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Introduction ON November 24, 2002, a letter said to have been written by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the major figure in the global anti-American jihad, was published in the European press. While the London Observer published a full-text translation that day, the American press treated it more cautiously and did not present it as a major story. There seems to be valid doubts as to its origin. This “Letter to the American People” did circulate in Islamist circles but apparently did not appear on some of the websites usually associated with the jihadists and those sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Most of these sites, it should be noted, were fighting what appeared to be a losing battle against law enforcement agencies, as well as freelance hackers, and were less consistently updated than in previous months. It is nonetheless noteworthy that no denial of its authenticity has appeared on these websites. The letter is addressed to the American people, and is indeed a manifesto of grievances against U.S. policy, with American support for Israel occupying center stage. What is of particular interest is that in its preamble, this document refers to another letter, one that originates in the United States itself. This second letter, “What We’re Fighting For,” signed and circulated by 60 leading SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003) The New Intra-Arab Cultural Space in Form and Content: The Debates Over an American “Letter” HASSAN MNEIMNEH American intellectuals, had already generated widespread reactions and responses in Arab cultural circles.1 Bin Laden’s contribution , if it was really him, is only the latest installment in a debate that appears on the surface to be between the West and the Arab or Islamic worlds, but is also intensively, and perhaps more significantly, an internal Arab debate. The original American letter, together with the responses to it—including the possible bin Laden text—provide a case study of the new dynamics of culture in the Arab world. They also point to inter- and intracultural debates of paramount importance in the charged post-September 11 atmosphere. An analysis of the effect of the American letter allows for an understanding of these considerations and the potential, both cultural and political, of similar initiatives, whether spontaneous or planned. The debate generated by the American letter also exposes the dynamic nature of the new intra-Arab cultural space as a platform capable of accommodating notions of communication and information sharing that transcend the nominal norms previously assumed by Arab societies, and adopted and enshrined by Arab governments, within which breaches of the sociocultural and political axiomatic consensus are relegated to the private sphere. Since its adoption of European systems of centralization and control in the nineteenth century, the state in the Arab world has indeed sought to define the shape and content of information that is made public. Building upon the accepted notion of propriety and extending it from a protection of religious values to include the state, both as an institution and a patriarchal authority , Arab governments largely succeeded in reducing the public space available for nonritualistic expression. This success can be further viewed as part of a totalitarizing tendency in Arab political culture expanding in the direction of the community, the family , and the individual. The decentralized nature of the new intra-Arab cultural space provides an implicit resistance to this tendency. Because it has relegated dissent and even debate to the private sphere, the Arab state order has to contend today with the 908 SOCIAL RESEARCH evolution of a space largely outside its actual jurisdiction, in which the previous governmental gains in establishing control are undone, and within which the previously accepted notions of private and public are effectively blurred. This paper proceeds with an exposition of the new intra-Arab cultural space, in form as well as in content. It then engages in a brief description of the “What We’re Fighting For” letter and the reactions to it, and concludes with a series of observations concerning the potential for cultural debates and exchange. A Topography of the New Intra-Arab Cultural Space The last few...


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