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Why Osama bin Laden is taking TikTok by storm

Western wokesters and Islamist terrorists have more in common than you might think.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Editor

Topics Politics World

Harry Styles, Greta Thunberg, Osama bin Laden. The pin-ups of Generation Z might mystify us. But it’s important we pay attention to them – certainly to the latter, most recent entry into this rogues’ gallery.

Over the past week, the late al-Qaeda leader has been causing a stir on TikTok. Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America’ – an anti-Western, anti-Semitic screed, penned a year after 9/11 to ‘justify’ al-Qaeda’s slaughter of innocent New Yorkers and its holy war against the West – has been blowing influencers’ minds.

A bunch of videos cropped up on TikTok last week, in which credulous wokesters urged their followers to check out bin Laden’s 22-year-old manifesto:

‘If you have read it, let me know if you are also going through an existential crisis in this very moment, because in the last 20 minutes, my entire viewpoint on the entire life I have believed, and I have lived, has changed’, said one. ‘We’ve been lied to our entire lives’, said another, scrolling through the document.

According to the Washington Post, TikTok videos with the hashtag #LetterToAmerica had been viewed around two million times as of Wednesday night. Posts on the topic exploded after journalists drew attention to this disturbing little trend.

TikTok has since cracked down on the posts. And the Guardian has removed its 2002 translation of bin Laden’s letter – the version most TikTokers were linking to – over fears it was being read ‘without the full context’.

Inevitably, the Streisand Effect – the notion that attempts to suppress information almost always backfire, attracting much more attention than if you’d just left things be – has ensured the letter has made even more of a splash online than it otherwise would have.

Indeed, all this offers a sage lesson about how censoring speech – including genuinely hateful, terroristic speech – can often lend it a glamour it really doesn’t deserve. It can even turn the rantings of a long-dead mass-murderer into a kind of intellectual forbidden fruit.

But nor should we be relaxed that a non-trivial number of young Westerners apparently see some wisdom in bin Laden’s propaganda. The liberal outlets currently saying that a few million TikTok views for bin Laden is probably nothing to worry about are completely missing the point.

Of course, pro-jihadist sentiment is hardly mainstream among Western youngsters. The more subtle but no less disturbing problem is that an awful lot of them have imbibed a worldview that often makes excuses for Islamist terrorism – that tends to understand it as an almost natural response to the evil, rotten West.

We see this in the polls which show that young Westerners have alarmingly little sympathy for Israel, even after 1,200 Israelis were slain during Hamas’s 7 October pogrom. This is because Israel has been simplistically, permanently cast in their minds as the ‘white’, ‘colonialist’, Western-backed ‘oppressor’.

This is where Osama comes in. While it’s unclear what some of these TikTok influencers got out of his ‘Letter to America’ – most were wise enough not to be too specific – its anti-Western, anti-Israel jihadist worldview certainly chimes with the anti-Western, anti-Israel woke worldview in which young people are now marinated.

The letter posits American support for Israel as almost its original sin. ‘The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals’, the letter reads. Some of it is straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, replete with vile, racist conspiracy theories:

‘[T]he Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life, making you their servants and achieving their aims at your expense…’

Here we see a more explicit version of the anti-Semitism which now haunts the fringes of Western left politics, where a conspiratorial conception of capitalism, combined with a monomaniacal hatred of Israel, has led to the rehabilitation of age-old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews manipulating world affairs to their benefit.

With America (and its ‘puppeteer’, Israel) cast firmly as the oppressor, bin Laden’s letter goes on to present Muslims as perennial victims. The US’s support for Israel is one among many ‘oppression[s] and aggression[s] against us’, it argues. ‘Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her to live in security and peace?!’

In this, bin Laden was vigorously agreeing with various Western leftists who, after 9/11, reflexively blamed American foreign policy for the attacks on the World Trade Center. The bodies were barely cold when the Guardian’s Seumas Milne – who would go on to be Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand man – said, ‘Americans are once again reaping a dragons’ teeth harvest they themselves sowed’.

This ‘blowback’ theory of Islamist terrorism is not only simplistic, it is profoundly racist, too – casting Muslims as the wayward teens of world affairs, driven to acts of apocalyptic barbarism by the machinations of the West. But it has long been the stuff of jihadi videos and leftist apologias for terror.

Thus, among a morally unmoored left, Islamist terrorism was transformed into a form of inchoate, anti-imperialist rebellion. As veteran leftist Tariq Ali put it in his 2002 book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, 9/11, while horrible and everything, reflected a ‘universal truth that… slaves and peasants do not always obey their masters’.

As spiked’s Mick Hume noted in the New Statesman at the time, the posh, Western-educated Saudis responsible for 9/11 were hardly the oppressed peasants of the American empire – and the firefighters and office workers they killed in cold blood were hardly ‘their masters’. But a version of Ali’s boneheaded take has permeated the left ever since.

Indeed, such warped analyses set the stage for the grotesque responses to 7 October – in which leftists, tweeting from the safety of their Hackney flats or Brooklyn lofts, celebrated Hamas’s pogrom in southern Israel as a blow against the ‘colonisers’ and a ‘day of celebration’. Racially motivated rape and slaughter was reflexively presented as a noble act of ‘decolonisation’.

Bin Laden and his fellow al-Qaeda propagandists may have talked of jihad, god and paradise. They may have presented themselves as an Eastern, AK-47-wielding challenge to Western hegemony. But they were also well-versed in the anti-Western, self-loathing ideologies that were then curdling within Western thought itself.

You could see this in their exploitation of identity politics, in their evocation of Muslims as a global victim class and in their cynical co-option of the language of anti-racism. In ‘Letter to America’, bin Laden even accused the US of supporting democracy for the ‘white race only’.

He was also bizarrely preoccupied with climate change, slamming American capitalism for ‘destroy[ing] nature’ and chiding George W Bush for refusing to sign the UN-backed ‘Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries’.

This is not to say that bin Laden was a paid-up wokester – or that his new fans on TikTok are just a few more videos away from jihad. But there is clearly a sinister, parasitic relationship that has developed between the woke left and Islamist extremism.

The differences between these ideologies are obvious. Most Western wokists are only really a threat to a vegan buffet. Bin Laden was also hardly an LGBTQ ‘ally’, as his homophobic tirades in ‘Letter to America’ make clear. What’s more, his theocratic absolutism, calling on Americans to discard ‘all the opinions, orders, theories and religions which contradict’ Islam, stands in stark contrast with an increasingly relativistic Western left.

But the two undoubtedly draw deep from the same anti-Westernism – from the conviction that the West is fundamentally wicked, corrupt and imperialistic; that it deserves to be hated, and even deserves to be attacked, whether that’s in lower Manhattan or southern Israel.

This is the water that many of the West’s over-educated youth now swim in – steeped, as they are, in the culture of the woke left. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the rantings of Osama bin Laden strike some of them as a revelation.

Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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