Osama Bin Laden's "porn" as propaganda: Is it more damning than his terrorism?

How you look at things.
May 17 2011 8:04 AM

Osama Bin Lustin'

Is Bin Laden's "porn" more damning than his terrorism?

Deep Goat. Click image to expand.

In the two weeks since Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden, U.S. officials have waged a curious campaign to belittle him. First they implied that he had used a woman as a human shield. Then they released videos suggesting that he had dyed his beard to look younger. Then they said they'd found pornography in his compound.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

The smear campaign seems ridiculous. Bin Laden was a mass murderer. Why bother calling him a sissy and a voyeur?

Because it troubles his potential sympathizers, that's why. They're more upset by porn and hiding behind women than by suicide bombing.

In politics, there are lots of arguments you can make against an opponent. The trick is to choose the argument that works best with your target audience. If you're a Democrat, and you're trying to pry conservative voters away from your Republican rival, you don't moan about him cutting programs for the poor. You go after him for evading military service.

The same rule applies to Bin Laden. For years, we denounced him as a purveyor of indiscriminate violence. Everyone in the world has heard this message. Millions have abandoned him. But millions more remain unpersuaded. These residual sympathizers need to hear a different argument. That's where the "porn stash" comes in.

Two years ago, Gallup released a study of public opinion in Western Europe. It reviewed surveys, taken in 2006 and 2007, in which people were asked whether "attacks in which civilians are the target" could be justified. Three percent of French respondents, 1 percent of Germans, and 6 percent of Brits said yes. In Berlin, Muslims hardly differed from their countrymen on this question. But in Paris and London, 11 percent of Muslims indicated that such attacks could be justified. (See Figure 51 of the report.)

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Surveys in 2008 found higher numbers. Six percent of German Muslims, 11 percent of British Muslims, and 17 percent of French Muslims said deliberate attacks on civilians could be justified. (See Figure 50.)

On pornography, the pattern was reversed. In France, 43 percent of the general public said viewing pornography was morally acceptable, but only 16 percent of Muslims agreed. In Germany, 58 percent of the general public, but only 18 percent of Muslims, said it was acceptable. And while 35 percent of Brits said it was acceptable, only 1 percent of British Muslims shared that view. (See Figure 34.)

In sum, if you're looking for an argument in Western Europe that's more likely to appeal to Muslims than to the general population, pornography is a better bet than civilian casualties. And in France and the U.K., you'll find narrower Muslim support for the acceptability of porn than for the justifiability of attacks on civilians. These numbers don't convey the nuances of public opinion, nor do they warrant crude assumptions about individuals based on their faith. But they're pretty grim.

In Africa and Asia, the data on sex and violence are even more disturbing. Last year, the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project surveyed more than 22,000 people worldwide, including 8,000 people in seven predominantly Muslim countries: Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Among other things, respondents were asked whether they favored "U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism" and whether "suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies." They were also asked about laws to mandate "segregation of men and women in the workplace" and "stoning people who commit adultery."