My New Year's resolution is to get inside the mind of Osama Bin Laden. Fortunately, I have an extraordinary friend who is ready to help. Bruce Lawrence is a jovial chap in the mould of Rhett Butler. He speaks fruity Urdu with a mid-American accent. He is also one of the world's leading experts on Islam, with a string of influential books to his name. He was the first to predict, in Defenders of God (first published in 1989), the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism as a global phenomenon. It is something we need to take seriously, I recall him saying, rather than dismiss as a mere anachronism. That was long before the world had heard of Bin Laden.
Now Bruce has produced a hefty tome on Bin Laden himself. Messages to the World (Verso, £10.99) painstakingly collects the interviews, speeches, threats, declarations and video messages of the planet's most wanted man.
And the first thing Bin Laden tells us about himself is that he is an extraordinary, sane and calculating person. Relic he may be. Stupid he is not.
One thing we cannot appreciate from reading Bin Laden in English is the magnetic pull of his eloquence. When I first heard the "Mujahid", as he was then called, sitting just a few metres away from him at a conference in Peshawar, Pakistan, I was bowled over. Speaking in classical Arabic, generously enriched with quotations from classic texts and punctuated with poetry, Bin Laden hypnotised the gathering. When I recovered from the trance, what I remembered most was the overwhelming logic of his analysis.
On that occasion, he was speaking about the "Soviet Union's despicable terrorism against children and innocents in Afghanistan". Now he applies the same logic to the US - a tyrannical power that "has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal, whether directly or indirectly through its support for Israeli occupation" of Palestine. The US is incapable of listening and does not understand the language of peace; it understands only the language of power. The US terror can be fought only with terror. "If Ariel Sharon is a man of peace, then we are also men of peace."
Bin Laden is a master at exposing America's hypocrisy and double standards. In a letter posted on the internet, he addresses the US directly: "The freedom and democracy that you call for is for yourselves and for the white race only." You develop and stockpile weapons of mass destruction yourself and prohibit others from doing so - "except to those you give consent, such as Israel". You are the last ones to respect the resolutions and policies of international law. "You shamelessly ask for immunity for your own war criminals" while violating the human rights of "whom you censure". And so on.
Most Muslims would not hesitate for a second, as would not, I imagine, most fair-minded non-Muslims, to accept these charges against the US. Neither would I. But agreement does not necessarily mean support. To ensure the support of his audience, Bin Laden always balances his rhetoric against the US and the west with what is happening on the ground to Muslims. "How many innocent villages have been destroyed," he asks in his 2001 Christmas Day message, "how many millions forced out into the freezing cold, those poor and innocent men, women and children who are now taking shelter in refugee camps in Pakistan while America launches a vicious campaign based on mere suspicion?"
All of this reveals a man who is genuinely troubled by the injustices that the west in general and the US in particular have visited on the developing world, and by what he sees as the interminable suffering of Muslim people. But when it comes to the question of what is to be done, Bin Laden's sophistication evaporates. His desert and tribal roots are exposed. For him, power is
simply the power of the gun. He has no notion of other sources
of power, such as knowledge or culture. In the wastelands of Arabia, tribal resistance is always based on violence.
In the end, Bin Laden emerges, despite all his rhetoric, not as a son of Islam but the progeny of Arab tribalism. He sees everything in clannish terms. For him Islam is a simple monolithic creed, devoid of ethics or complexity, but totally infused with obnoxious Arab customs and practices. He takes this infertile creed a step further and reduces it to an ideology of vengeance. This instrumentalism is also the source of his unbridled anti-Semitism.
All this makes Bin Laden more and not less important, argues Bruce Lawrence, which is why it is vital for us to understand him and know where he is coming from. He still hypnotises and commands attention from a wide range of the Muslim population - from those easily impressed by classical Arabic, those who find his logic impeccable, those incensed by American brutalities, those who see Muslims as perpetual victims. Worse, his legend is sure to continue after his death.
His existence raises an important question for Muslims: why has the Islamic world not produced a Mahatma Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela? As Bruce notes, the most urgent need for Muslims is a better class of heroes - heroes who can "find a better way not only to liberate their homelands but also to forge a brighter future for those liberated".