An article I read recently in Comparative Politics entitled “Bin Laden, the Arab ‘Street’, and the Middle East’s Democracy Deficit”, by Dale Eickelman, stood out to me as something worth discussing in our philosophy class, because it focused largely on power. Bin Laden, in our minds, is simply a symbol of terrorism, but to his targeted Middle Eastern audience, he conveys so much more. He is an icon in the modern world of media, trying to convey himself as a traditional Islamic warrior. His messages contain many secular elements, which appeal to his targeted audience- the Arab youth, the unemployed, and the poor. “He speaks in the vivid language of popular Islamic preachers, and builds on a deep and widespread resentment against the West and local ruling elites identified with it”(Eickelman). He blames the suffering of the people on American brutality against Muslims. He focuses on themes of oppression and corruption, which are themes that even non-religious people can relate to. He is charismatic and controlled. He even has a major TV logo in the corner of his broadcasts that add to his message’s authenticity, much like an ABC or CNN logo would in American media. Sounds like the majority of politicians we witness daily, right? That’s because to his audience he does play a similar role. His mastery in modern propaganda can be likened to that of political campaigning in the United States. Bin Laden’s audience does not judge him on his ability to cite authoritative texts, but rather on his skill in applying generally accepted religious tenets to current political and social issues. In other words, he knows how to play to his audience.
Through mass education and new communication technologies, such as the internet, he is able to reach large numbers of Arabs. Former Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, said in 2001, “Through access to the internet and other means of communication, a restive [Arab] public is increasingly capable of taking action without any identifiable leadership or organized structure.” Although in the past the generally non-democratic governments of the Middle East would punish organizations that went against the government, the new media is much harder to censor. Because these uncensored news outlets have certainly had an impact on public opinion, or what the article refers to as the “street”, the Arab governments have been forced to be more responsive to their citizens, or at least to pretend to be. So, “rather than seek to censor al-Jazeera or limit Al Qaeda’s access to the Western media- an unfortunate first response of the United States government after the September attacks- we should avoid censorship”(Eickelman). Their statements should be treated with the same caution as any other news source; censoring them will only bring more attention to them. If we look at the war on terrorism from a communication standpoint it turns not into a war on terrorism of one group against another, but instead a war versus terrorism and radicalism in all societies. In conclusion, although the United States has never underestimated the organizational skills of Bin Laden or Al Qaeda, their skills in effectively conveying a message through modern media that appeals to some Muslims should not be underestimated either.
(I couldn't find the full article online, but I have a copy of it in my textbook if anyone is interested)