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Bin Laden's death: The end of the icon of rage? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Late on Sunday night, (going by the time in the Arab region of course) Barack Obama announced to America and the world at large that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, along with several other individuals, by American Special Forces, near the Pakistani capital (Islamabad).

Finally Obama emerged victorious thanks to this epic moment, the same moment which former President George Bush had long strived for. But fate favored Obama, the man who hard-line right wing Americans have accused of being a secret Muslim!

This news was covered everywhere, and people feverishly engaged with every detail, asking: what about the body? How will it be buried? Will Bin Laden’s family conduct funeral or wake? Was Bin Laden’s body buried at sea? Why was it buried at sea? Did the American forces conduct the burial of the al-Qaeda leader according to Islamic traditions? And so on, and so on…

This is something that reflects a state of shock about the overall meaning of the story, and the big picture. It is something that first and foremost reveals the shock of this news, but also reflects the religious sensitivities that surround Osama Bin Laden, the leader of global fundamentalist rage.

Ever since the September 11 attacks, Bin Laden was transformed into an “icon” of Islamic wrath, in the same manner that the Communist Che Guevara was transformed into an icon of Latin American leftist anger towards the West.

When someone turns into an icon, it is very difficult to deal with them in a rational or practical fashion; emotions become dominant, whether they are emotions of hate or love and worship. Sometimes, many avoid directing criticism or appreciation to these icons, wary of the feelings of the public, whether this is love or hate, and that’s exactly what happened and is happening since Bin Laden became a global icon of Islamic rage.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the following:

– Why has the Islamic reaction towards the killing of Osama Bin Laden been so varied?

– Just who is Osama Bin Laden, from the ideological viewpoint?

– Finally, what does his physical departure mean for our world, at this particular time?

With regards to the first point, we can note the official American reaction, represented by President Obama’s speech, which was careful and cautious in expressing feelings of joy and elation, so as to not provoke Muslims by gloating over the killing of someone who many in the Islamic world, like it or not, consider to be a hero who will join the ranks of historical leaders and Islamic jihadists. We all remember the feeling of pride that were expressed in some of our communities and societies following the September 11 attacks, even by some intellectuals, not to mention the Islamists who elevated “Sheikh Abu Abdullah” [Bin Laden’s kunya] to the status of “commander of the faithful” and leader of the jihadists. Many of the clerics who belonged to the Islamic Awakening [Sahwa] movement [in Saudi Arabia] and even some of the traditional Muslim scholars did not dare to sharply criticize Osama Bin Laden and his associates.

The general reaction of the American people towards the death of Bin Laden was more liberated and spontaneous than the reservations of the official administration, as seen by crowds spontaneously coming together to celebrate the death of the leader of global Islamist terrorism. This was the natural behavior of normal people towards the news of the death of the leader of a terrorist organization which had shed the blood of Americans, and non-Americans of course. Obama’s speech was clear and careful to emphasize that Bin Laden was an enemy of world peace and humanity in general, and that Muslims had been injured and killed in al-Qaeda terrorist operations as much as non-Muslims, if not more.

As for the reactions of Muslims and Arabs, they varied according to differences in attitudes and interests, relating to the death of Bin Laden and his absence from the scene. Arab states that had been struck by al-Qaeda terrorist operations were the most welcoming of the death of al-Qaeda icon Osama Bin Laden, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the country where Bin Laden himself was born and raised. As for the country that was most outspoken in welcoming the news, this was Yemen, which had first hand experience of al-Qaeda cadres entering the country from Saudi Arabia, and Osama Bin Laden’s personal focus on seizing Yemen [as an al-Qaeda stronghold].

Interestingly, there was a contrast in the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood, from Cairo to Gaza. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has recently announced that it has formed a political party which plans to take part in the forthcoming elections, and following the revolution, this Islamist movement has begun to talk of themselves as the new leaders of Egypt, or something close to this. In light of this, senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam al-Erian was quoted by CNN as saying that “we view the death of Osama Bin Laden, especially after the revolutions in the region, as a new beginning for normal relations with the United States in the Middle East”.

Meanwhile, let us contrast this to the stance of Hamas in Gaza, where Ismail Haniyeh condemned the “assassination” of Bin Laden, and condemned U.S. policy as being “based on shedding the blood of Arabs and Muslims”, according to the website “Palestine Online”.

There is a contradiction between Essam el-Erian, a senior leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Gaza-based Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Hamas movement, and this stems from a difference in their interests and attitudes towards “Obama’s America”. For the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Obama is an ally, and he played a key international role in bringing down their arch rival Hosni Mubarak, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood space to breathe politically, and even providing it with leadership in Egypt’s political decisions, or at least significant participation. For Hamas the case is different. America still deals with Hamas from Israel’s perspective, and furthermore Hamas is a planet revolving around al-Assad’s Syrian sun. Yet al-Assad’s sun in Damascus is in danger of being internationally eclipsed by America and its increasing pressure on Damascus, which is the home of Khalid Meshal and the Hamas political bureau. Of course behind Damascus stands Iran, which America is also in a state of hostility with, and we know that Hamas has close links to Khomeinist Tehran as well.

There is another dimension explaining why the [Egyptian] Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the death of Bin Laden, and that is to stress the division, at the ideological, theoretical, and political level, between the Muslim Brotherhood and the militant Islamist model promoted by Bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They are attempting to say that if America and the West are looking for a moderate Islam, it is to be found with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Here we will turn to the second point.

Is Osama Bin Laden an unusual fundamentalist case? Was he a product of the Muslim Brotherhood or traditional Sunni Islam, or the Salafist current and its two opposing [ideological] strands?

This is an interesting issue, and here we must refer to a very important book written by the famous American investigative journalist Lawrence Wright, namely “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda’s Road to 9/11. Wright says in his introduction that since the September 11 attacks, this book became his primary concern, and he drew its title from a verse in the Quran which Bin Laden often quoted, namely “Wheresoever ye may be, death will overtake you, even though ye were in lofty towers.” [Surat an-Nisa, Verse 78].

Wright says that his book is based on 5 years of research and 600 interviews conducted in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, England, Germany, France, Spain and the United States, with individuals closely associated with al-Qaeda, its leaders and cells, such as Jamal Khalifa, one of Bin Laden’s closest friends during his university days, and so on.

Wright begins his book with an important chapter on Sayyid Qutb, that’s right, the same Sayyid Qutb who is one of the icons of the Muslim Brotherhood revolutionary romanticism and who consolidated the principle of revolutionary secession for political Islamist currents. In his book, Wright states that the September 11 attacks were not the beginning of the story, but rather the end of it! They were a dramatic sequence in a story that began many years ago, in different regions of the world.

Wright says this story began the moment Sayyid Qutb boarder a passenger ship in the 1940s, on his way to the United States to study. He returned a father figure to all Islamist movements, having been radicalized during his stay in America. This was before he was sent to prison and then executed, which ultimately led to him being crowned a martyr and a hero to these Islamist extremist movements.

Osama Bin Laden was born in 1957 to a famous Saudi contractor Mohammed Bin Laden, and formed part of a giant family. Osama was the 17th child in a family made up of 52 brothers and sisters.

In 1979, the year of the Khomeinist “Islamic” Revolution in Iran, and the year in which the Juhayman group seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca for two weeks, Osama Bin Laden graduated from the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, where he earned a bachelors’ degree in engineering. This was also the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia were both against this “red invasion”, seeking to break the spread of communism and fearing the arrival of the Russian bear to the warm waters of the Gulf, and thus they supported the Afghan “jihadist” movement. This began the complex but not yet completed story of Al Qaeda, with Bin Laden and his Arab Jihadist associates announced the establishment of a global jihadist organization. This story also features a prominent role for Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh, Abdullah Azzam, one of Bin Laden’s mentors, and a Muslim Brotherhood “hawk” who was well known in the city of Jeddah and the King Abdulaziz University.

Before Bin Laden’s break away from the Saudi government in the wake of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, he held a positive image in the eyes of the Saudis, especially religious scholars. I recall hearing the name of Bin Laden with admiration, when he was the rich loyal young man who had offered his fortune, and his own life, for jihad in the name of God. I still remember the written messages posted around the mosques of Riyadh, calling for support of the city of Khost in Afghanistan. This written message was signed by Sheikh Osama Bin Laden. But a lot has happened since then. Bin Laden transformed into a Jihadist enemy of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. The al-Qaeda operations against Saudi Arabia began as far back as 1995, with the bombing that took place in the al-Alya district in the capital Riyadh. Following this, there was the Riyadh Compound bombing in 2003, with operations continuing in a sporadic fashion with the blessing of Bin Laden.

What I am trying to say is that Essam el-Erian’s and others’ attempts to distance the Muslim Brotherhood factor from Bin Laden, al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri’s ideology is nothing more than an attempt to hide the truth. Equally, the attempt made by Salafist currents to distance the [Islamic fiqh] factors of allegiance (Walaa), disownment (Baraa) and apostasy (Takfir) from the Salafist Jihadist ideology is also nothing more than an act of fraud.

According to one of Bin Laden’s old friends and early acquaintances, namely the well-known Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Osama was a young, revolutionary, romantic Islamist, envisaging a “Pan-Muslim State.”

In previous articles, I have made reference to the PhD thesis presented by Moroccan Researcher Mohammed Nabil Mulin which details the Saudi religious class. In his thesis, Mulin says the following about al-Qaeda: “Consciously or subconsciously, where the political domain is concerned, al-Qaeda follows the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, particularly the Qutbist current. Bin Laden was practically raised under the tutelage of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Ideologically, Bin Laden is a product of the Muslim Brotherhood Qutbist trend grafted onto the Salafist trend. Politically, he is a result of the Cold War between the US and the former USSR, a remnant of that lengthy conflict. But what is more profound and important than the individual “personality” of Osama Bin Laden is the general historical and social context which produced him.

Now we come to the last point. What is being said about “al-Qaeda”, or to be more accurate, “al-Qaeda ideology” being a game that is being played by the US Intelligence or some Arab despotic regimes to justify them staying in power is plainly not true. This is a distortion of the true picture, which is far more complicated and ferocious than this.

“Al-Qaeda” and all forms of radical violence are nothing but expressions of restless and concealed rage. This rage will always find an outlet to express its message and feelings. Therefore, the physical death of Bin Laden is not the end of radical violence, even though it is a massive moral blow. What is the truth behind this rage? What are the reasons for it? And how can it be eased?

Some believe that the sole reason for the Muslim fury, which produced people like Osama Bin Laden, Sayyid Qutb, [Abu Muhammad] al-Maqdisi, Juhayman, and others, is the foreign occupation [of Muslim holy lands]. They view such figures and trends as being nothing more than a form of nationalistic resistance. Others believe these movements and figures are expressions of rage over political repression; expressions which found in Islamic discourse a bridge that would offer them the opportunity to reach deep into people’s hearts with stirring religious rhetoric. A third party view these groups and figures as voices of protest which speak out against the marginalization inflicted by the modern Arab state, against certain social categories. A fourth party sees such figures as resisting the subjugation of globalization and capitalism, whereas a fifth party perceives them as mere tools employed by foreign powers to create dissension among Muslims.

This is a complex and intertwined issue. Personally I am inclined to believe that the existence and indeed persistence of such movements – in different societies with different social dimensions – can be traced back to a deep intellectual and psychological motive that all such groups and figures share. What I mean by psychological here is the “collective” self. Indeed, there is a “deep” wound in the collective Muslim self caused by two main incidents: Firstly, the loss of Islamic unity due to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and secondly, the unanswered question which is deeper and more dangerous: what kind of legitimacy are we living under? Are we truly Muslims? What does it mean for us to be Muslims? This is the pivotal question for all Islamist movements.

It is such questions and concerns that produced the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Those questions have not yet been answered by our Muslim societies. So unfortunately, we will have to expect the emergence of another Bin Laden, another Zawahiri, another Qutb, another Juhayman and others. This applies to all political Islamist movements as well. The problem lies not in the bodies that are killed or captured, but rather in the hearts and minds of the confused!

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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