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Did U.S. Botch Message with bin Laden Videos?

Author: Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 10, 2011


Editor's note: Ed Husain is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is author of "The Islamist."

As I flick through television channels, looking at the video images of Osama bin Laden, I do not only see what the United States government wants me to see: a vain, graying, diminished man obsessed with perceptions of his image (after all, I learn from news reports, he appears to have dyed his beard).

That's not what comes across to me. In the videos, released by the Obama administration from the trove recovered at Abbottabad, I see much more. I worry that radical Islamist audiences around the world will also observe the details that could, in time, serve to bolster Osama bin Laden's appeal.

Granted, many will argue that this video is a fake. That's a relief. But for others who will watch this video objectively, bin Laden's image as a pious, sacrificial Muslim has just been strengthened. While Western commentators poke fun at the many unruly wires that surround bin Laden's television set as an indication of his poverty, religiously literate Muslims are seeing something completely different.

First, bin Laden is sitting on a mat on the floor inside a million-dollar home. This is a habit among humble Muslims, who seek to emulate the teachings of the prophet Mohammed literally by not sitting on comfortable sofas, but being close to the earth from which we came and where we will return in our death.

Second, unlike other terrorists who were on the run from the United States, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for example, bin Laden did not remove his full beard. To avoid detection, he might have shaved and altered his appearance. He did not. This adherence to literal teachings of early Islamic and Jewish practice (of growing male facial hair) will further boost bin Laden's religious credentials.

Third, he was enveloped in a dark blanket. Among millions of pious Muslims in Pakistan, the prophet Mohammed is known with love as "kamli wala" or the "blanketed one" because the he had a habit of wearing a shawl or a blanket when he returned from meditation in the Cave of Hira in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Fourth, even at home (and possibly because of the cold weather) bin Laden's head was covered with headwear of some sort. Again, another Islamic and Jewish practice from ancient times that marks out more literalist observers of Islam.

Last, he was bobbing to and fro throughout the video. The Department of Defense will not allow us to listen to the background noise, but any observant Muslim knows that, like Jewish people at the Wailing Wall, Muslims make this bodily movement when listening to or reciting the Koran. Seeing bin Laden move to and fro tells us he was likely listening to the Koran in the background. This could further bolster bin Laden's Islamic appeal, something this video was supposed to reverse.

These similarities and symbolisms will not be missed by Muslim viewers around the globe. To me, this represents an analytical weakness of the U.S. government. What works in the corridors of Washington and impresses government men and women does not necessarily work the same way in Cairo, Karachi or Jakarta. We need to view the world with both eyes.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Husain.

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