Published on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 by the Toronto Star
A War of Ugly Images
In our era, TV has become the global pulpit, a place to fight a holy war, using beheadings and prisoner abuses as props
by Jere Van Dyk
The beheadings go on, the bombs continue to go off in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. soldiers fight battles in both countries, children are murdered in Beslen, all seen on television around the world.
Ayman al Zawahiri, supposedly the intellectual head of Al Qaeda, said, in his most recent video seen on Al-Jazeera, "Afghanistan's east and south have now fully become an open arena for the mujahideen ... the Americans and the peacekeeping forces ... expect the martyrdom operations at any time, with God's help." In his most recent audiotape, aired Oct. 1, al Zawahiri said, "You, youth of Islam, this is our message ... don't betray God and his prophet, and don't knowingly betray the trust."
On Sept. 1, Al-Jazeera broadcast a tape by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former guerrilla leader in the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, still fighting today. "Do not accept anything but expelling the occupier and establishing God's law in your country," he told his fellow Afghans.
Both men were addressing their soldiers, giving them courage, and talking to their enemies. They both talked about God, as do those who behead people on camera.
Today, with modern, mostly Christian armies fighting Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on terrorism has become, for many, both Christian and Muslim, a religious war — and this is dangerous.
President George W. Bush, certain in his beliefs, told journalist Bob Woodward that "his own father is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to." He meant God, the Father, in Heaven.
"This above all is a religious war," said Osama bin Laden in 1998. "We will win because we have God," Hekmatyar told me in 1981.
But this war is not being fought just on the ground, where the armies are unequal, but in the media, especially on the airwaves, where the battlefield is equal.
Helicopters and tanks have no power against videotapes and photographs. Abu Ghraib, and acts of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, have hurt the U.S. military more than any guerrilla army.
In May, Mullah Dadullah, a Taliban leader, appeared on Al-Jazeera, the first time a member of the Taliban had gone on television, this godless medium.
During the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, Afghanistan was off-limits to reporters. The Soviet Union did not want the world, especially the Muslim world, to know that it was fighting in Afghanistan.
Afghans followed the war against the infidel invader by listening to the BBC and the Voice of America on small battery-operated radios.
Today, the Taliban and their allies use faxes, computers, satellite telephones, and Arab satellite channels, to fight the invader and his puppet, Hamid Karzai, and to send their message to Afghanistan, their battlefield.
Afghan President Karzai said last spring his government had been negotiating with moderate Taliban leaders. The next day, Hamid Agha, a Taliban spokesman, faxed a reply to Pakistani newspapers contradicting him.
Bin Laden and al Zawahiri, whose audience and battlefield are global, send their battle cries to Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, and are soon rebroadcast around the world.
One recent bin Laden audiotape was made into a CD, and translated into English and German. Saudi Arabia's Minister of the Interior Prince Na'if bin Abdul Aziz, knows Al Qaeda wants to overthrow the government he is charged to protect.
"Those who support terrorists, especially through satellite channels, will be dealt with severely," he said. He knows of what to be afraid.
The Vietnam War was the first war shown on television, and many feel this contributed to the U.S. defeat. The death toll mounts, particularly for Muslims, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Few in the West seem to care how many have died.
"You think we Muslims come from the moon," an aide to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to me in Ankara last year.
There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, most of whom are poor, who pray daily for healthy children, for enough to eat and to go to Heaven when they die.
They are not at war with the West, but against poverty and despair. The warriors among them have weapons, and are filled with energy.
But millions more have access now to television, whether it is in a roadside tea house in Afghanistan, a café in Iraq, or in a village in Pakistan. They see fellow Muslims being killed and watch the videos of those who say they are on their side.
Islamists, like most people, were repulsed by the pictures from Abu Ghraib, but were pleased with the victory handed to them.
Just as the videos of Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, and others now, these attempts to show Muslim power and instill fear, have angered and frightened the West.
Yet television, this Western creation, like the airplane, and the video camera, provides information and in a way, sustenance, to untold millions, who feel they are under attack, like the radio in Afghanistan 20 years ago.
An Arab professor at the U.S. Army War College told me recently that if bin Laden were to run for president of the Middle East he would win in a landslide. Another Arab professor said "We may not see a secular Middle East. A Muslim Reformation may be coming. Former Marxists in Cairo have become Islamists."
Television has become an international pulpit, a place to do battle, to fight a holy war.
All presidents, whether Democrat or Republican, end their major speeches, broadcast on radio and television, by saying "God bless America," giving assurance to their audience.
In our era, the camera has become more powerful than the sword, faster than a horse; what Catholic priests and Christian circuit riders once rode in the American West, what Muslim warriors once rode as they brought their gospel to Asia centuries ago, all of them spreading what they felt was God's word.
Jere Van Dyk is the author of In Afghanistan. He covered the Afghan-Soviet war for The New York Times in the early 1980s. He currently is a consultant to CBS News.
© 2004 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.