I never thought I would see the day, but Osama bin Laden’s letter to America justifying 9/11, “Why We Are Fighting You,” is massively trending on TikTok and X (otherwise known as Twitter).
While I can’t say that I’ve looked at each and every video praising bin Laden’s letter, the ones I’ve seen have two points in common: 1.) Osama bin Laden was right to attack America on 9/11, and 2.) they seem to have not read the whole letter. Several state that the letter is short—2 pages.
My copy, however, taken from The Al Qaeda Reader, published by Doubleday in 2007, is considerably longer: 12 pages. The letter was originally posted by the Guardian, but has since been taken down.
So let me summarize the three most important points.
First, and this seems to be the part everyone has read, bin Laden hates Israel and the Jews. “The creation of Israel is a crime that must be erased,” and “the Jews [have no] historical right to Palestine” because “the Muslims conquered Palestine and drove out the Romans.” While most of his comments about the Jews focus on Israel, bin Laden also repeats the antisemitic trope that “the Jews have taken control your economy, thereby taking control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life .”
Second, America is an imperialist country that has oppressed other countries, and therefore, “the oppressed have a right to return the aggression.” And nobody in America is innocent. “The American people [chose] their government,” and so, “affirmed their support for the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.” Because “the American people are not innocent of the innumerable crimes committed by the Americans and the Jews against us,” they are all guilty, and therefore, violence against them is justified.
Third, America “exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools.” In addition, America has destroyed the environment “with your industrial waste,” and there is one law for the rich, another for the poor. Finally, America is racist: “the freedom and democracy that you call to is for yourselves and the white race only.”
On the one hand, there are parts of bin Laden’s letter that clearly resonate with other critiques of American culture. For example, in Terrorist (2006), the highly distinguished novelist, John Updike, echoes bin Laden’s dislike for America’s materialism and our obsession with sex and youth. Bin Laden also criticizes America’s environmental destructiveness, and America’s foreign policy, which often blithely ignores the effects of this nation’s actions on others. You will find the same in the opinions section of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
But this letter’s new fans ignore the main thrust of bin Laden’s ambition, which is to impose an Islamic theocracy over the entire world. He calls on America to convert to Islam, to accept sharia law, and to “[discard] all the opinions, orders, theories, and religions that contradict with the religion.” Bin Laden calls on America “to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury.” He also refuses to accept our separation of church and state.
Finally, bin Laden promises that if America does not immediately accede to his demands, then we need to “prepare to fight with the Islamic umma . . . The umma of Martyrdom—the umma that desires death more than you desire life.”
To say the least, it is bizarre to see how a letter from the architect of 9/11, a terrorist attack that killed over 3,000 people, a man who hates gays (I can’t imagine what he would say about trans people), privileges death over life, and wants to impose a religious tyranny similar to Iran, the Taliban, and, briefly, Daesh/Isis, suddenly become so popular.
Certainly, the letter’s resurgence speaks to how illiberal progressives have become. Like bin Laden, many progressives believe that capitalism (bin Laden calls it “usury”) is fundamentally evil. And like bin Laden, many progressives do not believe in free speech or intellectual diversity. Instead, they say that “speech is violence,” and they try to silence speakers they don’t like.
But Israel is so toxic to these people that they don’t care about the less savory parts of bin Laden’s letter. They don’t care that as Americans, bin Laden would happily kill them because they are guilty of America’s evil deeds. They don’t care that bin Laden’s sense of history is insane (Jews are indigenous to the middle east, as are Arabs), or that bin Laden would be, shall we say, less than sympathetic to LGBTQIA2S+ concerns.
The women saying that bin Laden’s letter changed everything for them do not seem to realize that under bin Laden’s ideology, they would be forced to wear a burka and not venture outside without a man accompanying them. A career and independence would be totally out of the question.
All that matters to Osama bin Laden’s new fans is that he hates Israel, considers Israel fundamentally illegitimate, and therefore, anticipating Hamas, believes Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth.
Finally, Osama bin Laden really hates Jews, and progressives are fine with that too.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published books on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and essays in Salon, Newsweek, Inside Higher Ed, and Times of San Diego. His next book will be “Early Modern Others: Resisting Bias in Renaissance Literature” (Routledge).