Friday, September 7, 2007

No Time for Simplistic Interpretation

The good news about the Associated Press report of that latest video of Osama bin Laden it that it has a named author, Lee Keath, as well as a Cairo byline. That means that, were Associated Press to empower us to do so (which they do not, which is the biggest piece of bad news), we could question Keath about how much of that article is a matter of interpretation and how much of that interpretation is warranted. That includes the wording of the headline (which, as I know from personal experience, the author does not always write). This particularly critical, not just because Yahoo! News gives it the largest font but also, more importantly, because many newspapers appropriate the wording of the headline along with the content of the story itself.

For those who have not seen it, the headline is perfect for fueling that culture of fear that has been cultivated in our country in the name of "Homeland Security." The text is as blunt as it is threatening:

Bin Laden urges Americans to convert

As is often the case, we need to proceed several inches below the fold (so to speak) before we have any exposure to the author's source material:

Bin Laden makes no overt threats and does not directly call for attacks, according to the transcript, which was first posted by ABC News on its Web site.

Instead, he addresses Americans, lecturing them on the failures of their leaders to stop the war in Iraq despite growing public opposition in the U.S.

"There are two solutions to stopping it. One is from our side, and it is to escalate the fighting and killing against you. This is our duty, and our brothers are carrying it out," bin Laden said.

"The second solution is from your side. I invite you to embrace Islam," he said.

One result of that, bin Laden said, would be an end to the Iraq war. He said "warmongering owners of the major corporations" would rush to appease voters who showed they are looking for an alternative, "and this alternative is Islam."

The first thing that this tells us is that Keath is relying on a translated transcript, taking it for granted that, if ABC News posted it, it must be valid. Well, at the very least, that Web site tells us a bit more about the source:

ABC News' Jonathan Karl, Pierre Thomas, Luis Martinez and Theresa Cook Report: ABC News has obtained a transcript of the latest taped message from the United States' most wanted terrorist, and a senior U.S. intelligence official has confirmed to ABC News that "initial technical analysis suggests the voice on the tape is indeed Osama Bin Laden."

According to the transcript, which can be viewed by clicking here, bin Laden opens with "praise to Allah" and his "law of retaliation" -- "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and the killer is killed."

This is where things begin to get interesting. The hyperlink is, indeed, a valid one; but two points need to be made about it.

  1. It is strictly an image whose resolution was too low for me to process with my Acrobat OCR tool.
  2. The first page is "Page 2." Presumably any information about who provided the translation was on Page 1. So we seem to have more information about the validity of the video than we have about the accuracy of the translation!

In spite of these difficulties, there is still a major problem with Keath's account, particularly where that "second solution" is involved. This much is true: The sentence "The second solution is from your side." can be found in the transcript with little difficulty. Unfortunately, it is not followed by a sentence that has anything to do with "embracing" Islam or any more explicit reference to religious conversion. It is followed, instead, by a rather different form of provocation:

It has now become clear to you and the entire world the impotence of the democratic system and how it plays with the interests of the people and their blood by sacrificing soldiers and populations to achieve the interests of the major corporation.

This is followed by a paragraph of polemic, directed primarily against the Bush administration that adds little to polemics we have read from any number of other sources, emphasizing points such as the refusal to observe the Kyoto accord. The following paragraph then elaborates that Blair, Sarkozy, and Brown deserve the accusations of the preceding paragraph as much as Bush does; and this brings us to the first hint of any religious interest on bin Laden's part: "as you liberated yourself before from the slavery of monks, kings, and feudalism, you should liberate yourselves from the deception, shackles and attrition of the capitalist system." The polemic, now focused on capitalism, goes on for two more paragraphs before proposing an alternative path:

So it is imperative that you free yourselves from all of that and search for an alternative, upright methodology in which it is not the business of any class of humanity to lay down its own laws to its own advantage at the expense of the other classes as is the case with you, since the essence of man-made positive laws is that they serve the interests of those with the capital and thus make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

The infallible methodology is the methodology of Allah, the Most High, who created the heavens and earth and created the Creation and is the Most Kind and All-Informed and the Knower of the souls of His slaves and the methodology that best suits them.

We then get ten paragraphs that extol the methodology and lead up to the punch line:

Don't be turned away from Islam by the terrible situation of the Muslims today, for our rulers in general abandoned Islam many decades ago, but our forefathers were the leaders and pioneers of the world for many centuries, when they held firmly to Islam.

Note that the sentence "I invite you to embrace Islam." never appears in this text; it only appears on the final page of the transcript and the beginning of the concluding remarks. However, even at this point there is no explicit suggestion of the concept of conversion, meaning that it is not particularly clear what the text means by "embrace." Nevertheless, the fact that the earlier text makes a point of the extent to which the Jews of Spain fared far better under Muslim rule than they did under the persecution of the Inquisition leads one to assume that this is an embrace of "loving acceptance," rather than a rejection of personal articles of faith.

So does this critical sentence actually have a source; and, if so, where is it? Well, the text I quoted that included the hyperlink to the transcript appeared on the Political Radar blog maintained by ABC News. If you do a text search on that Web page, you discover that the only "hits" on "convert" and its variants appear in the (quite extensive) User Comments section. If this means that Keath was treating those comments with the same authority he was willing to accord to the ABC News sources, then, at the very least, he needs a course in remedial journalism! Beyond that, some investigative journalist may decide that this is an opportunity to determine whether Keath is playing a role at the Associated Press along the same lines as the role that we learned Judith Miller was playing at The New York Times!

Hopefully, it goes without saying that this analysis does not, in any way, support the points that the transcript has bin Laden making. When this man goes on a rant, he gets things muddled, just like any other ranter. The confused confluence of democracy and capitalism is the one example most evident the excerpts I provided. Also, while my own cultural frame attaches great significance to the tolerance that Islam-ruled Spain showed to the Jews, there is nothing in this transcript that led me to believe that bin Laden would "embrace" (to use the word of the hour) a similar spirit of tolerance. Nevertheless, we now live in a culture in which anything that claims to be news may actually be manipulative propaganda. So, when it turns out that an Associated Press release is grounded in serious misinterpretation (not to mention that the release appeared so close to the presentation of the Petraeus report), then, in the interest of keeping readers properly informed, that misinterpretation should be brought into the light.

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