Osama bin Laden squeezed his face back onto our screens at the start of Ramadan. This time, probably advised by his American follower Adam Gadahn, he tailored his discourse to a Western audience, and tainted by association the good names of Noam Chomsky and the anti-globalisation movement. Before Ramadan ends, let me talk briefly about bin Laden and those associated with him.
Still when bin Laden’s name is mentioned in many parts of the Arab world, although less so than a couple of years ago, a cheer goes up. Let’s hope that Martin Amis never reads this; he would see it as proof of his thesis that all Muslims are Wahhabi-nihilists. But cheering for bin Laden is like waving a flag or, more accurately, waving two fingers. It doesn’t mean that the cheering people would like to be ruled by bin Laden or that they subscribe to his programme, as they admit when questioned. Many of these ‘supporters’ would be killed if bin Laden could get his hands on them, either for being ‘heretics’ – like my Ibadhi Muslim students here in Oman – or for being ‘apostates’ – like the men in a bar in Aleppo in the following anecdote. These drinkers were well into their third or fourth bottle of araq when bin Laden came on the TV screen. “I swear by almighty God,” said Osama, his finger wagging, “that the Americans will not sleep soundly in their beds until the children of Palestine sleep soundly in theirs!” Immediately the men surged to their feet and held their glasses towards the TV image. “Kassak!” they roared – which means “Your glass!” or “Cheers!”
This story says it all. Beyond the tiny hard core of Wahhabi-nihilists, bin Laden won sympathy in the Arab world because the Arabs will support anyone who talks tough against America and Israel. This is a symptom of the frustration and impotence felt by the Arabs, and the utter failure of their leaders to stand against Zionist and imperialist oppression in the region. Cheering for bin Laden is the equivalent of the protest vote. And inasmuch as al-Qa’ida targets America, the victim does not behave in a way designed to win sympathy. Before they had time to consider the implications of the September 11th attacks, many Arabs were impressed that this superpower which routinely trashed Muslim cities could be so dramatically humiliated. Central New York looked like Baghdad or Gaza, and to many that was an understandable cause for celebration. People in China and Latin America also celebrated September 11th. I’ve even heard – from a friend who was living in California at the time – that some Black and Hispanic Americans were gleeful about the attacks.
Then the mainstream American reaction to the attacks in the following weeks and months redoubled hatred of the United States. Americans should have asked themselves the following questions: What has provoked this attack? Why have we supported dictators and toppled popular governments in the Muslim world and elsewhere? Why do we encourage Israel in its aggression and oppression? Why do we have military bases all over the Arab world against the wishes of the people there? How could Madeleine Albright have said that the sanctions-related deaths of more than a million Iraqi children was “worth it”? Why did we cover Mesopotamia with Depleted Uranium in 1991, the effects of which include galloping cancer rates and record-breaking levels of birth deformities? At the very least, why have we been funding people like bin Laden and the Taliban? But instead of engaging in a process of self-questioning, America swallowed the line ‘they hate our freedom’. Instead of using its suffering to better understand the suffering of others, America demanded that the world recognise September 11th as uniquely terrible, as if American victims matter more than those from other countries. Instead of dedicating resources to police work to arrest bin Laden and his associates, America bombed and bribed its way to forming another, slightly different, client government in Afghanistan, and then laid plans for the disastrous invasion and dismantling of Iraq.
So I don’t find Arab cheering for bin Laden difficult to understand. But it is misguided and stupid, for the following reasons:
First, bin Laden’s analysis of the problems faced by the Muslims is simplistic and wrong. The governments and corporations which attack Muslim countries may use anti-Muslim or pro-Christian propaganda to sway public opinion in their own countries, but the conflict is not about religion. Iraq is about oil, and restructuring a controlled economy for penetration by Western capital, and securing Israeli-colonial hegemony in the region. Afghanistan is about gas pipelines. It isn’t about Crusaders and Jews versus Muslims. Arab and Muslim rulers are usually on George Bush’s side, whatever they say in public. Many Christians – in the Arab world and in the West – have struggled against American and Israeli policies. Some of the most articulate and bravest anti-Zionists – people like Ilan Pappe and Norman Finkelstein – are Jews. If Muslims substitute aggressive identity politics for clear-sighted analysis they will remain in their current disastrous situation indefinitely.
Second, whether knowingly or not, Osama bin Laden helps the imperialist agenda. The so-called ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan was in fact an American war fought by Muslim proxies against the Soviet Union. Osama was the CIA’s man in Peshawar, receiving American money and weapons and distributing them to Arab ‘mujahideen’ as they arrived to fight. We don’t need to get bogged down in conspiracy theories to see that the September 11th attacks were a gift to that section of the American ruling class which wanted to rearrange the Middle East and Central Asia for the benefit of American capital. The neo-con Project for the New American Century report ‘Rebuilding America's Defenses,’ published in 2000, said that the American people would oppose these plans unless there were “some catastrophic and catalysing event – like a new Pearl Harbour.” September 11th gave them what they needed.
Serving power is a fixed pattern for bin Laden. By scaring the Arab public with their atrocities, al-Qa’ida have discredited opposition movements. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance, the Saudi regime had become tremendously unpopular amongst both liberal and Islamist Saudis. The middle classes were starting to organise on the internet and even in small public demonstrations, while rumours spread of assassinations of officials and minor royals in the provinces. Then a series of senseless al-Qa’ida attacks on residential compounds – in one case the brave mujahideen slaughtered a group of Lebanese children whose parents were out shopping for ’Eid presents – decided the Saudi people in favour of sticking with the devil they know, and so shored up the regime.
Iraq is of course the most obvious case of a national opposition movement being undermined by Wahhabi-nihilist violence. There are many reasons why Sunnis and Shias have failed to unite against the occupation, but the most important was Zarqawi’s (Osama’s man) campaign of car and suicide bombs against civilian Shia targets. Look at the different responses of Shia Iraqis to the first and second American assaults on Fallujah. During the first attack, Shia clerics led protests against America and sent supplies of weapons, food and medicine to the besieged city. During the second attack, Shia clerics were either silent or said the Fallujans were getting what they deserved. The change was a result of al-Qa’ida violence against the Iraqis they described as Saffavids or apostates.
Which brings us to the third reason why Muslims should reject bin Laden: his promotion of sectarianism, this curse which keeps the Muslims divided and weak, and which distracts their attention from the real causes of their suffering. In Lebanon and Iraq, even in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Muslims would be in a position to win battles against tyranny and imperialism if they were not crippled by sectarian ‘fitna.’ There is no religious justification for it. Al-Ghazali – surely a better authority than a Saudi playboy millionaire – showed that ‘takfir’ or declaring Muslims to be non-Muslims was unjustifiable. Many contemporary fatwas have made the same point. See the Amman Statement: http://www.islamicamagazine.com/issue-14/the-amman-statement.html The Prophet Muhammad said “Difference of opinion is a blessing,” and counselled polite and calm debate when interpretations differ.
Fourthly, the Taliban regime which bin Laden funded and advised is an example of the kind of government he believes in and wants to see spread. The Taliban’s most lasting achievement was to demonstrate the supposed barbarism of the Muslims to the West. The Taliban murdered tens of thousands of civilians for being Shia, or for being Hazara and not Pushtoon. They made it illegal for women to leave the house even to visit the doctor. They banned kite-flying, music and games of chess, as well as ‘un-Islamic haircuts.’ In an astounding act of cultural vandalism, they blew up the statues of the Buddha at Bamyan. This is not Islam but savagery, and an insult to the long record of Islamic civilisation in central Asia.
Fifth, as well as serving the enemies of the Muslim peoples, the brand of jihad practised by those inspired by bin Laden is immoral and un-Islamic. The laws of jihad-as-war agreed upon by the classical scholars state that jihad must be defensive, that non-combatants must not be harmed, that the officials of all religions must be protected, that the environment and property must not be destroyed. If Muslims wish to follow the rule of barbaric reciprocity in war, the rule of ‘you kill civilians in our countries, we’ll kill civilians in yours,’ they should not describe their actions as jihad. They should call what they do ‘politics’ or ‘war’, and not besmirch Islam.
I think this goes even for those acts of violence against civilian targets carried out by non-Wahhabi-nihilist groups such as Hamas. I remember Abdul‘Aziz ar-Rantisi, before his assassination, admitting that “many red lines have been crossed in this conflict.” It would have been better for him to go a step further and declare that the suicide bombings that Hamas were then carrying out were not sanctioned by Islam, but were acts of war against a merciless enemy that killed Palestinian civilians on a grand scale. If he’d separated the conflict from appeals to Islam and concentrated on pointing out the hypocrisy of the terrorist label, he’d have received a more sympathetic hearing around the world.
When suicide bombing became a tactic in south Lebanon (where Christians did it as well as Muslims, against the Israeli occupation) and Palestine, it was understood in the Arab world that this was a weapon of last resort for people who had tried everything else, from passive resistance to calling on the ‘international community’, and for people who were totally outgunned. Al-Qa’ida, on the other hand, has made suicide bombing a weapon of first resort, and built a psychotic ideology around it. Perhaps the September 11th attacks, though un-Islamic and immoral, can to some extent be politically justified in that they hit targets symbolic of American capital and militarism, but attacks on trains and buses in Madrid and London defy all logic as well as morality and religion. How can attacks on working people using public transport serve any agenda at all? And using Muslim citizens or residents of Western countries to do the killing helps Islamophobes to put into question the future of Muslim communities in those countries.
So there’s my opinion. Forgive me if I’ve made Arab support for bin Ladenism seem greater than it is. The people who do cheer are young, poorly educated and, as I’ve said, don’t usually mean much by it. And the tragedy of civil war in Iraq has made even these hotheads think hard about the attractiveness of the longbeard loon.
This blog has become more heavily Islamic over Ramadan. But Eid is on its way, and I’ll get back to other topics. I hope my fasting readers have had a fruitful month. For me the great thing this year is that I haven’t had a cluster of migraines, and so have been able to get into the spirit of the thing. I’ve lost weight, thought more carefully about what I eat, learnt more about being a body, understood that I can read well but not write on an empty stomach, profited from many excellent iftar conversations with friends, strengthened my self-discipline ... I haven't done much praying or visiting the mosque, and I haven’t managed to be wonderfully well-behaved at all times.
kul aam wa antum bi alf khair … Eid Mubarak