CAIRO – Osama Bin Laden did the Muslim world a favor.
Yes, I am serious. And no, I am not a Muslim militant who is celebrating an imagined victory against Dar al-Harb.
Bin Laden and his terrorist cohorts did us a favour because they shook us free of the defensiveness and denial that for decades had overshadowed an essential conversation about our religion and what had become of it.
That was not their goal of course. They assumed the sight of the twin towers collapsing would spur other jihadis to outdo or at least match their bloodletting. Some have tried. But a young Muslim man I met here recently convinced me that 9/11 had set others on a different course altogether.
Two years ago, when he was just 19, Fouad Gehad went to an Afghan refugee camp. He was not looking for directions to al-Qaeda but to speak to Afghan refugees who had seen al-Qaeda’s leader.
“My mission in life is to prove Osama Bin Laden exists,” Fouad, told me. To that end, he shot video tape of refugees recounting their stories of Bin Laden and on his return to Egypt paid out of his own pocket to hire an auditorium and a projection screen to show fellow Egyptians his footage.
Fouad was fed up of the conspiracy theories that painted Bin Laden as an American invention. Even after al-Qaeda released a video tape celebrating the attacks, some Muslims thought Bin Laden was an American agent who shot his videos in an American studio with a poster of the Afghan mountains as a backdrop.
Proving the existence of Bin Laden was Fouad’s way of holding up a mirror to the Muslim world to make it see what is had refused to acknowledge for too long. He had initially gone to Iran to see the effects of political Islam on that country and got first hand accounts from Iranians and the Afghans he met at the refugee camp.
“9/11 started the questions – is it Islam? Is it Muslims? Is it something in the Quran? What is it that led to 9/11?” Fouad explained.
When I say that 9/11 was good for the Muslim world, I have not flippantly forgotten the awful loss of life on that day. When I say the attacks were good for Muslims I do not regard with complacency the lives lost in the war on Afghanistan and the war on Iraq, which the Bush administration disastrously linked to the 9/11 attacks.
And when I say that 9/11 was good for Muslims I have not forgotten our curtailed civil liberties in the U.S., the thousands of Muslim men detained and deported on minor immigration violations and the higher levels of Islamophobia.
But I look above and beyond these tragedies to the importance of Fouad’s questions.
We are all too familiar with the young men who set out looking for holy war but we hear little of the young Muslim men and women who have set off in the opposite direction, determined to find their own answers.
Our young men and women who choose the opposite direction must be celebrated not only for their refreshing individuality but also for their courage in challenging the old and stale ways of thinking that too easily stifle any attempts to question. Without questioning we will remain forever stuck.
Why are we so stuck? The answer to that question alone could fill dozens of books but I got a brief response a few days ago when I came across another young man whose outlook seemed to be the complete opposite of Fouad’s.
He was the young taxi driver who took me home recently. As soon as I stepped into his cab, I realized that he was an almost perfect caricature of a fundamentalist.
He wore a white skull cap, a white galabiya which no doubt reached his mid-calf and of course he was listening to a fiery sermon on the car stereo.
The angry imam on the tape was of course relating the story of a battle from Muslim history. The louder his voice got, the more I could see why we were stuck – this was not the first time that the story of this particular battle was being retold and no doubt it would be retold again and again. And that is our problem. We are stuck in the past, unable to look ahead because of the stories we don’t stop telling each other about the past.
As if on cue, the fiery preacher ended his sermon as I was paying and getting out of the taxi. He ended by railing against a ban the government was trying to impose on tapes such as this recording. I wish he had ended by exhorting the listeners of his sermon to look ahead and not look back. We fill the heads of our young with so stories of so many victories from the past, real and imagined, that they can barely look ahead.
The attacks on 9/11 and subsequent attacks in Europe and the Middle East put us squarely in the here and now and forced us to look forward. They put into starkly horrific relief ideas such as “jihad” and “infidel” which for too long were too meekly challenged in the Muslim world.
Tackling those ideas head on and asking Fouad’s questions is good for everyone, not just the Muslim world. The questions and debates sparked by 9/11 render ineffectual the “us” and “them” offered by both President Bush and Bin Laden. We have all been victims of terrorism, East and West, Muslim and non-Muslim.
The more Muslims ask the questions, lead the debates and hold the mirror up to ourselves, the more you will hear about young men like Fouad, who do not tread the tired and bloody jihad path but forge their own trails toward telling the truth to the Muslim world.