The Bin Laden Tape
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RAY SUAREZ: Across the Arabic- speaking world, only those with access to satellite television were able to watch the hour- long, grainy video. The Arab world’s biggest satellite television network, al-Jazeera, interrupted programming to broadcast the bin Laden tape.
The anchor began, “This is the tape Washington says incriminates bin Laden.” State-owned television stations throughout Muslim nations either didn’t show the tape or played only parts of it during the evening news broadcasts. The videotapes elicited a mixed response from those who watched. Some people said it proved bin Laden’s guilt.
SPOKESMAN: I think this tape proves that Osama bin Laden has a big relationship with what happened in the United States on the 11th of September.
RAY SUAREZ: In Jordan, some doubted the tape’s authenticity.
MAN (Translated): In my opinion, it is a fabrication. The film was made to condemn Osama bin Laden. I don’t think it is evidence.
MAN (Translated): It is a fabrication. It’s not a real tape. Someone planning these attacks didn’t forget a tape like this.
RAY SUAREZ: And Pakistanis in Islamabad says the tape doesn’t prove bin Laden was behind the attacks.
MAN (Translated): Only Allah knows what they are showing here, but our belief is that no Muslim could do such a thing.
MAN (Translated): It’s an American plan. They are behind all this. We don’t have any real information now, but in ten years, if we’re still alive, we will understand what really happened.
MAN (Translated): We don’t know the truth. We can’t say whether Osama bin Laden was really involved in this.
RAY SUAREZ: On the tape, bin Laden said the attacks helped recruit followers for Islam. He claimed: “This event made people think about true Islam, which benefited Islam greatly.” Hard-line clerics and militant Islamic leaders in Pakistan and elsewhere accused the Pentagon of concocting the tape to prolong the war in Afghanistan. But from some Arab governments, there was a different view.
The Saudi Ambassador to the United States issued this statement yesterday: “The tape displays the cruel and inhumane face of a murderous criminal who has no respect for the sanctity of human life or the principles of his faith. We reject and condemn in the strongest terms their attitudes and actions.” And a Pakistani government spokesman said the tape justified his country’s decision to back the U.S. war on terrorism, stating: “Today, what I can say is we have taken the right decision.”
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the response to the tapes in the Muslim world, we turn to Hisham Melhem, correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir. Well, what do you make of the impact so far across the Muslim world?
HISHAM MELHEM: Judging by the initial reaction, which is only tentative because this morning I didn’t see any measured editorials in the Arab newspapers, the reaction ranged from ambivalence to skepticism to cynicism to acceptance.
You have a minority of people who will never accept Osama bin Laden’s culpability, even if Osama looked them in the eye and said, “I did it.” I’m talking about the Islamists and those who doubt anything that comes out of the United States because their presupposed notions and understandings of the U.S. policy in the region.
But you have a larger strata of public opinion in the Arab and the Muslim world that can be reached gradually and that tape could help, especially if that tape made its way to the elite, to the opinion makers, to people in academia and to people in journalism, because these are the people who influence the multitudes. I mean, it’s naive to think here in Washington that millions of people in the Arab and Muslim world will watch this tape for a full hour unedited.
The Arabic is barely audible without looking at the English. And therefore one could understand the ambivalence or cynicism. But if you reach the elite, and if you engage them, and if the full transcript in Arabic is provided, then you could contribute to the inevitable debate that is likely to take place in the next few days, although probably that debate will not take place fully until the feast — after the end of Ramadan on Sunday.
But you have… The problem that the American officials are having in the Arab world is that most people do not look at Osama bin Laden’s phenomena or the terror in New York and Washington in isolation of the overall U.S. policy in the Middle East. People have a big problem in U.S. policy in the Middle East, because of the American support for Israel. It’s because of the… It’s because of the plight of the Iraqi people, because of the American support for Arab autocratic regimes.
Take your pick. It is very difficult for people to put all this resentment, all this anger, if you will, at U.S. policy and focus on what Osama did to thousands of civilians in New York from all over the world to what Osama represents. And for some people there is a situation of denial.
They don’t want to admit that somebody in the name of Islam could do something like that. So that also in part explains not only the ambivalence but also the cynicism.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned it wasn’t given big play in this morning’s newspapers. Is this tape, and the message contained within the tape, something that’s only going to have penetration very slowly in large swaths of this world because not everybody has a television, not everybody has a radio?
HISHAM MELHEM: Not everybody speaks English. And the tape was aired yesterday from CNN with English subtitles. It was barely audible for people even if you sit very closely. Now, the United States, today, one day after the event, is distributing the Arabic transcript and Arabic edition without the English subtitles.
RAY SUAREZ: You think that is a miscalculation.
HISHAM MELHEM: I think it was a miscalculation. It was tactical mistake. They could have waited another 24 hours to have the Arabic transcript with Osama speaking at the same time. After all, we do it here. If somebody speaks with a thick English accent, you put the English text on the screen.
They haven’t done that. Also the leaks before airing the tape created hype and certain expectations that turned out to be not necessarily correct. Initially, if you remember, we were told that Osama was laughing and joking that some of the hijackers didn’t know that they were going to be involved in a suicide operation. Now when you listen and you read the text, it’s different.
He was happy that nobody discovered that they were planning to do these heinous attacks, but essentially he said they knew that they were going to be involved in suicide attacks but they didn’t know the nature of the attacks. So there are slight nuances and differences.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, would this have had a different kind of impact somewhere else in the timeline? This is a tape that’s been in American possession for some time.
HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. I mean, you know, the fact that we are talking about a tape that’s been in American possession for more than two weeks, had allowed people to say– especially those who didn’t want to believe it in the first place– to say that the Americans got, you know, had enough time to doctor this thing or to give us a fake tape.
Otherwise why would they keep it for two weeks? These are people who do not know much about the workings of Washington, the debates, the pros and cons of releasing such information. So that’s why they would jump on these theories. Again, keep in mind that legacy of the American policy in the Middle East, keep in mind also that you are dealing with societies whether Arab societies or Muslim societies, these are not societies ruled by democratic governments. These are not societies that have free press. In some places you have the press with greater degrees of autonomy than others.
In some countries you don’t have a press to speak of, and therefore these are ripe places for the emergence of all sorts of wild theories and conspiracy theories. That’s why people tend to, sometimes, unfortunately, discard what is obvious and cling to what is not obvious because they believe there may have been a hidden hand or a hidden agenda or an ulterior motive.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, does this put some governments in a bind because of the very obvious references to different clerics in Saudi Arabia, different connections with organizations in Egypt and so on? Does this take those governments and sort of put them in a position where they must say something about this?
HISHAM MELHEM: Actually, governments could use this — I mean, to buttress their support for the American claim, the American position that Osama is behind this.
To them, this could be used as a smoking gun, because they were under pressure, especially in the first days and weeks of the war, from the “Arab street,” which by the way many people exaggerate its importance whether in the Arab world or in the West, but that’s another topic. But definitely the Egyptians and Saudis and the others would say, “look, this is the work of a man who is abusing Islam and conducting these terror attacks.”
And, after all, the Egyptians and Saudis could claim with some right definitely that they were also subjected to attacks by groups like this. And so… But obviously the attitude of officialdom in the Arab world could help. I was surprised and not very happy that the Arab governments and Arab intellectuals at one time, the Arab elite so to speak, did not speak out forcefully against Osama. Many of them didn’t do it because they felt intimidated.
Many of them did not do it because they used the war in Afghanistan as an excuse. Many of them didn’t want to do it because the United States is involved in it and the United States policies are not popular in the Middle East for the reasons that I mentioned.
RAY SUAREZ: But what should we in the United States understand about the muted religious reaction to the text of the tape which used Islam as a justification for some really pretty terrible things?
HISHAM MELHEM: Oh, absolutely. There is an incredible abuse of Islam in every sentence that I could read or listen to. It was peppered with references to God, God Almighty, God Almighty, God bless you, whatever. Sometimes there were two pages of nothing but exchanges of this sort.
And for any pious Muslim, when he sees this man with that smile on his face, that reminds me of what Hannah Arendt talked about — the banality of evil. This man would barely raise his voice, would talk nonchalantly rejoicing – dancing over the graves of thousands of people in the name of Islam. I mean he not only hijacked Islam and distorted Islam, but made many people embarrassed.
At the same time, many people have this denial, this cannot be done by Muslims, which is, of course, nonsensical because all sorts of incredible deeds occur, you know, or done by people claiming allegiance to Christianity or Judaism or Islam throughout the years, so there is nothing unique to Islam in this sense. But definitely Muslim leaders should take him on publicly and politically, and that’s something they haven’t done unfortunately. And I remember after the October… The infamous tape, he intimidated a lot of people.
RAY SUAREZ: Hisham Melhem, thank you for joining us.
HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.