Osama bin Laden, Bard of Terror

PRINCETON – In Riyadh last March, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decorated American Vice President Dick Cheney with the Kingdom’s Order of Merit. This gesture elicited hundreds of Internet postings from Arabs condemning the award as treachery and lamenting the pitiful state of leadership in the Arab world. To cite only one comment, addressed to the King: “Shame on you for claiming to be Custodian of the Two Holy Sanctuaries” in Mecca and Medina.

At the same time, Osama bin Laden released two audio statements condemning Western and Israeli attacks on Muslims and reiterating the need for violent warfare to liberate occupied Muslim territories from the infidels.

In terms of media strategy, the contrast between the leaders of the Arab countries and bin Laden could not be starker. On the one hand, Arab kings and presidents lack charisma, seem politically impotent and are rarely, if ever, on message with respect to the “big issue” concerns of the peoples of the Middle East.

Bin Laden, however, is mesmerizing, framing the perceived frustrations of many Arabs in his use of classical Arabic, including the recitation of medieval-style poetry. He deliberately projects an image of himself as a leader who speaks truthfully, conveying a muscular ideology that articulates the sense of humiliation that Muslims feel today and offers a plan of action to remedy the situation.