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For the record: al-Raymi’s Message to the American People

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick, minor note ]
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You may of course already know this, but in case you don’t…

May eye was caught by the words “Your leaders are assaultive, oppressive and tyrannical” in the English subtitles to Qasim al-Raymi‘s “Message to the American People” video (upper panel, below)…

I guess it was the word “assaultive” that really caught my eye… I wasn’t looking forward to transcribing the entire video, so I went to the net to see if anyone else had done the job — which was when I realized I’d seen that same phrase before, in the latest issue, #11, of Inspire magazine (lower panel, above).

So this is just a quick note to say if you want to quote al-Raymi, there’s no need to transcribe the video, he says what he says in Inspire #11 pp. 8-9.

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I suspect we could glean quite a bit if we listened with careful ears to the phrasings used by jihadist sources when writing or speaking in English or translating into it. There are some interesting characteristic turns of phrase — I haven’t been making notes as yet, but “to proceed” is one that is often used to end the scriptural prelims and turn to the message of the day… And there was that curious phrasing in the Khorasanist video Tamerlan Tsarnaev favorited, “The word Taliqan not just mentions the Taliqan region of today only, but…”

There are many interesting ways to read a text, and reading for tone and phrasing is one of them…

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Sources, h/t to Aaron Zelin at Jihadology:

  • Al-Raymi, al-Malahim video
  • Al Raymi, al-Malahim Inspire magazine
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    Great question!

    Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — from Paradise Regained: Overcoming Terrorism in Star Trek Into Darkness ]
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    Matt Ford, guest-blogging at Grand Blog Tarkin [includes spoilers] asks:

    How many young Americans learned Arabic and Pashto or studied counterterrorism and international relations because nineteen men flew three planes into a building and one into the ground, killing thousands?

    Great question!

    And how many in the UK after 9/11? — and after 7/7?

    **

    Also worth reading [and also includes spoilers]:

    Amy Davidson, Is “Star Trek into Darkness” a drone allegory?

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    Words, words — what’s a bunch of Wordsworth?

    Sunday, May 19th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — bemused again, “jihad” (the word) in the news, “big data” too, plus Google expecting Mahdi ]
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    I suppose I should be glad — or should I? — that the word jihad is now in the news.

    It’s about time. Jihad (the word, the concept, the interpretations) should have been in the news at least since 9/11, don’t you think? or since the World Trade Center bombing in February 26, 1993, perhaps? or at least since Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques of September 2, 1996?

    In any case, the word finally seems to have arrived, if the entry from the National Geographic site last month (upper panel, above) can be trusted:

    And Big Data (lower panel)?

    President Obama launched his Big Data Initiative on March 29, 2012, but I’m not sure how long the term has been in active use. I’m told there’s no “big data” listing in the 2009 Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, I have the sense that three days ago’s Foreign Policy is far more up to date than last month’s National Geographic in any case — and just a month or two ago the CTO of CIA, Ira “Gus” Hunt, situated Big Data somewhere between “the cloud” and right now, telling his audience at GigaOM:

    Big Data was so last year, right, all those breathless articles and all the front page covers — I was expecting BD to be Time’s Man of the Year, right. This year what we’re really talking about is how do we get value out of the stuff?

    That quote, of course, is so “two months ago”…

    **

    So what does National Geographic tell us about jihad?

    The Boston marathon bombing has focused attention on the word “jihad.”

    Vice President Biden characterized the alleged bombers as knockoff jihadis.” The Associated Press reported that the elder brother had “vaguely discussed jihad” with his mother over the phone in 2011.

    Origins

    “Jihad” is derived from the Arabic word juhd (meaning effort, exertion, or power) and literally translates to “struggle” or “resistance” for the sake of a goal. Used 30 times and in multiple contexts in the Koran, jihad most often denotes a struggle against external enemies, the devil, or one’s self. One example from the Koran (49.15) is: “The believers are those who believe in Allah and His Messenger … and jahadu (do jihad) with their properties and selves in the way of Allah.”

    Mark Wilks, an early 19th-century British author, introduced jihad into the English lexicon, defining it as a Muslim “holy war,” in his Historical Sketches of the South of India. It’s retained that meaning in English; the Oxford English Dictionary defines jihad as “a religious war of Muslims against unbelievers.”

    History

    Because of its roots and context in the Koran, jihad has a positive meaning to Muslims. Whatever form jihad may take, the struggle is always noble. When the term is evoked against external enemies, it can be used only during just or defensive wars.

    I’m sorry, but that last para beginning “Because of its roots and context in the Koran, jihad has a positive meaning to Muslims” isn’t terribly clear. When al-Zawahiri talks about jihad, for instance, does the writer imagine all Muslim readers imagine he’s talking about something noble? I fear there are some subtleties being missed her that not everyone who reads National Geographic may understand.

    **

    And what does Foreign Policy want to tell us about Big Data?

    The promoters of big data would like us to believe that behind the lines of code and vast databases lie objective and universal insights into patterns of human behavior, be it consumer spending, criminal or terrorist acts, healthy habits, or employee productivity. But many big-data evangelists avoid taking a hard look at the weaknesses. Numbers can’t speak for themselves, and data sets — no matter their scale — are still objects of human design. The tools of big-data science, such as the Apache Hadoop software framework, do not immunize us from skews, gaps, and faulty assumptions. Those factors are particularly significant when big data tries to reflect the social world we live in, yet we can often be fooled into thinking that the results are somehow more objective than human opinions. Biases and blind spots exist in big data as much as they do in individual perceptions and experiences. Yet there is a problematic belief that bigger data is always better data and that correlation is as good as causation.

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    Mr Orange had something to say about the word “jihad” in his War Tracker blog the other day, under the title What’s in the names of terrorist groups (1): Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd:

    … they still use a religious term in their name: One that is quite negatively understood in the West but not so in the Arab and Muslim world namely Jihâd.

    They are Mujâhidîn – those who do Jihâd (religious struggle – in this case fighting) – on the fields of Jihâd. Mujâhidîn has a positive, religiously legitimizing ring to it – see here is someone who struggles for the religion – and is furthermore including. Whether you are with the FSA (even one of the rather secular parts of that group mind you) or with an independent Islamist group or with Jabhah al-Nusrah all do use the term Mujâhîd and all may be identified by that term (Granted there was a time when Thuwâr (revolutionaries) was en vogue but no longer so).

    That, IMO, gets us a lot closer to understanding a term that has a range of meanings, a range of users, and a range of audiences — from something along the lines of divinely obligated warfare to something akin to conscience (or what Rilke calls “being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings”) , and from those who use it for glorious self-identification to those for whom it is a euphemism for terrorist (irhabi), and from those itching for a fight to those longing, praying and working devotedly for peace…

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    So — since we’re talking big data and jihad, here’s a tiny snippet of jihad-related skew from Google, one of the giants of big data…

    I came across it via SelfScholar, who posted a very interesting response re the Iranian nuclear fatwa issue here a few days ago, in a post titled Google Translate’s Khomeini Problem.

    It appears that Google Translate has a distinctly unsecular view when it comes to major figures in Shi’ite theology — specifically, it adds religious honorifics to their names when translating from English into Farsi. As you might imagine, I wanted to know how they dealt with the Mahdi — and behold, my prayer was answered:

    So Google awaits his blessed return?

    It seems pretty clear that SelfScholar would be skeptical about that. He ends his blog post, in fact, with an indication that he neither awaits nor expects it — choosing for his final example “to highlight the inanity of it all, just one for the road…”:

    **

    Prof. Dr. Muhammad-Reza Fakhr-Rohani has an interesting piece titled Rendering Islamic Politeness Markers into English, which he concludes thus:

    There remain some Desiderata to be dealt with. First, the Arabic pre-nominal honorifics as well as post-nominal honorific-cum-optative sentences must be re-translated with a view to remove the items which make the language sound odd, and perhaps ungrammatical. Secondly, appropriate abbreviations must be devised for them. Finally, they must find their ways into English dictionaries, hence registered as part of the language.

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    Jottings 2: Dr Fadl book announcement

    Friday, May 3rd, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — I got the announcement via Cole Bunzel, and Kévin Jackson kindly informed me that Dr Fadl is currently free ]

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    Dr Fadl‘s announcement, in Arabic, is here — I had to use Google Translate, which wouldn’t pass a Turing test. However…

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    A while back, I made a post here titled Will Dr Fadl retract his Retractions? in which I wrote:

    Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, popularly known as Dr Fadl, wrote two of the key works of jihadist ideology, The Essential Guide for Preparation and the thousand-page Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge, in the late 1980s — thereby providing his friend from student days, Ayman al-Zawahiri, with powerful scholarly backing for the doctrines of militant jihad and takfirism. Lawrence Wright refers to Fadl as an “Al-Qaeda mastermind” in a detailed 2008 New Yorker analysis.

    Dr Fadl was imprisoned without trial in the Yemen shortly after 9/11, but it was after he had been transferred to an Egyptian prison in 2004 that he wrote Rationalizing Jihad, the first volume of his “retractions” — a work so powerful in its attack on his own earlier jihadist doctrine that al-Zawahiri felt obliged to respond with a two-hundred page letter of rebuttal. A second volume from Dr. Fadl followed more recently.

    If Dr Fadl regains his liberty, the question arises whether he will claim his critiques of jihadist dictrine were obtained by force, and effectively retract his retractions – or whether he will stand by them, as I somehow expect he might — still declaring, this time as a free man, that “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property,” and “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders. They are the neighbors of the Muslims … and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.”

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    As late as October 2012, I was noting an Atlantic piece by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Aaron Zelin on How the Arab Spring’s Prisoner Releases Have Helped the Jihadi Cause, and asking whether Dr Fadl had been released in my post Quick update / pointer: GR & AZ on prisoner release — but now we know.

    In response to an inquiry I tweeted after seeing Bunzel‘s tweet above — asking whether Dr Fadl was still imprisoned, albeit more comfortably than most — Kévin Jackson replied:

    I’m no Arabist, but I’d guess we can take it that Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif aka Dr Fadl is talking freely in this book, which he says will cover both his experience of the history of AQ “from the womb (the Afghan jihad against communism) … to the end” in detail, with dates and names, and “all this with the background of the study of Islamic jurisprudence that distinguish between right and wrong, and this is a jurisprudential historical book.”

    **

    Tricky that, the need to rely on Google Translate. Once again I regret my lack of umpteen languages.

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    Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns

    Monday, March 25th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — if we omit all mention of the Qur’an, will the jihad perhaps disappear, you think? ]
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    On Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, just before the 2004 US Presidential Election, a videotaped speech by Osama bin Laden was released online and variously reported:
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    Being a theologian at heart, I’ve formatted these versions in the style used in comparisons of the Synoptic Gospels, to give you an immediate sense of the differences I’ll be discussing…

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    Just how important was this particular speech by bin Laden?

    It was important to bin Laden himself, as it was his first statement after his invitation to the US to convert to Islam. As I have noted before — quoting Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? — bin Laden had been criticized for failing to issue such an invitation:

    After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

    MEMRI picks up the story here:

    The Islamist website Al-Islah explains: “Some people ask ‘what’s new in this tape?’ [The answer is that] this tape is the second of its kind, after the previous tape of the Sheikh [Osama bin Laden], in which he offered a truce to the Europeans a few months ago, and it is a completion of this move, and it brings together the complementary elements of politics and religion, political savvy and force, the sword and justice. The Sheikh reminds the West in this tape of the great Islamic civilization and pure Islamic religion, and of Islamic justice…”

    This video is also a significant “first” for bin Laden. In Raymond Ibrahim‘s words in his The Al Qaeda Reader:

    This message also marks the first time bin Laden publicly acknowledged his role in the 9/11 strikes; previously he had insisted that he was merely an “inciter” and that it was the Muslim umma in general who had retaliated in defense of their faith.

    It was important to the US because of the election four days later. The following exchange occurred on NBCNews’ Meet the Press, Jan 30th, 2005:

    MR. RUSSERT: At the Clinton Library dedication on November 18, a few weeks after the election, you were quoted as saying, “It was the Osama bin Laden tape. It scared the voters,” the tape that appeared just a day before the election here. Do you believe that tape is the reason you lost the race?

    SEN. KERRY: I believe that 9/11 was the central deciding issue in this race. And the tape–we were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared. We flat-lined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday. I think it had an impact

    The speech was important, in sum, both to bin Laden himself and to the US electorate: it deserves a close reading.

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    Sadly, however…

    Posted, translated transcripts of Al Qaida and other jihadist materials often leave out the salutation and envoi (or other choice bits such as quotes from the Qur’an or Hadith) because they’re too religious or perhaps too Muslim — but when these same pieces of the puzzle are added back into the text, the whole document may cohere to a degree that is otherwise unapparent.

    We tend not to “get” religious language. What do Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon tell us in their book The Age of Sacred Terror?

    So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

    Our prejudice against alien religious sentiment, or the assumption that it is ritualistic and hence irrelevant, or even worse, “babble” — the term FBI agents used to describe David Koresh‘s religious interpretation of events during the Waco siege — can blindside us to its very real discursive and exegetical power.

    That’s the reason I’m offering you this post — years later — as a counter-example of the power of “Sembl thinking” — essentially, the power of pattern recognition as a key to understanding.

    **

    I read three versions of bin Laden’s videotaped speech of Oct. 29, 2004 at the time: those provided by CNN, MEMRI, and Al Jazeera — one “western secular” source, one with some degree of Israeli association, and one with roots in the Arabic cultures.

    CNN cited al-Jazeera as having aired the video, and posted “a transcript of his remarks as translated by CNN senior editor for Arab affairs Octavia Nasr” which, as you can see above or at the link, began, “You, the American people, I talk to you today… “ MEMRI offered The Full Version of Osama bin Laden’s Speech followed by a transcript which began, “O American people, I address these words to you…” And Al Jazeera posted “the full English transcript of Usama bin Ladin’s speech in a videotape sent to Aljazeera” and noted, “In the interests of authenticity, the content of the transcript, which appeared as subtitles at the foot of the screen, has been left unedited” – above a transcript that began:

    Praise be to Allah who created the creation for his worship and commanded them to be just and permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind. To proceed: Peace be upon he who follows the guidance: People of America this talk of mine is for you…

    That in itself is interesting — Al-Jazeera has two sentences with religious significance, one of them saying that God “permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind” — with no mention of them in the MEMRI and CNN accounts.

    **

    As I read the Al Jazeera version, which seemed to me to be the one most likely to be accurate to bin Laden’s meaning, I came across the phrase:

    We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.

    There were several other parts of the speech which seemed to make (rhetorical) use of symmetry. There were the comments about “punishing the oppressor in kind” by destroying towers in the US, since towers in the Lebanon had been destroyed (which seems a pretty literal-minded reading of “in like manner”):

    And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

    There was a passage pointing up analogies between the Bush dynastic presidencies and similar dynastic rulerships in “our countries”:

    … we have found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents. Our experience with them in lengthy and both types are replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and a misappropriation of wealth.

    And there was the comment translated in the CNN version:

    Your security is not in the hands of [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.

    Each of these excerpts is couched in an analogical, symmetrical format, but it was the first one that really rang a bell for me — that phrase “just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours” reminded me very strongly of one verse from the Qur’an, which contains the phrase, “And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” — the whole verse, Qur’an 2.194, has also been translated thus:

    For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

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    Okay, I’d read three versions of bin Laden’s text, and made a mental leap to a Quranic verse — and then I finally ran across ABC’s transcript, which opens with the very verse from the Quran my mind had leaped to.

    Here’s where you can find the entire text, which ABC describes as “an unedited government translation of the Osama bin Laden videotape” – presumably from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (then the FBIS, now the Open Source Center). It is certainly the most complete version I’ve seen:

    Full Transcript of Bin Laden Video: ABC News Obtains Complete Text of Bin Laden’s Oct. 29 Video.

    I don’t know for sure whether bin Laden used that verse himself (although I’d bet on it), or whether it was “framing matter” added by in the studio by Al-Jazeera (I very much doubt it) — either way, it confirmed my association, and reading the whole speech as a sermonette on that scriptural text gives it, in my view, notable added coherence.

    **

    Here’s what I wrote after I read the ABC transcript:

    I’m particularly interested to note that bin Laden “opens” with the Qur’anic verse which says “for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves” [Baqara 194].

    That’s the central statement of the Islamic view of symmetrical morality in warfare, and prior to reading your full text, I thought I’d detected echoes of it in the OBL text in question — my own analytic process leans heavily on analogy and symmetry — and specifically in the passages I’ve quoted above…

    The analogical, symmetrical format is present in each of these excerpts, and indicates how deeply the Qur’anic process runs in bin Laden, even here in a speech which attempts to present that very Qur’anic insight in secular terms to a western audience — explaining the first of the four excerpts above, for instance, with these following words:

    No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure whereas thinking people when disaster strikes make it their priority to look for its causes in order to prevent it happening again.

    and saying again, towards the end of the speech:

    you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.

    We do indeed recall that phrase: in its complete form, as given in Isaac Newton‘s memorable Third Law of Motion:

    For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    **

    For what it’s worth, the Qur’anic verse in question is not present in either Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader, nor in Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama bin Laden. Ibrahim opens his version with the words, “Praise be to Allah, who created the worlds for his worship…” and Lawrence with, “Peace be upon those who are rightly guided. People of America…”

    But no mention of Qur’an 2.194. It has just vanished. Gone. It has been ignored.

    Isn’t that pretty much the definition of ignorance?

    Words fail me.

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