by Jeff Elliott
In his newest videotape, Osama bin Laden made a chilling threat to American voters: If President Bush carries your state on election day, Al-Qaeda will target it for a terror attack -- so to be safe, kowtow to terrorism and vote Kerry. Or at least, that's the interpretation that conservatives would like you to swallow.
Released less than four days before polling places open, the chattering class on radio and TV mostly agreed that the tape was bin Laden's effort to influence the election. But how? First reactions were that it would backfire and give the President a boost in the polls -- Washington Post writer Jeffrey Birnbaum joked that he expected to Bush himself to show up at the end and say, "I'm George Bush and I approve this message." Moderate pundits thought it would help by reminding voters that America's enemy #1 is still a looming threat and by diverting attention away from the Iraq debacle and the missing explosives at Al-Qaqaa. Screamers like Sean Hannity went further and charged that the villainous bin Laden was actually endorsing Kerry.
But Bush continued to sink in the polls in the days that followed, showing the tape had little or no effect on the public. On Monday morning, Rush Limbaugh picked up a new spin that emerged over the weekend on conservative blogs and websites: The first translation of the tape was flawed. When Bin Laden closed his 18-minute speech by saying, "Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn't play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security," he wasn't threatening the nation -- he was really offering a truce to individual U.S. states, Limbaugh breathlessly told his vast audience. A modern-day Hitler seeking statehouse Neville Chamberlains.
Rush was simply parroting what he had found on the National Review Online and other websites. "The U.S. media... mistranslated the words 'ay wilaya,' which means 'each U.S. state,' to mean a country or nation, other than the United States, while in fact the threat was directed specifically at each individual U.S. state."
Where were Limbaugh and pals finding this stuff? His source was an analysis from the MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) think-tank, which in turn quoted an Islamist website. There it was explained what bin Laden really meant to say: "Any U.S. state that will choose to vote for the white thug Bush as president has chosen to fight us...Osama wants to drive a wedge in the American body, to weaken it, and he wants to divide the American people."
Both of these were dubious sources. MEMRI is part of the extended neo-con family; a couple of years ago, the conservative Washington Times quoted Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations: "MEMRI's intent is to find the worst possible quotes from the Muslim world and disseminate them as widely as possible." As'ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at CSU/Stanislaus who authors the respected "Angry Arab" website, also has issues with MEMRI. "They basically provide highly selective and not always accurate translations of either kooky Muslim fanatics (as unrepresentative as they are), or of wild Bush Arab fans (as unrepresentative as they are). The majority of Arab and Muslim public opinion is left out." Of the Arabic-only site quoted by MEMRI, As'ad found that the author of the "white thug Bush" analysis was anonymous, and ended with a commentary that MEMRI omitted: "This does not mean that [bin Laden] supports Kerry."
MEMRI analysis author (and president) Yigal Carmon also makes the claim that bin Laden's offer for individual U.S. states is just like the truce he proposed to Europe in mid-April, following the terror attack in Spain that killed over 200. That's another deception: Then, bin Laden was seeking non-aggression pacts with soverign European nations, not piecemeal deals with provinces or states within those countries.
But the core question is still whether bin Laden intended "wilaya" to refer to a U.S. state. "I would say the MEMRI translation is possible, but unlikely," Chris Toensing, an Arabic speaker and editor of Middle East Report replies. "A citation from one untrackable Islamist blogger is not proof that [bin Laden] means what MEMRI says."
While "wilaya" has been translated as "province" at times in Arabic history and is still used to mean "state" in Sudan, the context here is different, Toensing says. "First, [bin Laden] makes a clear contrast between Sweden (a country that has not 'attacked Islam') and the U.S, indicating that he's talking about nation-states. Second, in the stylized and somewhat antiquarian classical Arabic of which Islamists are fond, the word 'wilaya' can mean 'sovereign power.' The rest of his speech is in this type of language -- it isn't even the type of formal Arabic that a politician would use to give a speech. Even in today's newspaper Arabic, that word's meaning would depend on context. For instance, the Arabic term 'wilayat al-faqih' means 'rule of the clerics' -- the system that Khomeini installed in Iran."
Limbaugh, of course, took it much, much further than merely pondering the finesse of Arabic linguistics: "A John Kerry victory after the bin Laden tape is going to give Osama bin Laden bragging rights across the Middle East. You want to talk about creating a whole new generation of terrorists? After this bin Laden tape, if Kerry goes out and wins this election, bin Laden's going to be able to flex his muscles and claim credit for it throughout the Middle East...you haven't seen the stuff hit the fan yet until we see if Kerry wins this and you watch the celebrations in the Middle East with Osama reaching heights exalted heretofore unimagined."
Ten years ago, Limbaugh penned his "35 Undeniable Truths" much loved by his mega-dittoheads. Item 34 was, "words mean things." Maybe if it were higher on the list, he wouldn't have tossed it away.
November 1, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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