Should the public know and understand the belief system of the world's most despicable terrorist? Aren't some ideas just too disturbing for academic study or general dissemination? I would hold that the opposite is true and that the public needs to know the belief systems of Osama bin Laden and his band of followers. In meeting this need, our country's mass media have largely failed us. As this Religion News Service article states, bin Laden doesn't have a website explaining his views and he's not likely to give an extensive interview anytime soon. He doesn't publish papers in academic journals and, so far as I know, has never published a book. This makes it difficult, but certainly not impossible, for journalists to write about bin Laden.
If we fail to understand who bin Laden is we will forget the motivations for his actions that have spread destruction and horror across the globe. Thankfully, some are attempting to understand:
For nearly a year, these professors of religion, politics, history and law have gathered as a critical audience to bin Laden, a man who looms larger than perhaps any other in our country and yet who remains a mystery to many Americans.
They emphasize they do not sympathize with the al-Qaida leader, nor do they want to add academic weight to his teachings or beliefs. They merely want to understand the man, his purpose and the source of his influence and hatred.
"It's not like you can turn on the television and hear a 10-minute press release from al-Qaida," said Richard McGregor, an assistant professor of Islamic studies who helped start the group. "Our media is not going to give air time to these people. They're not going to give air time to Osama bin Laden, they say, for strategic reasons. So what it means for the average person -- you don't know. You don't know who is this person."
Why have the media failed to present this side of the terrorists? Is it because the public is unable to stomach it? As history demonstrates with the Holocaust, a failure to understand the philosophy guiding a force can ultimately result in a failure to react and respond:
The materials are disturbing to read. Some faculty members invited to participate declined for visceral reasons, McGregor said.
"It is chilling to see somebody articulate so carefully these horrible, horrible acts," he said. "These are not the ramblings of an insane, incoherent person. He's quoting from Scripture. He's quoting from The New York Times. And he's talking about all of these things very coherently."
Nonetheless, the value of their work is undeniable to the group.
My only problem with the article is its failure to thoroughly articulate bin Laden's beliefs. That could take a while, though, and this is just a news story on the academic groups. Perhaps a follow-up article is needed in some serious news magazine (I'd like to think that Time and Newsweek are up to the challenge, but I doubt it) to flesh out the group's discoveries?
Here's a hint of what we may discover, and it is indeed chilling:
The rhetoric is reasoned and well informed, not irrational. In addition to Scripture, he draws from current events and even respected scholars and war theory to justify his belligerence. But the rhetoric is weak theologically, McGregor said.
"It does not have deep roots in the Quran or deep roots in Islamic law," he said. "Yes, he quotes the Quran once in a while. But within the Islamic religion itself, this is very extreme. This is really on the edge."
Second photo courtesy of Flickr.