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Bernard Haykel: Muslim reaction to the bin Laden videotape

Bernard Haykel is an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at New York University. He recently provided CNN with an interpretation and analysis of the videotaped statement of Osama bin Laden released by his al Qaeda organization this weekend. In the analysis, Haykel addressed the possibility of hidden messages sent by way of bin Laden's speech and body language. The White House has since asked the media to take precautions in airing these video tapes so as to not aid any other possible bin Laden allies that may be in the United States.

Haykel is the author of the upcoming book "Islam and the State in Yemen: The Victory of Sunnism under Muhammed al-Shawkani" (Cambridge University Press). He has written a number of articles on Islamic movements in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, namely in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies and others. He joined the chat room from New York.

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CNN: What were your initial impressions of bin Laden's spoken message when you watched the videotape?

HAYKEL: To be honest, I was shocked that he would allow himself to be taped saying what he said. The reason I say this is because what he said clearly incriminated him in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the tapes could have been doctored?

HAYKEL: I don't think so. The reason I say this is because the level and degree of detail to what he says -- his hand gestures, the idioms, the expressions, the quotes from the Koran and from the traditions of the prophet -- so ring true to who he is, and the nature of the radical Islamic movement he represents.

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

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HAYKEL: I suspect that there is a minority in the Muslim world that agrees with him. This tape will be irrelevant, as far as their opinion is concerned. I think, however, that the vast majority of Muslims would see this as incriminating evidence, and of his clear involvement in these attacks. Now, some Muslims and Arabs may deny that this incriminates him, and not because they don't really believe that he is involved, but rather that they don't approve of U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world, and by admitting to bin Laden's guilt, they would be giving in to the United States.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the tape will sway public opinion in the Muslim world?

HAYKEL: I think it is possible that it might sway anywhere between 30-50 percent of people in the Muslim world, people I'd describe as fence sitters.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think there's a chance it could be a propaganda tape that was meant to be discovered?

HAYKEL: I don't think so. I think the reason this tape exists at all... in fact there are three possible reasons. The first is that bin Laden is known to document many of his actions for posterity, for historical reasons. His movement tends to document their decisions and actions. The second, and perhaps a more important reason, is that the tape may have been produced for internal consumption and for propaganda for members of the movement. So, it could have been produced for the movement itself, never intended to be seen by outsiders. The third reason, and here I'm speculating, is that the tape may have been made without his knowledge. In other words, there might have been a mole or someone on the inside that taped this to set him up, to incriminate him.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are the "visions" repeatedly referred to in the tape common throughout Islam, or would most Muslims find them as strange as it seems most Americans do?

HAYKEL: The visions or more accurately the dreams he talked about are an idiom talking about a spiritually guided Muslim. If you are a religious Muslim, aware of the scholarly Muslim tradition, you would be familiar with the idiom of the dream. What this language is pointing to is bin Laden's role as a charismatic religious leader.

CNN: What kinds of subtle, unspoken or symbolic messages did you detect, and whom were these hidden messages intended for?

HAYKEL: I did not see any hidden messages. I think the only way for someone to pick these up would be to be a member of the movement. I did, however, pick up a couple of important points. At one point the shaykh who was visiting him from Saudi Arabia mentioned that a scholar in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa. This is a religious edict that which basically stated that the war bin Laden is engaged in is a holy war, and that the people who were killed were not innocent. This is a crucial point. The basic meaning is that Islamic law, according to this one shaykh, according to the scholar, sanctions this war. The point to bear in mind is that Islamic law prohibits the killing of innocent people.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you have an opinion about the visiting shaykh from Saudi Arabia?

HAYKEL: Not really. He's not someone I'm familiar with, except that I noticed that he was paralyzed. He may have been a former Mujahed, a fighter with bin Laden in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the 1980's.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the relevance of Osama bin Laden saying that the hijackers didn't know the plan until they were getting on the plane?

HAYKEL: This is a crucial point that has been misunderstood in the media in the United States. What bin Laden is saying is that all of the hijackers knew they were going on a suicide mission when they were sent to the United States, however, they did not know the details of the specific mission in which they would end their lives. Only the pilots knew this. The reason for the secrecy was so that the mission could be carried off successfully. The suicide bombers who did not know about the specific attack only found out about it once they boarded the plane. In none of what bin Laden said is there any disrespect for those who did not know about the specific instance of the attack. He considers them all martyrs. His laughter and joy was that these men were able to pull off this action.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If the fatwa is giving bin Laden the "ok" for the war, why isn't he defending his actions publicly?

HAYKEL: In fact, he is defending his actions publicly in the Muslim world. In all of his statements on Al-Jazeera television, he has stated unequivocally that what he is doing is, in his opinion, is consistent with Islamic law.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why is it so difficult for some in the Arab world to accept that bin Laden was responsible for September 11?

HAYKEL: The answer to that is extremely complicated, and would depend on the individual. Now some people in the Arab world are horrified by these acts, and cannot admit that their religion has been hijacked by such a person. In a sense, they're in denial. Others really feel very angry about U.S. foreign policy, and the dominant position the United States has in the world, and feel happy that the United States received a bloody nose on September 11. Some, a very small minority, agree with bin Laden's tactics and views on Islam.

CNN: Was the White House right to air this videotape?

HAYKEL: I think so. Absolutely. This was important for the U.S. audience, so it becomes absolutely clear to Americans that this man committed these crimes. I also think it's important for the wider Muslim world, to at least permit them to judge for themselves who they think did this crime. Since September 11, many Muslims and Arabs have been clamoring for evidence implicating bin Laden. I think it's important for the United States to do this, and they've done it by releasing this tape.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: In the video bin Laden is surprised at the destruction the planes caused. Do you think that because the damage was so horrific it caused a backlash he wasn't expecting?

HAYKEL: I think that in his tape he says clearly that he has experience as a construction person, someone who builds buildings, and he had calculated that only the top floors, and those hit by the plane, would collapse. I have no reason to doubt him. Whatever we think of bin Laden, he does not lie. He is misguided, but he is a fervent believer. I have no reason to doubt him on this. I think he genuinely did miscalculate the extent of the damage, and didn't think that the United States would wage the kind of war it has since September 11, and because of the extent of the damage. I suspect that he had hoped the damage would be more limited, and the U.S. backlash would also be more limited.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think Islam has a responsibility to the world to explain these terrible acts along with suicide bombers, and how it relates to Islam?

HAYKEL: It's important not to think of Islam in monolithic terms. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has many different sects [or] tendencies and it would be difficult to point a finger at the institution or an individual who would come forward to explain why and how this happened. That said, I believe that the whole bin Laden phenomenon, and the radical Islam he represents, is an internal Islamic problem, and that this form of radical Islam can only be eradicated if Muslims themselves decide to do so.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

HAYKEL: I would like to reiterate that it is my opinion that this tape is genuine and authentic, and I hope that people, and especially Arabs and Muslims, look at it with a very open mind, and not let their judgment be clouded by many of the legitimate concerns they have regarding U.S. foreign policy and its abuses in the Middle East.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

HAYKEL: Thank you. It was a pleasure being here today.

Bernard Haykel joined the chat room via telephone and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday, December 14, 2001 at 11:30 a.m. EST.


• Bernard Haykel

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