Bush to bin Laden

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, October 2001

Dear bin Laden: I've listened to the statement you released through Al Jazeera TV. Since I know that no Arab or Muslim leader will dare answer you, I thought I would do it. Let me be blunt: Your statement was pathetic. It's obvious from what you said that you don't have a clue why we're so strong or why the Arab regimes you despise are so weak.

You spoke about the suicide attacks on us as being just revenge for the "80 years of humiliation and disgrace" the Islamic nation has gone through. You referred to the hijackers as a Muslim vanguard sent "to destroy America," the leader of the "international infidels," and you denounced the Arab regimes as "hypocrites" and "hereditary rulers."

What was most revealing, though, was what you didn't say: You offered no vision of the future. This was probably your last will and testament I sure hope so and you could have said anything you wanted to future generations. After all, it was your mike. Yet you had nothing to say. Your only message to the Muslim world was whom to hate, not what to build let alone how.

In part it's because you really don't know much about Islamic history. The Muslim world reached the zenith of its influence in the Middle Ages when it preserved the best of classical Greek and Roman teachings, and inspired breakthroughs in mathematics, science, medicine and philosophy. That is also when Islam was at its most open to the world, when it enriched, and was enriched by, the Christian, Greek and Jewish communities in its midst whom you now disparage as infidels and when it was actively trading with all corners of the world. Your closed, inward, hate-filled version of Islam which treats women as cattle and all non-Muslims as enemies corresponds with no period of greatness for Islam, and will bring none.

It was also revealing that the only Arab state you mentioned was Iraq. Interesting Iraq is led by a fascist dictator, Saddam Hussein, who used poison gas against his own people, who squandered Iraq's oil wealth to build himself palaces and who raped Kuwait. But you are silent about all that. What bothers you is our targeted sanctions to end such a regime not the regime itself.

In other words, you not only don't understand the Muslim past, you don't understand its present. The reason these past 80 years have been so stagnant for the Arab-Muslim world is not because we in America have been trying to keep you down. Actually, we haven't been thinking about you much at all. No, the difference between American power, Chinese power, Latin American power and Arab-Muslim power today is what we've each been doing for these past 80 years. We and others have been trying to answer many questions: How do we best educate our kids? How do we increase our trade? How do we build an industrial base? How do we increase political participation? And we judged our leaders on how well they answered all those questions.

But people like you want Arabs and Muslims to ask only one question of their leaders: How well did you fight the infidels and Israelis? I know that who rules Jerusalem is a deeply important part of your heritage, and every Arab-Muslim leader must address it. But it can't be the only question. Yet, because people like you have reduced it to the only question, and tried to intimidate every Arab who wanted to ask other questions, you have allowed your region to be led by scoundrels, like Saddam.

Yes, you've wreaked some havoc, bin Laden, but don't flatter yourself into thinking you can destroy us. You have to build something strong to destroy something strong. But you can't. Because all the intellectual and creative energies in the Arab-Muslim world which are as bountiful as in any other region can never reach their full potential under repressive regimes like Iraq or leaders like yourself.

Stalin and Mao killed a lot of their own people, but even these thugs had a plan for their societies. You, bin Laden, are nothing but a hijacker a hijacker of Islam, a hijacker of other people's technology, a hijacker of a vast Arab nation's anger at its own regimes. But you have no vision and no plan for your people. Which is why your epitaph will be easy to write:

Osama bin Laden he destroyed much, he built nothing. His lasting impact was like a footprint in the desert.