A Week in Books: Bin Laden has been released

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The Independent Culture

Osama bin Laden, held captive in Southampton Docks, has now been released. A few weeks ago, the radical publisher Verso sent out advance copies of Messages to the World: the statements of Osama bin Laden. This is a complete translation (by James Howarth) with a commentary (by the US Arabist Bruce Lawrence) of the polemics via print, fax and video that the world's most wanted has issued at intervals since 1994. A few reviews, aghast at Bin Laden's bloodthirsty zeal but oddly deferential to his learning and dignity, began to appear. Then the bulk of the books, printed in the US, were detained by the port health authority.

Ostensibly, problems with another load in the same container accounted for the hold-up. More probably, someone higher up the Whitehall food chain was deciding what to do about the arrival of this toxic cargo just as the Terrorism Bill (with its section criminalising "terrorist publications") wheezed its way through parliament. Wisely, the powers-that-be decided to do nothing. If you wish to or need to, you may now read Bin Laden's unedited rants, as you may read Mein Kampf. They occupy the same moral and political space.

Even (no, especially) Bin Laden's bitterest enemies take his dicta in dead earnest. The introduction cites an assortment of experts who compliment the godfather of al-Qa'ida on the quality of his Arabic prose, the brilliance of his tactics, and so (creepily) on. Michael Scheuer, the CIA agent once charged with hunting him down, sets the tone by gushing about this "great man": "pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented... ". A certain kind of Western scholar - and soldier, indeed - has always had a thing for the exotic brigand who can dress up a taste for slaughter in grand phrases and arcane allusions. When Osama compares Cheney and Powell to Hulagu the Tartar (sacked Baghdad, 1258), you can imagine the heirs to T E Lawrence swooning.

For the rest of us, what comes across is as complete a self-portrait of the psychopathic narcissist as we will ever encounter. Bin Laden's vaunted skills in polemic against the "Jews and Crusaders" reach no further than playground tit-for-tat. You killed "us" (although "us" never included pampered Saudi rich boys) so the same to you with knobs on. And brass knobs on. That's about it. As for theology, "Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians. This is a part of our belief and our religion." Al-Qa'ida, remember, began industrial-scale butchery by murdering 200 black Africans (Muslims among them) in Kenya and Tanzania.

The fascistic windbag also emerges as an utter media tart. He loves his exposure, trilling like a PR floozy at a launch about the "enormous and unprecedented media coverage" of 11 September. The whole book seethes with simpering vanity and paranoiac self-importance. And some other feelings, too: "Who can forget your President Clinton's immoral acts committed in the official Oval Office?" I had, for ages. There must have been a shortage of interns around Tora Bora.

Suspend, if you can, your knowledge of all the suffering that Bin Laden has caused - and of the greater suffering caused by the immoral Western policies in the Middle East that recruit for him. What's left is an unwittingly absurd monologue made up of conceit, bathos, pomposity; even failed comic turns, such as one leaden routine about Bush reading a goat story to schoolkids while planes were "butting into skyscrapers".

Suitably filleted, Messages to the World would make a cracking one-man show for any comedian brave enough to try. Charlie Chaplin, after all, made The Great Dictator in 1940, with Hitler in full spate. Bombs and spies have missed him, but ridicule might puncture the Bin Laden mystique.

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