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Bin Laden and his quest for slaves

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune
Published January 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Is Osama bin Laden, on top of his other sins, a racial bigot?

That question crossed my mind as I was reading a translation of the amateur video of bin Laden that was made in November in Kandahar and released by the Bush administration.

At one point, according to translators for the Bush administration and the Washington Post, bin Laden praises the two young Saudi brothers involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks like this:

"Killing oneself for the sake of God was better than the books and pamphlets. They [the brothers] made the whole world listen to them whether Arab or non-Arab or slaves [using a derogatory term for blacks] or Chinese. Better than millions of books, tapes or booklets."

The possibility that bin Laden refers to blacks with a derogatory word for slaves caught my eye, since he has long been suspected of supporting and even participating in the slave trafficking that still goes on in the Middle East, despite the efforts of modernists to wipe it out.

In 1999, a report in the London Sunday Telegraph accused him of paying Ugandan rebels in rifles for every African child they supplied to work in the marijuana fields that fund Al Qaeda.

The child of a wealthy Saudi construction family, bin Laden also is known to have lived in Sudan for several years, building roads and other infrastructure and ingratiating himself with Sudan's Taliban-like leaders.

For years, American human-rights organizations have protested the trafficking of black Christians and other non-Muslims captured by government troops in the southern Sudan during that country's long civil war.

"If he was in Sudan for five years, he [bin Laden] learned slurs like `abid' well because that's the word Sudanese elites tend to use for all blacks," said Charles Jacobs, head of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, which has made numerous abolitionist trips to Sudan.

Indeed, other experts told me that "abid" or "abd" (Arabic spellings do not translate uniformly to the English alphabet) is about as offensive as you can be in some contexts, depending on how it is used.

But George Michael, of Diplomatic Language Services, an Egyptian who helped translate the tape for the Bush administration, said the word he heard was not "abid" but "zingi" or "zinge," which he views as more offensives than "abd."

"Bin Laden is well-educated," said Michael, who practiced pharmacy in Saudi Arabia. "A well-educated person would not use that word in public."

This touched off a dispute among other experts I contacted.

Walid Phares, a Florida Atlantic University professor of Middle East studies, said he distinctly heard the word "abid" on the videotape, although he conceded that the government's playback machines undoubtedly were more clear than his.

Nevertheless, he thought the word "abid" was much worse than "zingi," a word that generally refers to sub-Saharan Africans, slave or free.

But Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Saudi Institute, in McLean, Va., listened to the tapes for many hours at the request of CBS News and concluded bin Laden said "ajam," which refers to any non-Arab, and that Michael and other translators might have confused the sound of it with "abid" in bin Laden's distinctive Saudi accent and dialect.

Well, so what, right?

When compared to his connections to mass murders, the possibility that bin Laden might be a bigot, too, seems like small potatoes.

Still, my little linguistic adventure illustrated the vastness of the division between modernists and traditionalists in the Arab and Islamic worlds--and the radical backwardness of the militant Islamist movement led by the likes of bin Laden.

In his world, God-Allah gives rights only to those who subscribe to the same narrow Wahabism sect that grounds Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Everyone else is inferior, even if they believe fully in Islam's other tenets.

In his rhetorical shorthand, President Bush writes off bin Laden and his gang as simply "evil," which they are. There also is a dangerous ideology behind the evil. It is not the religion of Islam, but a perverse politically radical offshoot of it that is becoming known popularly as Islamism. It is a specific set of radical utopian ideas that are as dangerous to moderates in the Arab and Islamic world as they are to everyone else.

It's not always easy to figure out what bin Laden and his gang are talking about, but one message rings clear. If they had their way, they'd make slaves of all of us, not just Africans.

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Bin Laden and his quest for slaves

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