Osama Threatening Red States?

A complete English transcript of the bin Laden audiotape released last week has now been posted by al-Jazeera. The Arabic text, for those who can use it, has also been posted.

A reinterpretation of the speech, put in motion by the neoconservative organ MEMRI, has been flying around the web, suggesting that bin Laden is threatening individual American states if they vote for Bush.

At the end of his message, bin Laden said this:

"In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaeda. No. Your security is in your own hands. And every state [wilayah] that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security."

MEMRI is claiming that the word used for “state” in this sentence means state as in Rhode Island and New Jersey.

But while they are right to draw attention to the oddness of the diction, their conclusion is impossible.

Bin Laden says that such a “state” should not trifle with Muslims’ security. He cannot possibly mean that he thinks Rhode Island is in a position to do so. Nor can he be referring to which way a state votes, since he begins by saying that the security of Americans is not in the hands of Bush or Kerry. He has already dismissed them as equivalent and irrelevant, in and of themselves.

Moreover, the way he uses wilayah is strange if he meant a Rhode Island kind of state. He should have said “ayy wilayah min al-wilayaat,” “any state among the states” or some such diction.

Since MEMRI’s conclusion is impossible given what else bin Laden says, then we must revisit their philological point. It is true that in modern standard Arabic, wilayah means “state” or “province” and that al-Wilayaat al-Muttahaddah is the phrase used to translate “United States.” A state in the sense of government or international power would more likely nowadays be dawlah or hukumah.

But there are two possible explanations for bin Laden’s diction here. The first is that he regularly uses archaisms. He has steeped himself in ancient, Koranic Arabic and the sayings of the Prophet, and he and his fellow cultists in Kandahar developed a peculiar subculture that rejected much of modernity. The Taliban state characterized itself as an Emirate (imarah) ruled by an amir in the sense of a caliph or Amir al-Mu’minin (“Commander of the Faithful”). In the contemporary Gulf, in contrast, an amir is a prince. The amir (emir) of Kuwait is not claiming to be a caliph! Bin Laden and Mullah Omar went back to the classical meaning of amir.

In classical Arabic, a ruler is a wali, who then rules over a wilayah or walayah. Wilayah can have connotations even in modern Arabic (see Hans Wehr) of sovereignty and it can mean “government.” Bin Laden is attempting to revive ways of thinking he maintains were common among the first generation of Muslims, and to slough off centuries of accretions.

So the first possibility is simply that bin Laden is using a fundamentalist archaism. It would be like a Christian fundamentalist wedded to the King James Bible who insisted on using the word “charity” to mean a form of selfless love, with the Greek word caritas in mind, rather than in its contemporary meaning of “philanthropy.”

The other possibility is that bin Laden has lived most of the past 25 years in Persian, Pashto, and Urdu-speaking environments and that he occasionally lapses into nonstandard usage. In Hindi-Urdu, I noticed that one meaning of vilayat is “the metropole.” At least in past generations, people going from British India to the UK said they were going to vilayat. More important, there is some evidence for fundamentalist Muslims using the word wilayah or walayah to mean “country.” The Pakistani radical group Hizb al-Tahrir locates itself in “Walayah Pakistan," i.e., the country of Pakistan.

I think archaism is a more likely explanation than what linguists call “interference” from other languages for bin Laden’s diction here. But I am quite sure, for the reasons of logic given above, that he means “government” by the word, not state as in province, in this speech.

MEMRI was founded by a retired Israeli colonel from military intelligence, and co-run by Meyrav Wurmser, wife of David Wurmser. David Wurmser is close to the Likud Party in Israel and served in Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, where he helped manufacture the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to al-Qaeda. David Wurmser, who wants to get up American wars against both Iran and Syria, then moved over to Vice President Dick Cheney’s rump national security team.

MEMRI is funded to the tune of $60 million a year by someone, and it is a sophisticated anti-Arab propaganda machine. The organization cleverly cherry-picks the vast Arabic press, which serves 300 million people, for the most extreme and objectionable articles and editorials. It carefully does not translate the moderate articles. I have looked at newspapers that ran both tolerant and extremist opinion pieces on the same day, and checked MEMRI, to find that only the extremist one showed up. It would sort of be as though al-Jazeera published translations of Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Jerry Falwell on Islam and the Middle East, but never published opinion pieces on the subject by William Beeman or Dick Bulliet.

MEMRI is enormously popular with strong Jewish nationalists in the United States, who often subscribe to it by e-mail, and are being given an unbalanced view of the region as a result. In some instances the translations are not very good, but the main objection is the selectiveness of the material. MEMRI is one of a number of public relations campaigns essentially on behalf of the far right-wing Likud Party in Israel that tries to shape American perceptions of Muslims and the Middle East in a negative direction. Think tanks like the Hudson Institute are another (it is run by … Meyrav Wurmser). The Benador talent agency, which books a lot of talking heads on U.S. television, is another.

It would be just as easy to set up a translation service that zeroed in on racist and “Greater Israel” statements in the Hebrew Israeli press and made the articles available in English, while ignoring more liberal newspapers like Ha’aretz. If most educated Americans heard the raving against ha-aravim (the Arabs) that goes on among West Bank settlers, they’d be completely taken aback by the bigoted terms of reference. Much of such Likudnik discourse is not different in kind from what one hears from the Ku Klux Klan about minorities in this country.

Anyway, I am not suggesting that the MEMRI report was an attempt on behalf of the Likud Party to intervene in the U.S. election. I suspect they just didn’t think through the issue and depended on a surface reference to modern standard Arabic.

Ramona Smith at the Philadelphia Daily News has a good survey of reaction to the MEMRI interpretation, which is generally as critical as I am.