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Osama Bin Laden: Terrorist and...Wedding Poet?

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The pending publication of Osama Bin Laden's poetry in the academic journal Language and Communication next month is sparking some debate. While the poems could provide insight into Bin Laden's psyche, many people wonder why the heck you would give the guy another forum.

The poetry is being translated by Professor Flagg Miller who teaches Arabic poetry at the University of California at Davis. Miller is working from recordings discovered at an Al Qaeda compound in Kandahar in 2001 which include Bin Laden reciting his poetry at weddings, ceremonies, and various Al Qaeda recruiting events. The FBI spent years translating and screening the poems for hidden messages to Bin Laden's followers. Now that the poems are apparently clear, Miller aims to publish a book about them.

Judging by Miller's descriptions, Bin Laden's poetry is what you'd expect it to be. He paints himself as a sort of warrior poet and aims to incite violent religious fundamentalism by blending religious imagery--much of it taken directly from the Quran--with imagery of war and heroism. Miller calls Bin Laden an "entertainer with an agenda" and describes a typical tactic:

"He told gory tales of dead mujaheddin from the villages where he was speaking, which was often the first time their families had learned of their fates. He mixed this news up with radical theology and his own verse based on the traditions of hamasa - a warlike poetic tradition from Oman calculated to capture the interest of young men."

Elsewhere, he gets to the heart of it:

"The violence and barbarism of war can sicken anybody and poetry is a way to frame that violence in higher ethics."

It's a strong argument, I think, for not publishing the poetry.

According to Miller, Bin Laden actually has some poetical talent. In a recent interview with The Times of London, Miller said: "Bin Laden is a skilled poet with clever rhymes and meters, which was one reason why many people taped him and passed recordings around, like pop songs." Bin Laden may, in fact, have "clever rhymes and meters"--I really don't know--but I'm guessing his poetry's popularity has more to do with his legions of fanatical radical Islamic followers. I doubt listeners were charmed by what Miller calls Bin Laden's "distinctive monotone."

Another Arabic scholar interviewed by The Times, who has read the poems and wished to remain anonymous, disagreed with Bin Laden's ability, saying of the poems:

"They seem adolescent and brutal, like a video--nasty, composed with minimal skill to win over the susceptible mind of the young and bloodthirsty male...Whatever else Bin Laden is, he is now exposed as a disgrace to two millennia of Arabic culture."

Miller's playing up Bin Laden's skill might have something to do with his being in the process of writing--and thus to some degree pitching--a book on the subject. Even if the Bin Laden poems were radical Islam's answer to Walt Whitman, I'd prefer it if his work ended up lost in a government warehouse somewhere. It's currently headed to Yale University to be digitized.

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