Duke professor speaks on bin Laden, "the man behind the myth

By Hattie Stahl

Duke University professor Bruce Lawrence gave a lecture Thursday, Sept. 27, titled
“Lessons from Osama bin Laden.” Lawrence, one of the nation’s leading experts on contemporary Islam, was brought to Macalester through the annual Arnold Lowe Lectureship in Religious Studies. Religious Studies professor Jim Laine introduced Lawrence to an audience of more than 100 in Kagin Ballroom. The lecture was free and open to the public.

Referring to bin Laden as OBL, Lawrence opened by noting President Bush’s commitment to pursuing bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members.

“Who is this man who President Bush longs to catch and whom others declare has already faded into the realm of myth?” Lawrence asked as he began his lecture.

“Alive or dead, OBL for many has become a lone stone for future prosperity, but no longer an active agent for terror in our lifetime.”

Lawrence, who has published several books, including Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence and Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, then touched on bin Laden’s childhood and early career.

“From his birth into a wealthy Yemeni-Saudi family to his mediocre career as an engineering student to his early adventures with Muslim radicals, OBL was not exceptional,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence also explored how the myth emerged surrounding bin Laden’s life, and how the media has influenced how we think of him.

“No one ever imagined that he could mount such an attack as 9/11,” Lawrence said.

“But even after 9/11. there was a chorus of Muslims back in 2001 who did not approve of the attack and spoke against it.”

But after the American military strikes against Afghanistan and Iraq, Lawrence said, bin Laden became seen as a symbol against American hegemony. He then morphed into an iconic figure, appearing frequently in the media.

“But the more that is written about him, it seems, the less he is understood,” Lawrence added.

Lawrence questioned whether the labels “terrorist” and fundamentalist” really bring more than a “string of qualifiers” that create an image but do not really tell us much at all.

“He is, after all, a Qur’an-quoting, gun-toting lawyer, who defends a violated, sacred domain, one he constantly refers to as the super-nation of Islam,” Lawrence said.

“In my view, and I’ve thought about this subject a lot in the last few years, one label and only one label in my view seems to take the measure of the man and to offer some insight into his public persona, as well as his enduring appeal,” Lawrence said. “In my view, bin Laden is best understood as a polemicist. Indeed OBL is a dogged, razor-rights polemicist who advocates an anti-imperial ideology.”

Lawrence concluded by offering a prediction for the future. “Whatever the shortfalls of bin Laden,” he said, “he’s not going to paint himself in the same corner as did Saddam Hussein.”

“President Bush or whoever succeeds him may not catch bin Laden, but the emergence of a greater Muslim world will out-distance bin Laden’s distopia and hopefully replace his nightmare with a real sign of Islam as peace, and also as hospitality and generosity.