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05.14.11

Osama's Dirty Mind

The smut in bin Laden's compound reveals the Muslim world's dirty secret: porn is rife, everyone looks at it—and the U.S. finds it in militants' hideouts all the time.

The discovery of an " extensive" porn library in Osama bin Laden's compound kicked off the predictable wave of jokey headlines. Everyone from the New York Post ("Osama Gone Wild") to Radar Online ("Debbie Does Pakistan") delightfully reveled in the irony of the find.

But should we really be that surprised that leader of one of the world's most notorious terrorist groups was living with a collection of smutty pictures or videos? In the Muslim world, conspiracy theorists are likely to call the porn story a hoax, claiming the stash was planted by the U.S. after killing bin Laden to embarrass him. Pornography, however, is the Muslim world's dirty little secret, rife in even the most conservative realms—including among the extremists.

Click Below to See Photos of Dictators Who Love Porn

Called fuhsha in Arabic, pornography is considered haram, or illegal, according to most interpretations of Islam, because it publically exposes a person’s awrah, the Arabic word for the zones forbidden from public eye. The debate over pornography, masturbation, and the line between the erotic and the pornographic is a serious one in the Muslim community. Muslims today are negotiating these issues much like the West started doing decades ago.

In fact, the porn found in the bin Laden compound was probably not even much of a surprise to the American forces who discovered it. Porn is frequently found by military teams who engage in “sensitive site exploitation” in raids on militant hideouts and safe houses, according to current and former U.S. military officials. All such finds are evaluated for use “ in an information operation (IO) campaign to mold public opinion.”

Hours after the news of the porn stash, Christine Fair, a Georgetown University terrorism expert, wrote on her Facebook page, “Of course they found porn! Every damned jihadi loves porn.” Indeed, the “USG,” or U.S. government has become so accustomed to finding porn, she said, it has “media analysts” designated to analyze the porn looking for “messages.” They work on “document exploitation.”

“Some of the Muslim societies that are the most repressive toward women...also have some of the highest rates of pornography usage in the world."
"The USG has recovered terabytes of the stuff from terrorist computers," Fair wrote, noting that "kiddie porn" is included in the mix. Current and former U.S. officials have acknowledged that porn featuring sex with animals also gets picked up regularly. Fair said the U.S. government has had to hire counselors to minimize the trauma to the many young twentysomething analysts poring over the porn.

It’s not clear whether bin Laden himself viewed any of the porn. On CNN, bin Laden's biographer Peter Bergen said he thought the porn wasn’t likely for the al Qaeda leader's “personal consumption.” But its presence speaks to the contradictions that permeate Muslim society.

Last year, Google ran an analysis of its search queries and concluded Pakistan is the leading nation in sex-related, porn content searches, leading Fox News to dub the nation “ Pornistan.” Iran came in third on the overall list, and Egypt was fifth. (Google later partially backtracked on its findings, saying that its sample size was too small to be definitive.)

Small or not, we don't need Google to tell us Muslims are looking at porn. Pakistan is home to a bustling porn black market, as well as a lucrative business enterprise and tradition of exotic dancing, called mujras. Just last month, a Muslim member of parliament from the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party in Indonesia resigned after being caught watching porn on the floor of parliament. He was, ironically, a proponent of anti-porn legislation, a hypocrisy that may sound familiar to Americans who are used to seeing their conservative lawmakers busted for the very behaviors they speak out against.

Turkey is the only Muslim country known to allow porn, experts say. But even there, increasing restrictions have kept pace with expanding Islamic conservatism. Earlier this year, three academics in Turkey were fired because a student had shot a porn film as part of his dissertation, “The Porn Project.” ( The student ultimately got a "D"). 

This is not to say that sexuality is entirely repressed in these places. Islam has a very rich tradition of sacred sexuality and eroticism. The prophet Muhammad talked about the “sweetness” of intercourse, and he dealt realistically with issues of pleasure, desire, and even sexual frustration. Children were married when they reached puberty to allow for codified expression of sexuality at the age when it ripens. The prophet told men not to leave their wives for more than six months because sexual tensions would become too high. It’s no wonder that, even while he was hiding out as the world’s most-wanted man, bin Laden was still likely getting laid by his many wives.

But when it comes to porn, Islam draws a clear line in the sand. On YouTube, Islamic leaders and clerics have uploaded a series of tutorials on fighting “porn addiction.” A few years ago, the Center for Islamic Development in Halifax, Nova Scotia, uploaded a video by the center’s director with a simple message: “ Islam forbids pornography”. He said many people ask him, “How can I get my willpower back to fight pornography addiction?” His solution was one that clerics often quote: marriage, fasting, and prayer. Another e-sermon, linked to a campaign called PurifyYourGaze.com, acknowledges: “The painful reality for many Muslim brothers is that stopping their use of pornography is incredibly difficult, and for some it feels impossible.”

Not long ago, a Muslim leader published an article titled “ Haramic Fantasizing,” outlining the supposed health issues raised by “indulgence in this sin,” which included impotence, blindness, “crookedness and twisting in the back,” and “weakness in the brain and weakness of memory”—symptoms straight out of a 1950s American sex-ed pamphlet. The cleric warned: “The bladder becomes weak,” leading to “involuntary urinary and seminal discharges...It also weakens the nerves...It causes some limbs like the legs to shake and shiver.” Ultimately, he concluded: “Excessive loss of semen is in reality excessive loss of blood. In later years, it can be that such a person will not have the ability to father any children.” The article has led to some serious debates on Muslim forums.

But just as Prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking, warning people of masturbation's alleged risks doesn't make them turn off the porn. While Islamic law is “actually incredibly affirming of the positive aspects of sexuality as they pertain to marriage,” there is a tide in extremist Islam that encourages pornography consumption by “dehumanizing” women and men, says Omid Safi, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and the author of Memories of Muhammad, an analysis of the prophet Muhammad’s teachings and how people like bin Laden are misrepresenting them.

“Interestingly and ironically,” says Safi, “some of the Muslim societies that are the most repressive toward women or that have the strictest gender segregations also have some of the highest rates of pornography usage in the world. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt rank as among the highest consumers of pornography worldwide. I think what is true of bin Laden, the Taliban, and many of these extremist movements is that there seems to be a link between the dehumanizing of women and the dehumanizing of the entire block of humanity, Muslims and non-Muslims included.”

Our Muslim communities are engaged in a cultural struggle, both spiritual and sexual, that can be illustrated by a paper titled “ The Erotic and the Pornographic in Arab Culture.” Written by an Islamic scholar in Khartoum, Sudan, named Adil Mustafa Ahmad, the paper argues that the “erotic,” as “lofty, spiritual, high-minded” pursuits, “has always been accepted and admired by the Arab in literature," and says, “There is no reason why, with the gradual ongoing liberation of the Arab mind from past taboos, it should not enjoy a similar position in the visual arts.”

Clearly, someone in the Osama bin Laden compound agreed.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. asra@asranomani.com