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Bernard Haykel: The meaning of bin Laden's videotape

Bernard Haykel is an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at New York University. He has written many articles on Islamic movements in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and is the author of the book "Islam and the State in Yemen: the Victory of Sunnism under Muhammad al-Shawkani." He joined the chat room from New York.

CNN: What were your initial impressions of bin Laden's spoken message when you watched the videotape, and were there any subtle messages?

HAYKEL: My initial impressions were that it was a very sophisticated use of the media, that there was a lot of symbolism in the message, and that it was directed at Muslims who speak Arabic, and not at the West.

The seating arrangement of the men was very telling of the hierarchy and structure of the organization. More importantly, the way bin Laden was sitting when the first speaker was talking, it was as if he had just finished his prayer, and he had a look that indicated that he completely accepted what God had for him, was ready to accept his fate, including his death as a martyr. There was a look of holiness that he was trying to project.

U.S. television networks are facing a dilemma over broadcast of statements from the Al Qaeda organization. CNN's David Ensor reports (October 11)

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: If Osama bin Laden really wanted to communicate his orders to his followers, wouldn't have he used a more reliable way than videotape?

HAYKEL: I think videotape and images... he is a master of the use of media, and images. What more effective way can there be?

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Could one detect the time and date from the watch Osama wore? Was it before or after the terrorist attacks?

HAYKEL: I wasn't able to get a close enough look at the time and date on the watch, but the statement was definitely after the attack because he refers specifically to the two greatest and tallest buildings being brought down. And that's a reference to the [World Trade Center] twin towers.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What was the significance of wearing watches on the right hand?

HAYKEL: The significance of wearing the watches on the right hand is that it shows that bin Laden and his followers are very strict followers of the teachings and sayings of the prophet Mohammed, and that they interpret his words literally. And the prophet says that the right hand is the better hand, and the useful hand. It indicates the sect that bin Laden and his followers belong to.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are your reactions to yesterday's announcement from the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, representing the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, in which their communication condemned the terrorist attacks of September 11?

HAYKEL: I applaud the fact that the Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned the terrorist attack. It doesn't surprise me, because most Muslims around the world have done so already.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden  

CNN: Do you have any idea what the reaction was from Muslims around the world that saw it?

HAYKEL: My sense is that Muslims are divided, even within themselves, as to how to react to his message. I think that most Muslims will not take up his challenge, which is to fight on his side against the West and their own regimes. Which means that the central message of his statement, which is that they should revolt and fight with him, will be rejected. However, Muslims are impressed with his ability to challenge the West, and to voice however hypocritically many of their genuine and real resentments about Western foreign policy in the Muslim world.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How does attacking the towers, which is obviously a horrendous loss of civilian life, further this movement's media campaign among anyone but the few thousand radicals that are directly supportive?

HAYKEL: I have some distressing news to relate. A recent survey of upper-class Saudi citizens was conducted, and the question was whether they approved of bin Laden or not. 100 percent of the women polled said they approved of bin Laden, and 85 percent of the men approved of him. His appeal as a symbol of Muslim resistance to Western domination is extremely widespread in the Muslim world.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is it not true that one of bin Laden's aims is to overthrow the Middle East governments to establish his own united Islamic country?

HAYKEL: That is absolutely correct. That is his main aim.

CNN: Why does bin Laden talk about "80 years?"

HAYKEL: The reference to 80 years, I believe, pertained to the end of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. This happened in the Muslim year 1342, and we are now in the Muslim year 1422, and it is exactly 80 years to the month that the caliphate was abolished. I believe it is a reference to his vision of re-creating the caliphate, and uniting the Muslim world under a single and unified political and spiritual leadership. The caliphate refers to the spiritual and political leadership of the Muslim world.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: There are many English translations of the Koran on the Internet. They sound like a terrorist manifesto -- kill all nonbelievers: is that what this is about - fulfilling the Koran view of Christians and Jews?

HAYKEL: It is true that the Koran contains verses that are antagonistic to Jews, Christians and non-Muslims. That said, the Koran also has verses that are positive and favorable to Christians and Jews. It is important to know that the Koran cannot be interpreted without the knowledge of the wider body of legal and theological Islamic literature. Verses don't stand on their own without context, and the context is always much more nuanced and sophisticated than the literal meaning of the verse.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: When watching the videotape, I get the impression that bin Laden is seeking to rally his followers. Is he in trouble due to defections from his cause?

HAYKEL: The defections that are allegedly taking place are from the Taliban, not from his group. No one from his group has yet defected.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do we know that Bin Laden is definitely in Afghanistan?

HAYKEL: I think so because I don't imagine any other Muslim country permitting him to come in because he's actually an enemy of most of the regimes in the world, not just America. They wouldn't let him into their country.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If he is so ready to accept his fate, why does he hide?

HAYKEL: Because a martyr must go down fighting. He's not like a Christian martyr who sacrifices himself to a lion in an amphitheater. He has to go down fighting.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there concern that upon the death of Osama bin Laden that he has someone ready to take his place and continue his terror?

HAYKEL: Yes, absolutely. Even if we eliminated him tomorrow, the phenomenon of bin Laden is a symptom of a much larger movement in the Muslim world. A military defeat will not assure us of a permanent victory against this movement.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there any chance of nabbing bin Laden next time he tries to have a tape sent to Al Jazeera?

HAYKEL: No, because he has people already on the ground in Qatar, and he doesn't deliver these tapes himself.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

HAYKEL: I think it is extremely important for Muslims to realize that the phenomenon of bin Laden is as dangerous to Islam as it is to the West; that unless Muslims themselves ostracize bin Laden and his pernicious interpretation of the Koran and of the prophet's sayings, the Muslim world, as well as the rest of the world, will suffer a tremendous amount of physical and military abuse.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Professor Haykel.

HAYKEL: Thank you very much to CNN, and thank you for your questions. Good day.

Bernard Haykel joined the chat room via telephone and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, October 11, 2001 at 11 a.m. EDT.


• Bernard Haykel biography

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