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.

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.)

Advertisement

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."

In four of the seven countries, more Muslims favored segregation of men and women than favored U.S.-led anti-terror efforts. In five of the seven countries, more Muslims favored stoning of adulterers than favored the U.S. anti-terror fight. In three countries, more Muslims favored sexual segregation than said violent targeting of civilians was never justified. In four countries, more Muslims endorsed stoning of adulterers than said civilians should never be targeted. (Pew has released data from the survey in three reports. For the data I've cited here, including previously unpublished crosstabs, see the graph at the bottom of this page.)

The Pew survey also asked respondents whether they had confidence in Bin Laden "to do the right thing regarding world affairs." In five countries—Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan—the subsample of Muslims who said they had "some" or "a lot of" confidence in Bin Laden was big enough to analyze. Among these sympathizers, stoning of adulterers was more popular in all five countries than was opposition to the deliberate targeting of civilians. And in four of the five countries, support for sexual segregation similarly outpolled opposition to violence against civilians.

This is why the leaks about Bin Laden's "porn stash" are more than a joke. His sympathizers and potential followers are, by several measures, more categorically averse to pornography, adultery, and the mixing of men and women than they are to suicide bombing of civilian targets. If you want to sour these people on Bin Laden and his movement, calling him a terrorist won't cut it. You're better off portraying him as a hypocritical porn hound who lived in a million-dollar mansion, touched himself up for videos, and hid behind women when martyrdom called.

The porn story, like the human shields and the million-dollar mansion, is probably bogus. The 54-year-old zealot with three wives was the least likely guy in the compound to be watching erotic videos. Logically, the story makes no sense. But politically, it's perfect.

Chart of Muslim attitudes
Chart of Muslim attitudes

(Readings I recommend: Asra Q. Nomani at the Daily Beast exposes porn as "the Muslim world's dirty little secret … including among the extremists." Susie Bright at the Huffington Post says a thorough search would find porn in " any dwelling in the world." Razib Khan at Discover's Gene Expression wonders whether "the occasional porn caches found in the possession of Islamic militants" reflect a loss of distinction between sexy outfits and perversion. Scott Shane at the New York Timespoints out that Bin Laden chastised American women for " wearing revealing clothes." Mike Huckabee on Fox News says the porn, SUVs, and Coke at Bin Laden's compound show he's a hypocritical follower of Western culture. Rush Limbaugh wants the National Organization for Women to join him in decrying Bin Laden's exploitation of women.)

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

Latest Twitter Updates
    Follow William Saletan on Twitter.