Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2001 / 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Sound familiar? -- THERE was something eerily familiar, almost down-home about the latest communiqui/exhortation/stump speech from Osama bin Laden. His rant was strange -- strange as in foreign, exotic, alien -- only on the surface. The themes within struck an all too familiar chord. Listen:

We have long been victimized by outsiders who don't understand or appreciate our culture, and have undermined our values, corrupted our young, exploited our natural resources, disregarded our time-tested social arrangements, dominated our economy and ruined our women.

We have been occupied by an alien, materialistic, decadent invader that has no respect for our ways.

Our rights have been usurped, our virtues mocked, our religion despised by these intruders who have no concept of what we stand for. They neither understand nor respect our traditions. They know only how to meddle in our affairs and blaspheme all we revere.

Our once noble civilization has not only been destroyed, but its history twisted and defamed by an inferior power that understands nothing but material profit -- not the call of the soil, nor how to sacrifice in a holy cause, and certainly not the true faith.

Our enemy is a godless, soul-destroying conspiracy that uses dupes and opportunists, the corrupt and bought, to oppress us.

And now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Change a word here or there to reflect the difference in time and place, language and culture, and here was a form of oratory quite common when I was growing up.

Softer versions of this rhetoric might come from distinguished senators named Fulbright or Eastland. But the 120-proof brand could still be obtained from the kind of demented Southern seg who would happily blow up a church and maybe himself with it. To no clear purpose except to take revenge on the damnyankees, on the outside agitators and high-collar Nigras they'd stirred up, or just on the way that life had treated him and his'n in general. He had no clear program except Pure Dee meanness -- mixed with a will-to-power. And a yen to rev up a crowd just to hear 'em roar.

My nomination for the oration closest in spirit to one of Osama bin Laden's pre-recorded hissy fits was delivered in a mosquito-infested cotton field at a Klan rally outside Pine Bluff, Ark., circa 1969.

I remember the boy was only a few years old; he was sitting on the hood of the station wagon. It was his first Klan rally and, far as I know, his last. The speaker wore a hood instead of a turban, and a different kind of sheet, but the essence of his appeal was the same: Once there had been a golden age and it had been destroyed by an insidious conspiracy.

Not that the speaker that torrid night could bring back that mythic past, or even wanted to. He wanted only to destroy the present. Faulkner had his sort tagged: "These people would fight another civil war, knowing they would lose.''

It isn't the winning or losing that interests them. Then they might have to react to it, and maybe actually do something that made sense, like going on with life. No, they're interested only in the fighting, the destruction, the violence. That's what they live for: Death. Even if it goes by some other name, like Crusade or Jihad.

Strangely enough, for all the superficial differences of time and place, language and costume, the chorus and scapegoat of the speech hasn't changed at all: It's all the fault of the Jews! the Jews! the Jews! Old Osama and that hooded Kluxer in front of a burning Cross would understand each other perfectly.

Even stranger, both species spring from a complex culture whose greatness has been obscured by long-ago defeat, until today both the South and Arabdom exist largely in caricature. The hospitality, the gallantry, the chivalry each once represented has been twisted into its opposite by its demagogues and haters.

Bernard Lewis, one of the West's great students of the Arab world, has commented on this freakish inversion of values: "There is something in the religious character of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive rage and hatred.''

Sound familiar? One need not tell a Southerner about the temptation to nurse old wounds and take refuge in a self-defeating fanaticism. Defeat doesn't always improve the character. It can embitter, and that bitterness can be passed on from generation to generation like a precious heirloom.

This latest Mahdi out of Arabia Deserta is named Osama bin Laden, but in another time it could have been the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem or Gamal Abdel Nasser. He is but another false messiah who seeks to turn despair into rage, and in the end will only perpetuate the defeat he seeks to revenge. It is the rare leader in the Muslim World who can both learn from the West and revive the greatness of his own people. That combination of reformer and restorer hasn't been seen since Turkey's Kemal Ataturk.

Instead of a generation of Young Turks -- even the phrase has become a byword among the nations -- the Islamic world has been cursed by Saddam Husseins and outfits like the Taliban, and by moderates so moderate they're afraid to stand up to the most destructive forces in their civilization. They're much like the kind of Southerners who wanted to do the decent thing back in the bad old days but didn't dare speak out.

The glory that was once Arabdom waits to be revived, but not by assassins and terrorists. That way lie only more defeats. The chivalry that was Saladin's has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden's war on the innocent. Any more than some Birmingham bomber was defending the legacy of Robert E. Lee.

A code that gave birth to a great civilization, that stresses hospitality to the wayfarer and personal honor, has been turned inside out by these killers who claim to be its defenders. They do not defend their creed but pervert it. Southerners know all about that.

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