Cultural Psychology

A Reply to Osama bin Laden

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A Reply to Osama Bin Laden

John S. Uebersax PhD


Following the attacks of September 2001, Osama Bin Laden has delivered several addresses to Americans (e.g., October 2004; April 2006; September 2007). Since the American people themselves, and not their government or corporations, were addressed, and further since the people were the victims the attacks, I, as a citizen of the United States, feel it my personal duty to reply. My sense of responsibility is increased by the fact that I am a Christian, and so see things in religious terms, and because I am a psychologist, and therefore have some knowledge of the workings of the mind — including its misuse as exemplified by terrorism.

It is important to make a reasoned reply to bin Laden, and to the accusations and arguments of his several messages. Some may criticize me for attempting to reason with terrorists, but I disagree. Terrorists demonstrate by their actions an inability to think correctly; therefore it is all the more imperative that others demonstrate to them correct modes thought and action, and appropriate ways to resolve injustices. In any case it is foolish to not show respect for an adversary.

Others might see me as naive in presuming to write such a reply.  Had other citizens written reasoned replies, posting them online or publishing them, I would feel no need to do so.  However, as it is, the few replies I have seen demonstrate far more emotion than reason or good sense.  If only as a symbolic act, I feel it both worthwhile and important to demonstrate that Americans are intelligent and idealistic people, and concerned with the welfare of all people.

In writing this I depart from some of the formalities — or, perhaps we should say pretensions — associated with my academic, professional, and scientific background.  (Any readers who may know me professionally are asked to keep this in mind.)  Here I write only as a citizen, an elder (at least in a relative sense) and a gray-beard of my tribe, which has, in fact, been attacked.

The Reply

Certain themes have recurred in your (bin Laden’s) messages. Here I shall respond to several of these, paying particular attention to four general issues.

1. An eye for an eye

In your message of September 2007 (assuming it is genuine), you begin by justifying terrorism based on the scriptural concept of “an eye for an eye.”

There is a well-known saying: “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” Here is a case in point. You apparently believe that you act on God’s behalf in exacting vengeance; but the truth is that emotion has distorted your mind, making you unable to discern the true meaning of scripture. Your intentions, that is, are formed by malice beforehand; you then select whatever passages and give them whatever interpretation you please to support your prejudices.

The words of scripture permit many different interpretations. For this reason generations of learned and pious souls have searched to find the true meanings. You entirely disregard the opinions of these others, and presume to impose whatever meanings you find personally convenient. That is a sure sign of pride, and of not genuinely seeking to learn and do God’s will.

We could find a hundred other passages in the Qur’an or the Bible which make clear that terrorism is evil and contrary to God’s ways. For example, there is this:

Let not hatred of any people seduce you into being unjust. Be just, that is nearer to piety. (The Qur’an, al-Ma’idah 5:8).

And this:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Do not contend with people of the Book except in the fairest way. (The Qur’an, al-Ankabut 29:46).

Now it is generally understood by Muslims that Christians are included in the term “people of the book.” By what strange definition, then, could killing thousands of innocent non-combatants be considered fair? Fairness, according to the principle of “an eye for an eye” would be, potentially, to exact revenge upon the specific person or persons who committed a crime. Thus, if a man kills your brother, then, according to this principle, one could justify killing that man. This is far removed from applying the principle in an abstract and generalized way. Were any of those who died in the Twin Towers personally responsible for killing Muslims? And is it not certain in any case that at least some were wholly innocent? Many were not even Americans! To appreciate the gravity of your offenses and to see how inconsistent your acts are with the spirit of your own Qur’an, you should ponder the following:

Whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, it shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether. (The Qur’an, al-Ma’idah 5:32).

The choice of terrorism

In your October 2004 speech you described what led to your decision to pursue terrorism. Referring to the 1982 bombardment of Lebanon you said:

“I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy.” (Source: October 2004 video, Al Jazeera transcript)

And then you said:

In those difficult moments many hard-to-describe ideas bubbled in my soul, but in the end they produced an intense feeling of rejection of tyranny, and gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors.” (Souce: ibid.)

We should examine these statements closely. To witness such carnage is obviously difficult and produces strong and complex feelings. The strongest feelings are those of horror and of compassion and empathy for the afflicted. Compassion is stronger and more fundamental than any subsequent feelings of anger. Witnessing such destruction, the immediate natural human impulse is to say, “I wish that this did not happen, and I resolve for such a thing to never happen again!” And if this resolve is strong enough, the soul will struggle further with the hard-to-describe feelings you allude to, until the only real solution is reached: “I will embark on a campaign of peace, and so convert even my enemies from their evil ways; thereby I will insure that such things happen no more, and that no more people suffer this way.”

This is a difficult point in the deliberations of the soul, for we are not just guided by divine promptings, but prone to “demonic” influences as well. In this case, the latter infected your reasoning process, suggesting the path of revenge. Your thinking then became consumed by this single, incorrect idea, and you chose the wrong path. You chose, in fact, the very path most certain to produce more of the very suffering you wished to end. Is it not for this reason that it is written:

But (remember that an attempt at) requiting evil may, too, become an evil: hence whoever pardons (his foe) and makes peace, his reward rests with Allah- for, verily He does not love transgressors. (The Qur’an, Ash-shura 42:40)

And if you object to this translation, which some render differently, consider this alternative, the meaning of which is beyond dispute:

If a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah.

You should have seen in Lebanon in 1982 that your enemy is neither the United States nor Israel. Your enemy — the enemy of all of us — is hatred itself. And if one hates this enemy enough, one will stop at nothing to defeat it, even adopting the seemingly illogical plan of forgiving ones enemies.

This is the truest meaning of jihad or holy war: the struggle conducted within ones own soul to overcome the elements of baseness and egoism and to be conformed to the will of God, who seeks peace for His children. The insight that peace is the correct path, however, only comes with struggle. It is true that there are specific passages in scripture that refer to vengeance. But God has given us reason, by which we may see that these passages must be considered in the entire context of God’s word, which unmistakably teaches the way of peace.

Here, then, is a sign by which one may distinguish between legitimate punishment of injustice, which may potentially serve God, and the lesser species of malicious revenge: if one delivers just punishment, then one feels no hatred or anger, just as a judge may feel true compassion and sorrow for the soul of one he has been required to sentence; the judge keeps the humanity of the one sentenced foremost in his mind; if there is a more merciful option, he considers that one instead; he is willing, even eager, to distinguish between a reformable and unregenerate person. But if one feels anger and hatred in exacting ‘punishment’, this is not divine retribution but instead reflects only the workings of men and demons; it is malice disguised as justice.

We may also state things thus: terrorism places the motive of revenge ahead of the motive of serving God; it is a fundamentally wrong and unreligious mentality. A pious man does not rashly embark on a course of action and then stubbornly cling to it; that is like a sailor who sets his course once and then lashes fixed the rudder. The right way is to continually remain open to the subtle promptings of God’s spirit, which “goeth where it listeth” (Gospel of John 3 : 8 ) and to constantly search for the wisdom that comes from above:

But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.
This wisdom descendeth not from above, but [is] earthly, sensual, devilish.
For where envying and strife [is], there [is] confusion and every evil work.
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, [and] easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace
(Epistle of James, 3:15-17)

2. Terrorism is counter-productive, making worse the very conditions it seeks to remedy.

From your messages it is not clear exactly whom among Americans you believe your enemies to be. Often you imply that you consider George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, and other members of the current administration your enemies. Yet other times you seem to blame the American people themselves for complicity in the Iraq war, and for the injustices of capitalistic imperialism generally. In any case, it seems that one of your expressed purposes is to drive a wedge between the American people and their government.

Americans are naturally critical of their government. Many or most would like to see extensive reforms. This interest long predates the attacks of September 2001. Terrorism, however, does not weaken the American government — it plainly strengthens it. When any country is attacked, demagogues capitalize on public fears to seize or increase power. Then, to remain in power, these individuals or parties characteristically prolong or manufacture conflict to maintain their control. Martial law — either formal, or informal as with the so-called “Patriot Act” — is invoked to weaken the power of citizens, instill fear, and suppress dissent. All of these things have happened, and predictably so, following the September 2001 attacks. And as long as there is a threat of terrorism, they are likely to continue.

You evidently fail to appreciate that many Americans are extremely dissatisfied both with the current administration and with the general political system. It should be no secret that Americans are oppressed by their own government. This is not evidence that Americans are bad or negligent. Nearer the truth is that because the United States is the oldest modern democracy and the most technologically advanced society on earth, we occupy the cutting edge of social progress. We feel the ‘growing pains’ of modern culture first. If some other people were in our place, they would have the same crises of democracy and culture that we experience.

Americans understand the need to change, but change is made difficult by the power of the existing political system. Now here is the question you must consider: does one punish those in prison because of the actions of the jailers? That can only have the effect of making their misery worse, weakening them, and making them less able to free themselves.

Terrorism does not stimulate the higher powers of others souls to understand and remedy injustice. Instead it perpetuates fear and ignorance; it deadens the spirit, producing a kind of individual and mass mental stupor; these things ensure further injustice.

There are Americans who are trying to change things. You mention, for example, the intellectual, Noam Chomsky. Many Americans, myself included, remembering the experience of Viet Nam, protested the Iraq war at the beginning, and have continued to do so. But the saner voices are drowned out by the beat of war drums — for which you and your fellow terrorists are responsible.

3. Terrorism fails to address the real problems.

You often complain of capitalism, ignoring the obvious benefits which capitalism has brought. If there is any country, Islamic or otherwise, where people are willing to forego cellphones, computers, video cameras, automobiles, and wide-screen televisions, I have yet to see it. All people seem attracted to the benefits of technology rightly used. The truth is that corporations have been instrumental in producing marvels of technology and improving our quality of life. It is not corporations per se that are evil, but corporations in the hands of amoral people that do harm. Therefore it is naïve and simplistic to say that corporations or capitalism are the problems. The problems, rather are those things that cause misuse of corporations and capitalism.

The System

There are two dimensions to this problem — material and spiritual. At the material level, we, as modern human beings, must come to grips with what, lacking a better term, we may call the System. Due to our technological sophistication the various institutions of society are interconnected more than ever. We have produced a vast social and economic machine. It is something unprecedented in history, and we have yet to understand how to cope with it.

Decades ago President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans to beware the military-industrial complex. He did not define what this was, relying instead upon the self-evident fact that such a thing existed. To this day you will find few scientists who claim to know exactly what it is, or to understand the laws that characterize it. But it surely exists.

Moreover, it is now apparent that this is something larger than the military institutions and government contractors to which Eisenhower referred. It also encompasses, among other things, the media, governments, corporations, global financial institutions, and the energy industry. It has further corrupted our educational institutions and led to an erosion of Christianity in the West; from your comments, it seems you would agree that a certain erosion of Islamic values has also occurred in many countries.

The terrible aspect of the System is precisely that nobody controls it. It is naive to think that George W. Bush or corporate heads direct it. Rather, the system is something larger and impersonal — something with the ability to misdirect the thinking of political and economic leaders. It is pointless, then, to hate George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, or any other specific person. The worst that can be said about such individuals is that they have let their thinking be distorted by the System. But since nobody understands the System, that is almost inevitable.

Now here is the thing to consider: global terrorism is itself part of this same System. What other conclusion can be drawn? Acts of terrorism strengthen, not weaken military institutions and government regimes in the victim countries; they reduce the freedom of the people, making them unable to defeat the System that rules their lives; they replace education, intelligence, and sober judgment — the means by which people may prevail against the System — with fear and hatred, things which feed the System and increase its domination.

The Devil

Beyond this is the spiritual dimension of the problem. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, the great apostle of Jesus, St. Paul wrote:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Epistle to the Ephesians, 6:12)

What this means is that beyond the actual institutions that cause injustice, Satan operates. That is the position of Christians. While we acknowledge that individuals or nations may harm us, we remain mindful that these are merely material manifestations of a greater spiritual enemy. It is unfortunate that some Muslim radicals refer to America as “the Great Satan.” Satan does exist, and he does wage war on both Islam and Christianity. But the United States is not Satan, and to equate the two is a certain mistake. Satan uses the government of the United States, just as Satan uses the governments of other nations. Satan uses any means possible to wage war on humankind. It is to be expected that he will seek most to corrupt the strongest governments, and so do the most harm.

4. Christians and Muslims should cooperate.

Satan’s obvious strategy is that of “divide and conquer.” Most of all he wishes to turn people of faith against one another. The response should be obvious: Muslim and Christian culture should make peace and abandon the hatred and violence which empower Satan. As “people of the book” we should be cooperating. Islam means surrender to God. Christians believe the same principle, but use other words, like “humility” and “poverty of spirit” to refer to it. Were a Christian to practice Christianity faithfully, to live by the words of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament, then this person would also be islam in the sense of living surrendered to God.

You suggest that the current problems might end if America were to convert to Islam. Needless to say, that is a most unlikely proposition. Here is a more fitting one: since Christians and Muslims alike wish to see an end to the suffering and injustice that fuel international conflict, and since we have found that terrorism and war do not solve these problems, may we now try instead a much more potent remedy, and one more fitting for religious people? I refer to the remedy of prayer.

If every devout Christian and Muslim were to spend but a minute a day praying for an end to injustice and oppression, do you think God would deny this? And if not all, what if only half, or only one in ten prayed so? How much simpler this would be, and how much more to God’s glory, than incessant hatred and violence!

How much more starkly than this can the erroneous thinking that produces terrorism and war be revealed? Should one fight for ones religion, and then act as though one does not believe one of its most basic tenets: that God is faithful and responds to prayer?

To not see so obvious a thing we are surely like ones asleep. Let us awaken then and conduct ourselves with the dignity fitting people of God. Let us not doubt the power of faith and prayer. Let us not doubt that God will favor with peace those who truly follows His ways.


To summarize:

  1. Terrorism seeks to weaken oppressive elements of the American government; but it strengthens these elements.
  2. Terrorism seeks to redress social injustice; but it promotes injustice and delays solutions that peace and cooperation may achieve.
  3. Terrorism divides the Christian and Muslim worlds, which should be seeking to live in harmony.

May the Almighty and Merciful God grant clarity of mind that we may see the errors of violence and recognize how directly our problems may be solved through peace and cooperation.


Written by John Uebersax

January 22, 2008 at 10:44 pm

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  1. […] satyagraha wrote an interesting post today on Reply to bin LadenHere’s a quick excerptA Reply to Osama Bin Laden. Preface. Following the attacks of September 2001, Osama Bin Laden has delivered several addresses to Americans. Since the American people themselves, and not their government or corporations, were addressed, … […]

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