Bruce Lawrence wasn’t looking to write about America’s No. 1 Enemy.
But when British publisher Verso Books came looking for an editor to analyze a decade’s worth of Osama bin Laden’s statements, it was an offer the Duke University humanities professor couldn’t refuse.
The recently published “Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden” brings together 24 of bin Laden’s writings, interviews and videotaped statements. It is the first academic compilation of bin Laden’s words and is among a recent spate of books on the al-Qaida leader — books experts say are long overdue.
“If it makes one iota of difference in how Americans think about the war of terror, and in my wildest dreams it could bring about a more balanced approach to winning hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims, my efforts would be worthwhile,” Lawrence says.
He hopes the book will strip away some of bin Laden’s mystique and will reach mass audiences that may not be bin Laden cheerleaders but are influenced by the clips of his speeches that appear on Al-Jazeera’s Arabic language network.
Lawrence’s book is not the first compilation of bin Laden’s writings, although it will likely be one of the most influential because of his scholarly credentials and those of translator James Howarth, an expert on Arab linguistics.
In September, civil rights attorney Randy Hamud self-published “Osama Bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words,” a collection of 20 bin Laden statements and letters from 1994 to 2004. Doubleday Books said it plans to publish “The al-Qaeda Reader,” a compilation of bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi statements, in January, and Simon & Schuster’s Free Press is readying “The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of the Making of a Global Terrorist,” by former CNN analyst Peter Bergen, who has interviewed the terrorist leader.
‘The chilling effect’ Before Sept. 11, bin Laden’s complete speeches were not hard to find, but fear of being labeled pro-terrorist have kept many Islamic and Arab scholars from publishing his words in recent years, said Khaled Abou El Fadl, who teaches Islamic law at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It’s really fascinating if you want to reflect on the chilling effect that we are now in 2005 and 2006. We have only two collections, and only one academic one,” he says.
Verso’s U.S. publisher, Amy Scholder, agrees that some scholars are afraid to work on such books. “There is this fear of disseminating information and being construed as thus collaborating with this information” she says.
Hamud, the son of Lebanese immigrants, has represented several terrorist suspects but has no academic background in Islam. He has been criticized for failing to disclose the names of his translators but has said they are Muslims living in the United States who fear retaliation if their identities are disclosed.
He said the lack of access to complete editions of bin Laden’s statements prompted him to publish his book. “I was waiting for someone to do it. It was almost like writing about Osama bin Forgotten,” he says, noting that in the last year, far more attention has been focused on al-Zarqawi.
“I think when a man kills 3,000 Americans, he should be at the top of the list. We’re making a huge mistake by not focusing more on him,” Hamud says.
‘A dark message’Lawrence hopes that his book shows how bin Laden often “cherry picks” quotes from the Koran to support extremist ideas, distorting the message of the Koran and of Islam.
“He leaves out the parts that say, ‘It’s better to compromise,”’ Lawrence says. “The prophet Muhammad had Jewish and Christian alliances as well as enemies.”
He calls bin Laden’s prose “stunning and lean” but cautions against its destructive world vision.
“His is a dark message. It only goes one way: endless warfare. Muslims don’t come out better, only dead — or they have a much worse life on this Earth,” he says.
Brannon Wheeler, who heads the U.S. Naval Academy’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, plans to use the Lawrence book in his spring courses.
“Today there is a great deal of misunderstanding between different groups,” he says. “This book will help reduce the amount of misunderstanding ... allowing people to study in a more concerted and focused way how Osama bin Laden and others closely associated with him understand the responsibilities of Muslims and the world community.”
But Lawrence has a simple reason why his book should be read.
“We don’t want to have a World War III,” he says. “This is the ‘Mein Kampf’ of the 21st century.”