin Laden's tape. Zaydi hears echoes of earlier positions taken by Egypt's Muslim Brothers towards the Sudan in bin Laden's intervention. He also points to the wild inconsistency in bin Laden's stance towards Hamas - after Zawahiri condemned any participation in elections, now bin Laden denounces the international "blockade" of Hamas even though it won elections and represents the will of the people. Skimming over bin Laden's list of concerns - the cartoons, Hamas, liberal writers, etc - Zaydi concludes that it confirms what many people have said: that al-Qaeda will pick up anything it finds in its path which it thinks can up the temperature and suit its agenda. In a fascinating juxtaposition, Zaydi contrasts a recent interview with Hassan Turabi where he repeated how the Darfur conflict could be "solved in one session" with bin Laden's clear desire to escalate the conflict in order to open a new front for Islamic identity wars and confrontations. Zaydi sees an important development in the different paths taken by bin Laden and Turabi in recent years, and challenges bin Laden - who, Zaydi says, clearly follows the Arab press - to respond to Turabi's recent fatwas and stances in order to clarify and sharpen those differences. (If you're interested in Turabi, you should also check out Abd al-Wahhab al-Affendi's fascinating al-Quds al-Arabi piece on Turabi's recent politics.) There's a lot more in Zaydi's highly recommended piece.
If I find any more, I'll tack them on to this post later.
I wasn't able to write up any thoughts about bin Laden's tape this morning (other than yesterday's note that Hamas immediately told bin Laden to get lost), which in blog time means that it might as well have happened ten years ago. But for posterity's sake, here are a few brief notes, with all references being to the semi-transcript released on al-Jazeera's web site. Bottom line: this was actually a pretty major address, which laid out a comprehensive vision of Islam's clash with the West and al-Qaeda's current priorities. It didn't give off an air of desperation, nor of irrelevance - certainly not any sense of bin Laden being on the run, as the White House is spinning it. While I take seriously Fawaz Gerges's sense that it's an attempt to revive the jihad's flagging fortunes, I'm not sure I entirely agree. For reasons I go into below, it may have more long-term importance than is immediately apparent.
While much of the media commentary has been on specific points bin Laden made (Darfur, Palestine), the overwhelming preoccupation of the tape was in fact the need for Muslims to accept the reality of a 'clash of civilizations.' The Danish cartoons crisis loomed remarkably large, as did Saudi and other Arab intellectuals calling for a dialogue of civilizations. This tape encapsulated "al-Qaeda's constructivist turn" powerfully, as bin Laden clearly laid out a vision of international politics defined by a clash of essential identities, Islam against the Zionist-Crusader West. And as with the culture warriors of the West, bin Laden's combines his opposition to this Crusader West with scorn for the Islamist moderates who he sees as the greatest threat to his own leadership of the Islamic umma.
Bin Laden begins with the cartoons insulting the Prophet, and goes on at some length about how this insult to Islam represents a far wider onslaught against Islam. Al-Qaeda initially played a very passive role in the cartoons issue, reaping great benefits from the polarization caused by the crisis but doing little about it. That began to change with Zawahiri's latest video, and now with this tape bin Laden has appropriated the issue and elevated it to the forefront. Every Islamist would-be popular leader - from Yusuf al-Qaradawi to Amr Khaled to the Muslim Brotherhood and onward - has tried to harness the cartoons issue to his wagon; bin Laden is just joining the crowded field. He has some built in advantages over his rivals, particularly as their competition has honed the pitch of anger and made this such a potent symbolic issue - and he metaphorically tips his hat in thanks to his "clash of civilizations" fellow-travelers in the West who helped out in fanning the flames. It's hard not to think that a similar statement by bin Laden three months ago wouldn't have had a much greater impact... but it's also significant that it's now become not just one point in his speech but the center-piece.
In the spirit of intra-Islamic competition, bin Laden seems more concerned with these rivals to his claim to lead the Islamic umma than anyone else. He attacked everyone who tried to mediate the crisis, or even those who sought a Danish apology - the issue goes far deeper than anything an apology might offer, he argues. He's really quite extreme in his denunciations of those Islamist moderates - the worst, most dangerous of all Islam's enemies in his eyes because they might mislead the umma. Even those who led the boycott against Denmark fell short - he wants a boycott against America, since the Danish affront was only one case of a much wider problem in his view.
He's similarly scathing about those calling for dialogue with the West (the Copenhagen conference, the Saudi government, most Arab regimes), and accuses a number of Saudi and Gulf figures of spreading apostacy with their writings and fatwas. The West only calls for dialogue to weaken and confuse the Muslims, according to bin Laden, and only understands the language of force; the clash of civilizations exists, in his telling, because the West has attacked and continues to assault Islam, which makes dialogue a fool's game.
Only after three full transcript pages (out of 9 - so a third of the way in) does bin Laden finally leave the cartoons and the clash / dialogue of civilizations to talk about Hamas. Western analysis of the speech may have headlined with Hamas, but bin Laden did not. I thought his remarks on Hamas were actually fairly perfunctory - we opposed their participation in the elections, he says, but now that they've won the West's treatment of them only proves... and then he's back to the main theme of the grand confrontation between Islam and the Crusaders. Then, the bit about the Sudan, which caught me (and most people, I think) by surprise. Again, the particular is in the service of the general theme though: he isn't interested in Darfur for its own sake, only for what it says (or can be made to say) about the grand clash theme.
Then a few words on Iraq. Surprisingly few, I might add. We've been told a million times that al-Qaeda views Iraq as the central front in the war on terror. Well, in this tape Iraq takes up a grand total of two paragraphs, on page 5 of a nine page transcript.
After Iraq, bin Laden turns to Abu Aardvark, figuratively speaking (thank god), and offers a few words about the Arab media. As I wrote in my National Interest piece, al-Qaeda and the jihadis have grown resentful of the Arab satellite television stations - for all their utility, they aren't reliable allies and can't be controlled. Bin Laden denounces the "wicked media cultural invasion" with the creation of television and radio stations which are bringing an "invasion of ideas against our umma and warring against our doctrines and changing our values." I'd take this as a tacit endorsement of my argument that Arab satellite TV stations pose one of the greatest challenges to bin Laden's form of Islamism (though unlike William Blum I don't think I'd choose to use the blurb... ). Before fans of al-Hurra take heart, he specifically adds "in addition to the voices of America and London" - in other words,he's talking about Arab television stations like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, probably along with sexy music video stations like Rotana and religious stations like Iqra (for different reasons).
Then bin Laden takes a quick tour d'horizon of the Islamic world, name checking struggles and sounding for all the world like the President during a State of the Union address. After that he returns for another four pages to the clash of civilizations theme, heaping scorn on calls for dialogue and for those preaching an openness to the West.
To sum up, bin Laden's address strikes me as offering a clear guide into the organization's strategic thinking. As I argue in a forthcoming piece (previewed very crudely on the blog a while ago), al-Qaeda has evolved into a constructivist actor, with its strategy largely directed towards what International Relations theorists call "strategic social construction." A solid six out of nine pages of this transcript are devoted to this agenda, laying out a broad narrative of Islam's essential clash with an aggressive West, defining Muslim identity as the terrain of battle, and denouncing moderates and rivals within the Islamic world who might help avoid such a confrontation.
Al-Quds al-Arabi's headline declares rather chillingly that "bin Laden
prepares for attack in response to Zionist Crusade war". For many people, whether or
not such an attack takes place would likely determine the significance of the tape. I'm not so sure. I read the tape as more of a grand vision statement, which might not be meant to foreshadow an imminent attack, like tomorrow. But a year or two from now, we may be looking back at this tape as a more important intervention than it initially seems.
UPDATE 2: Does a big terrorist attack at an Egyptian resort count as the kind of attack which makes the tape be taken seriously? Probably not - not a Western target, even if the hotels were frequented by Westerners.
I enjoyed the long profile of Adel Iman in the Washington Post today. I mean, he hasn't made a decent movie in at least a decade, but maybe this will be his return to form. I actually met the guy once, which was - I can say with absolute certainty - far more memorable for me than for him. There was one part of the profile that I thought fell a bit short, though, or at least I would have liked to see more on. Imam is portrayed as a political iconoclast, a gadfly, and as a inveterate opponent of Islamism. The last, certainly, but the former kind of depends. The profile has this to say about Adel Imam's most prominent role in the last decade plus: al-Irhabi (The Terrorist):
Imam runs counter to the stereotype. He speaks out against terrorism.
He played the lead in "The Terrorist," a film about a fugitive assassin
who takes refuge with a family of well-off Muslims and has to hide his
distaste for their lifestyle of unveiled women and Western music. The
film was made under heavy police guard.
There's a bit more to al-Irhabi than that - it's a fascinating story, which deserves more attention than it gets in this profile. Al-Irhabi was produced in 1994 with private funding (probably Imam himself) as part of the Egyptian government's anti-Islamist campaign. As Walter Armbrust put it in a brilliant analysis of Egyptian films about Islamism a few years ago (in The American Anthropologist; couldn't find an online version to link to, sorry - an abbreviated version of the argument can be found here), "The Terrorist established new conventions for representing Islamists in the cinema. It was a privately funded film released in a coordinated government campaign against terrorism... The Terrorist, starring Egypt's foremost commercial actor and released in a blizzard of critical acclaim, was the crown jewel in the campaign."
In the movie, Imam plays a terrorist who, during the confusion of a bungled attack,
ends up recovering on the couch of the kind of bourgeois, secular
family who he most hates. He realizes that he was wrong about them,
and bonds with the family over the Egyptian national football team (if I remember correctly, he tries and fails to bond with the family's daughter).
After he's exposed, he tries to return to the family to plead his case
and demonstrate that he's changed, but his terrorist ex-colleagues
murder him. To call the narrative and presentation heavy-handed would do a disservice to heavy hands - Islamists are crude, uneducated, sexually repressed hypocrites and the secular bourgeoise is open-minded, well-intentioned, honest and true, with fervent patriotism ( the football team) the path to national unity and happiness.
The film offered a particularly crude interpretation of Islamism. To quote Armbrust again,
"In the end one overall imperative animates Terrorist: The Islamist cause must be situated firmly outside of modernity. The assassin hiding within the unsuspecting wealthy family is barely literate, unfamiliar with modern institutions, and essentially ignorant.... by reducing the Islamist movement to an easily manipulated fraction of the population completely ignorant of modernity... the film left no space for representing the activitis of Islamists inside the state's own institutions. One could not imagine the Islamist radicals of Terrorist as schoolteachers, lawyers, or doctors. It was precisely through such professions that the Islamist ideology was growing."
In other words, the film's portrayal fit within the regime's propaganda campaign but had little to do with the realities of Egyptian Islamism. Whether that makes it a better or worse film isn't really the point - it's just very interesting as a reflection of how the various parties involved (the government, Adel Imam) understood Islamism and/or wanted audiences to understand Islamism. It is one precursor of the anti-jihadi Ramadan serials which got so
much attention earlier this year, and a premiere example of the entertainment
industry joining in an anti-Islamist 'war of ideas.'
I'm not sure why the Post's profile didn't do more with this important part of Imam's career - it doesn't contradict the main lines of the profile, I don't think. I'm not sure this post has much more of a point than that...
(By the way, Armbrust's piece juxtaposes The Terrorist with the vastly superior Closed Doors, a movie I strongly recommend for all its flaws - well worth seeing).
Hoping to have analysis of bin Laden's new tape later but just a brief note right now: it is striking that for the second time in months, al-Qaeda's leaders have issued a strong statement on Palestinian affairs... and Hamas has told al-Qaeda in no uncertain terms to get lost. It happened back when Zawahiri attacked Hamas for taking part in the elections, and now it's happened in response to the bin Laden speech. A fairly typical example of the refusal of many entrenched Islamist movements to accept al-Qaeda's claims to lead the Islamist umma (the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was equally unimpressed with Zawahiri's criticism of their electoral participation, and issued strongly worded public statements to that effect) - and worth keeping in mind as the first wave of analysis of the new bin Laden tape pours out.
Al-Arabiya reports (based on an account in a Saudi newspaper) that 541 people have been saved from takfiri thought through on-line chats with leading Saudi preachers and Islamic personalities. Interesting... and yet I can't help but be pestered by nagging little methodological questions. How did they identify how many of their visitors had "faulty thoughts", exactly? How do they know, precisely, which ones they "saved", and how long this new, improved set of thoughts lasted? Can they know for sure that it was their internet dialogues which did the trick? And I wonder if a comparative research design might be constructed to determine which is a more effective instrument to "save" young men from Islamic radicalism: taking part in on-line chats with Islamic worthies, or watching Haifa Wehbi's new music video? Sounds like a job for... a research design methods course!
Third, they didn't check out Jordan Planet.
If they had, they would have learnt the extent of their PR problem, and
maybe tried to rectify it. Omar Kullab at Al Anbat is right to complain
about the one-sided coverage of the issue on Jordan Television. It's as
if the government has never heard of Al Jazeera or the internet. Did
they think they could monopolize the story? They could have used JTV to
refute the allegations against them through dialog. It would have made
Arab governments can't monopolize storylines anymore. That's one of the main points of Voices of the New Arab Public... it's interesting to see this Hamas-Jordan episode develop into one more example of that thesis.
Another twist in the endlessly fascinating (to me) wars between Arab satellite TV stations: al-Arabiya just aired "excerpts Thursday from a purported al-Qaida video showing one of its
militants describing how he killed foreigners in Saudi Arabia." According to an al-Arabiya editor interviewed by the AP, al-Arabiya "took
the footage from a 68-minute video it found on a militant Islamic Web
site"; the video itself dates back to December 2004. That may be a bit confusing in that as part of its competitive marketing strategy,al-Arabiya's PR team and
its fans present it as the "moderate" alternative to al-Jazeera, and
revel in taking gleeful pokes at al-Jazeera for airing al-Qaeda
Why would al-Arabiya air such a video, which otherwise would have remained confined to a core audience of jihadis (the AP reporter couldn't even get into the password protected chat room where al-Arabiya claims to have found it)? Well, perhaps because it contributes to the Saudi regime's anti-jihadist campaign: airing a video of an al-Qaeda guy admitting to killing Saudi citizens is the same as airing interviews with Salman Awdah or other Islamist "former dissidents". Or perhaps for market reasons pure and simple - to attract ratings, even if its representatives have frequently declared that they wouldn't do that anymore.
I'm more intrigued by a third possibility: perhaps it's part of a strategy of cultivating the Saudi market. This particular al-Qaeda video - unlike, say, Zawahiri videos or videos out of Iraq - are the sort
of thing in which Saudi viewers would
be far more interested than anyone else. That would fit with Joe Khalil's assessment in a recent article on the Arab media market that al-Arabiya was "emphasizing
its local/regional flair... implicating itself in social life of its
core Saudi audience." I've noticed in the course of research for a paper I'm writing that al-Arabiya's talk shows feature a lot of Saudis
compared to al-Jazeera's: for instance Hussein Shabakshi's business
show is almost entirely focused on Saudi Arabia and Turki al-Dakhil's
Idha'at program interviews a lot of Saudis (especially Islamist "former dissidents"). Cultivating the Saudi market would make sense for al-Arabiya because of
its Saudi funding, and because of the large Saudi advertising market, and because that's where it presumably enjoys something of a comparative advantage.
Such a Saudi-oriented focus might also help account for the Ipsos-Stat findings announced in a recent al-Arabiya press release claiming a big jump in al-Arabiya's lead over al-Jazeera in the Saudi market. Claims generalizing from this reported Saudi performance to the wider Arab market are just spin - there's no evidence in the Ipsos data, or anywhere else I've seen, that the kind of results claimed for Saudi are matched elsewhere (except for the unique case of Iraq, where al-Jazeera has always faced problems). But a divergence between the Saudi market and other markets would be quite interesting - something well worth further investigation. How useful it would be to have reliable, independent, and publicly available Nielsen-type ratings in multiple markets in order to do that kind of research!
In the meantime, Saudi-based viewers of al-Arabiya are invited to comment - have you seen this kind of change?