Like many, I have been reading Nate Silver’s political blog, Five Thirty Eight.com. Although I'll admit I’ve only been reading for a few weeks, I have enjoyed most of Nate’s political/statistical analysis. Last week, however, there was one article that to me not only did not have a place on a statistical analysis site, but also brought down my opinion of the site.
Last Friday, one of Nate Silver’s colleagues from Baseball Prospectus, Rany Jazayerli, wrote an essay on the idea that Osama Bin Laden could eventually play a role in the 2008 US Presidential Election. Jazayerli’s thesis was that a Bin Laden speech or video would give John McCain a boost in the polls and might possible sway enough currently undecided voters to give McCain the presidency in November.
Although it was not a bad article, I was sadly disappointed. First and foremost, Mr. Jazayerli focused the article only Osama Bin Laden, and discussed Al Qaeda like it was a side issue to be dealt with at a later date. Outside of a Bin Laden quote, Mr. Jazayerli only mentions Al Qaeda twice. There is absolutely no question the actions of Al Qaeda as an organization, be they ordered from its base in Pakistan or instigated by a “franchise” organization, would have a much larger impact on an election than a video by Osama Bin Laden.
My second problem with Mr. Jazayerli’s essay is that it missed so many other points. First and foremost, there was no mention of the Madrid bombings. I don’t understand how Mr. Jazayerli attempted to talk about terrorism influencing an election without discussing the 2004 Madrid bombings. For those who don’t remember, prior to the 2004 Spanish presidential election, a group possibly associated with al Qaeda exploded four bombs in the Spanish commuter train system, killing 191 and injuring 1,755. This attack possibly influenced Spanish voters enough to elect presidential candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who campaigned to reduce Spanish military involvement in the Middle East. Perhaps Mr. Jazayerli doesn’t think Al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden had anything to do with this incident.
Mr. Jazayerli also does not mention of the potential of Americans to acquiesce to Bin Laden's demands in the wake of a new video. Right or wrong, I think many Americans are tired of the “War on Terror” and are ready to live life how we did on and before September 10, 2001. Mr. Jazayerli does not even ask the question of whether or not the US could be another Spain.
Now I don't claim to know Jazayerli's geopolitical background or his knowledge in International Relations (of which I happen to have an MA in), but his claim that as a Muslim he thinks has "a handle on bin Laden’s twisted view of Islamic eschatology" is ridiculous at best, insulting at worst. I would argue that Mr. Jazayerli doesn't really understand Bin Laden at all.
Jazayerli's main point is that Bin Laden wants a war with the West, particularly the US. That is not exactly true, and is actually a lazy understanding of the Al Qaeda philosophy. Bin Laden first and foremost wants Western philosophical ideas and Western military forces out of Islamic lands, also known as Dar al Islam – the Land of Islam. Simple as that. Right or wrong, Bin Laden wants to reinstate Islamic law and control in areas Muslims had control of at some point in their history. The insertion and actions of American troops into Afghanistan and Iraq only helped to convince other undecided Muslims of Bin Laden’s opinions on the US.
Jazayerli's article unfortunately follows simplistic "Clash of Civilization" ideas. Jazayerli leans most of his thesis on the writing of Samuel Huntington and not Sayyid Qutb, who directly inspired Bin Laden and his deputy Aymaan Zawahiri. Political Islam, for lack of a better term, is far more complex. Bin Laden is not Abu Zarqawi. Zarqawi was a militant thug. Bin Laden is a highly intelligent millionaire, and philosophical head of a multi-national network operation. As a matter of fact, the notion that our financial structure is collapsing before our very eyes is probably more pleasing to Bin Laden than any terrorist attack he could come up with.
I also have a problem with Jazayerli’s statement that Bin Laden "welcomes" death. Bin Laden's strain of Islam is NOT a suicide cult. If that was the case, wouldn't they all have gone down in a blaze of glory years ago? Wouldn’t they have sacrificed themselves against the evil Soviet Union back in the 1980s? And if Bin Laden only wanted war against America as Jazayerli claims, why even fight the Russians in the 1980s? Why not join the Soviet army and become a warrior for communism against the West? The reason why is that Bin Laden's philosophy is based on Islamic empowerment, not American hatred. America is only the target of this hatred as it is the predominant world power and has the most influence over governments in the Muslim world.
Perhaps a Bin Laden statement would cause an uptick in the McCain polls. Perhaps undecided voters would lean more towards a conservative candidate with a strong military background who will continue to stay the course against international terrorism. I have no problem at all with this idea, and it probably is fact. However, the way Mr. Jazayerli got to this idea is incorrect, as is his idea that Osama Bin Laden ultimately wants John McCain to be president.