The Rhetoric of Bush and Bin Laden

by Bruce Lincoln

Note: Citations in this text are to the transcripts of speeches delivered by George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. The citations make reference to the speaker and the paragraph number (e.g. GWB 13 refers to paragraph 13 of President Bush's address).

n Sunday, October 7, 2001, less than a month after the attacks of September 11, US President George W. Bush announced the American military response in a televised address. Within hours, there came a riposte from Osama bin Laden who had prepared a videotape in anticipation of such military action and conveyed it to the widely viewed Arabic language network al-Jazeera, with instructions that it should be released shortly after Bush's broadcast.

Within the Muslim world, the bin Laden tape met an enthusiastic reception and it presented many Westerners with their first sustained, relatively unmediated view of this man. Although his language and self-presentation were primarily aimed at a Muslim audience, bin Laden's charisma was still evident, even to a Western audience relatively unfamiliar with the cultural codes on which he drew and relatively unsympathetic to the arguments he offered. Given that the tape showed him as articulate in his speech, coherent in his views, passionate in his commitments and also able to rebut Bush on certain points and to highlight others the President chose to ignore, it complicated attempts to depict him as evil incarnate. Treating control of the airwaves a military objective, the Bush administration quickly prevailed on American TV networks not to broadcast any further tapes from bin Laden. Rather, they should limit themselves to excerpts only, accompanied by "appropriate commentary" by responsible journalists, who could be counted on to tell the desired story. Government officials also pressured print media to adopt similar policies.

The censorship thus imposed effectively deprived most Americans of the opportunity to hear bin Laden and to improve their regrettably slim and shallow understanding of this man: his grievances, goals, dreams and delusions, his relative degree of rationality, as compared to the genuinely monstrous qualities of his ressentiment. Further exposure might make him all the more repugnant to American audiences or might enhance his charismatic aura, but it would surely help create a better informed public--the basis of any democratic society and the proper ground from which policy ought to emerge. Although the administration has voiced fears about providing opportunities for propaganda and the transmission of coded messages to underground operatives, officials are clearly uncomfortable with anything that might permit a nuanced perception of bin Laden and create sympathy for him on any point. Far better to keep him a cartoonish stereotype of Orientalist fantasy: the "Mad Mullah," a wild-eyed, turbaned and bearded fanatic, whose innate irrationality precludes taking him seriously, but makes him a serious danger.

If in the future we will hear bin Laden only in snippets carefully chosen and packaged for our consumption, it becomes all the more important to listen closely--and critically--to his tape of October 7, for it is a subtle, complex rhetorical performance and a revealing piece of evidence. The same can be said of Bush's speech. Indeed, it is useful to study the two texts in tandem, for they show unexpected similarities, as well as instructive differences.

President Bush addresses the nation from the White House Treaty Room on October 7, 2001.

Both men construct a Manichaean struggle, where Sons of Light confront Sons of Darkness, and all must enlist on one side or another, without possibility of neutrality, hesitation, or middle ground. Bin Laden states that the events of September 11 produced a radical estrangement and categorical division between two rival camps. His discourse, moreover, helps construct and exacerbate that division, as does the broader discourse in which he participates, which helped shape practices culminating on September 11. "Tell them that these events have divided the world into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels. May God shield us and you from them" (OBL 9). Bush makes the same point in the central paragraph of his text, pressing a complex and variegated world into the same tidy schema of two rival camps. The orienting binaries of this structure--good/evil, hero/villain, threat/threatened--are much the same for Bush as for bin Laden, but, predictably enough, he assigns the roles in opposite fashion. "Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril" (GWB 12).

To nail down the negative side of his binary structure, the President denounced his adversaries--not just the bombers of September 11, but any government associated with them--as "outlaws," "murderers," and "killers" (GWB 12). In other passages, he called his adversaries "barbaric criminals" (GWB 9) who harbored "evil plans" (GWB 6). For the most part, however, his favored term was "terrorists," a word repeated so often in his and in common parlance that its meaning has come to seem transparent and its appropriateness self-evident (GWB 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 13).

Like Bush, bin Laden is also relentless in his use of a key signifier to denounce and demonize his enemies. His term of choice is "infidels," which he repeats five times in a relatively short address (OBL 3, 6, 8, 9, 11). The Quranic resonances of this word are useful to him, as is its literal denotation ("unbeliever," "enemy of the faith"). In bin Laden's usage, however, it acquires a more specific and pointed contemporary referent, designating non-Muslim states that project their military, political, economic and cultural power into spaces Muslims regard as most holy. These "infidels" include, above all, the United States, whose stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia (home to Mecca and Medina) has been a prime concern of bin Laden's since the 1991 Gulf War (OBL 10, 11). More recently, he has begun to make similar points regarding the American-backed Israeli presence in Palestine, home of Jerusalem, Islam's third most sacred city (OBL 3, 4, 11).

While most of the characters who inhabit the two texts are noble heroes, outrageous villains, or waverers called to choose between these two rival camps, there is another set of cardboard figures, whose features are equally determined by their propagandistic utility. This consists of children in danger, who are menaced by one side and protected by the other. Bush evoked such images in three passages. In the first and most straightforward, he spoke to the situation of "the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan" (GWB 7). Notwithstanding the fact that he was bombing their country, he portrayed American action as directed against a political regime and a terrorist apparatus, not the Afghan people. The bombings were "carefully targeted actions" (GWB 2) directed against military targets, specifically "Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime" (GWB 1; cf. GWB 6). To the suffering people of the country, and above all the innocent children, he promised airdrops of food, medicine, and supplies as a token of American friendship. "The oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies" (GWB 7; cf. GWB 8).

Bin Laden's concerns for children were more local and more pointed, being most immediately focused on the plight of Iraqi children who are deprived of food, medical supplies, and sometimes also their lives by the American embargo, which has now lasted for more than a decade. Relatively little discussed in the West, this issue occasions deep concern in the Middle East, where it is often taken to reveal the cruelty of which Americans are capable and the double standard they employ in their dealings with Muslims. Bin Laden takes this analysis one step further. By connecting the Iraqi embargo to the spectre of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he charges the US with war crimes and crimes against humanity, while subtly inserting racism in the indictment. For it would seem that Americans are capable of such atrocities only when their enemies are non-white. "They have been telling the world falsehoods that they are fighting terrorism. In a nation at the far end of the world, Japan, hundreds of thousands, young and old, were killed and this is not a world crime. To them it is not a clear issue. A million children in Iraq, to them this is not a clear issue" (OBL 7).

For all that Bush and bin Laden both represented themselves as righteous protectors of the weak, the two men projected very different types of authority. Bush's is official and governmental, grounded in elections, laws and the Constitution of a nation-state. In truth, it is probably misleading to regard Bush as an individual speaker, and this for two reasons. First, he surely was not the author of his address in any conventional sense. Rather, he read a text co-authored by unnamed members of his staff. The words themselves were theirs as well as his, and he spoke as the representative and director of this apparatus. Second, and much more important, he spoke in his official capacity as head of state, representing the state and beyond that, the nation. Or, to put it more precisely, the American state spoke to the American nation through him as its representation and conduit.

In partial acknowledgment, but also partial concealment of these intricacies, Bush began his address by alluding to the state authority vested first in his office and second in his person ("Good afternoon. On my orders the United States military has begun strikes," GWB 1). At two other points, he made explicit reference to his title and office, proudly placing himself among American presidents (GWB 13) and commanders-in-chief (GWB 18). Noting that he spoke "from the Treaty Room of the White House, a place where American presidents have worked for peace" (GWB 13), he was surrounded by flags as he defined the struggle in terms of his nation's traditional ideals. These center on peace (mentioned four times in GWB 13, including the assertion "We're a peaceful nation" GWB 13), justice (esp. in his charge to the troops, "your goal is just" GWB 20; cf. GWB 6), and freedom (mentioned four times in GWB 14 and used, somewhat lamely, to euphemize the mission: "The name of today's military operation is Enduring Freedom"). Two of these values recur in his final clarion cry "Peace and freedom will prevail" (GWB 23) and the third is probably implicit. No American call to arms is conceivable without enumeration of these cardinal virtues, but of particular analytic interest at present is their distinctly secular nature.

In contrast, the authority bin Laden claimed is religious and charismatic. The chief ideal he voiced is faith, and he spoke of his group as "the camp of the faithful" (OBL 9; cf. OBL 3), whose victory may be expected, for "the wind of faith is blowing" (OBL 10). As leader of the faithful, he claimed no formal titles or office, but presented himself as a holy warrior (mujahid), seated on a prayer rug, with Kalashnikov and Quran close at hand. At times, his discourse bordered on the prophetic, although Muslim doctrine recognizes Muhammad as the last prophet and bars anyone since from claiming such status. In truth, bin Laden spoke very little of himself, submerging his own identity in the first person plural via an "us" he defined as "the group that refuses to be subdued in its religion" (OBL 6). More menacingly, he described the hijackers of September 11, with whom he implicitly claimed connection (while not actively taking responsibility for their acts), as "a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam," whom "God has blessed ... to destroy America" (OBL 3).

As a religious leader, bin Laden sought to mobilize a following that cuts across all political distinctions of citizenship, also all ethnic and other potential lines of cleavage, uniting all Muslims without exception on the basis of their shared faith. "Every Muslim must rise to defend his religion" (OBL 10). Shared faith also implied a shared perspective, grounded in shared experiences and born of a common history. In bin Laden's account, that history breaks into three periods: 1) a time of Islamic grandeur, which ended with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate in the aftermath of the First World War; 2) a time of suffering, shame, and victimization by Western powers, which lasted from 1918 until September 11, 2001; 3) a period just commencing, introduced by the Islamist counterattack on the West, launched on September 11. This is announced toward the beginning of his speech: "What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted. Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more than 80 years of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated" (OBL 1-2; cf. OBL 4).

If bin Laden aspired to mobilize all Muslims on the basis of their religion, ignoring their identities as citizens of different nation-states, Bush's approach was precisely inverse. The prime group he sought to rally consisted of American citizens, regardless of their religious affiliations (GWB 13-18, 21-22). Beyond that, he portrayed himself as having assembled an alliance of religiously diverse states, support from whose leaders ratified his actions and policies, thereby confirming that these were based in shared human values, not the particular self-interest of one powerful state. "We are supported by the collective will of the world" (GWB 4; cf. GWB 3, 7, 10). To that end, he kept religious language to a minimum and took special pains to assure this was not a latter-day Crusade. Rather, he represented himself and America as both well disposed to Muslims. "We are the friends of almost a billion worldwide who practice the Islamic faith" (GWB 8).

Although one might expect that the religious nature of his persona, vision and language might limit him to a vaporous, mystic, or otherworldly discourse, bin Laden was actually quite concrete in identifying his chief grievance. Thus, while the President's rhetoric remained at the level of inspiring but vague generalizations (freedom vs. terrorism), in his closing paragraphs bin Laden adapted his equally lofty (and equally inflammatory) formulations to signal more immediately pragmatic issues. "The wind of faith is blowing and the wind of change is blowing to remove evil from the Peninsula of Muhammad, peace be upon him" (OBL 10). Then, expanding the discussion to include Palestine, he made the same point again. "I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad" (OBL 11). Clearly, removal of American troops from Muslim holy lands--Saudi Arabia, above all, and Palestine in the second place--remains his prime and most immediate goal.

The American government surely does not want to yield on this demand, given that the troops stationed in Saudi Arabia help keep a friendly, if highly corrupt and unpopular regime in power, which secures the continued supply of cheap oil from Saudi fields in return. One should not underestimate the importance of this concern for an administration filled with oilmen, from the president and vice president on down. There are also principled reasons why one would refuse the demands of blackmailers. But the administration has also been concerned not to acknowledge any construction of the conflict as a struggle over scarce resources (oil above all) or as a violent reaction to American policies many Muslims find offensive, lest this confuse the American public and sap national resolve. It is for this reason that Bush finds it best to maintain a strictly dualist narrative of civilization vs. terrorism and good vs. evil.

Others clearly prefer the variant, but equally dualistic construction provided by Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations," where the adversaries are identified as the (Judeo-Christian) West vs. Islam. Although one might expect Bush to find this congenial, the fact that he has avoided incorporating it in his public statements (except as an occasional subtext) shows that he--or at least his staff--is aware of its potential dangers. In truth, it is bin Laden who benefits from constituting the struggle as one of Islam vs. the West, and it is he who propagates such a view. American interests are better served by models that permit Muslim nations to enlist--or at least, stay neutral--in a moral, but not religious campaign: one that pits civilization per se against all that is uncivilized, i.e., "terrorism," "fanaticism" and "evil."

The speeches of Bush and bin Laden mirrored one another, offering narratives in which the speakers, as defenders of righteousness, rallied an aggrieved people to strike back at aggressors who had done them terrible wrongs. For his part, Bush preferred to define the coming struggle in ethico-political terms as a campaign of civilized nations against terrorist cells and their rogue-state supporters. Bin Laden, in contrast, saw it as a war of infidels vs. the faithful. As a corollary, the two also differed in their willingness to couch their views in religious terms, and this was probably the sharpest divergence between them.

The concentration of overtly and emphatically religious content in bin Laden's speech was almost 60 times greater than in Bush's.

We have seen that a prime purpose of bin Laden's address was to construct the conflict along religious lines, pitting Muslims--"every Muslim" (OBL 6, 10) and "our Islamic nation" (OBL 2)--against infidels. But he also identified a second, internal class of enemies. These are the people he referred to as "hypocrites," by which term he designated those postcolonial state elites in Muslim nations who cooperate with Americans, help advance and protect their interests, and profit from this service. These are the people who failed to denounce the Iraqi embargo (OBL 4), failed to speak out in support of Palestine (OBL 3), failed to protest the 1998 American bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan (OBL 8), but were quick to object when Al Qaeda took up arms against the infidels (OBL 3, 4, 8). Notwithstanding his calls for pan-Islamic solidarity, bin Laden's rhetoric identified and exacerbated a sharp cleavage between those he would characterize as good and bad, or as I would have it, minimalist and maximalist Muslims.

If bin Laden's core contradiction involved the admission that politics was important as well as religion, Islam not being unitary, as religious ideals would have it, but also lacerated by political divisions, Bush's came on similar ground. Having consistently sought political unity and denied the religious aspects of the conflict in order to avoid the possibility of fragmenting his coalition along religious lines, he was ultimately forced to acknowledge the importance of religion in subtle, but revealing ways. Pressure for this came not only from Christian conservatives, a core part of his constituency, but also a broader resurgence of popular piety, as marked by displacement of the national anthem with the strains of "God Bless America."

Two brief flights of imagery stand out in an otherwise unembroidered text, and these helped Bush assert the religious nature of the conflict at the same moment he sought to deny it. Toward this end, both images contained Biblical allusions plainly audible to portions of his audience who are attentive to such phrasing, but likely to go unheard by those without the requisite textual knowledge. Thus, his statement "the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places" (GWB 6) reduced his adversaries to hunted animals, but also gestured toward a climactic scene of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6.15-17).

In similar fashion, Bush's statement that anyone who sides with bin Laden "will take that lonely path at their own peril" (GWB 12) conjures up a host of Biblical passages that contrast a path of righteousness with one of perdition (Job 8.13, Isaiah 59.6-8, Proverbs 1.15-16, et al.).

These allusions are instructive, as is the fact that Bush could only make these points indirectly, through strategies of double coding. Along with Bush's closing benediction, his Biblical references acknowledge a serious cleavage within the American public and address those Americans who could be expected to reject the religious minimalism that otherwise characterizes his text. Far from denouncing them as improper Americans, however--the way bin Laden treated his "hypocrites" as bad Muslims--Bush provided reassurance for these people. Enlisting the specialized reading/listening and hermeneutical skills they cultivate, he encouraged them to probe beneath the surface of his text. There, sotto voce, he told them he understands and sympathizes with their views, even if requirements of his office (also, those of practical politics) constrain him from giving full-throated voice, not just to the religious values they prefer, but to their maximalist construction of all values as religious.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Bruce Lincoln

Bruce LincolnBruce Lincoln is the Caroline E. Haskell Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He holds appointments in the Committees on the Ancient Mediterranean World and the History of Culture, and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and is an associate member of the Departments of Anthropology and Classics. Lincoln's research emphasizes critical approaches to the study of religion. He is particularly interested in issues of discourse, practice, power, conflict and the construction of social borders. He works in the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, with occasional excurses into African, Melanesian and Native American traditions. His most recent publications include Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 and Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Lincoln holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

COPYRIGHT | This article was excerpted from Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, by Bruce Lincoln, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2002 The University of Chicago.

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