BIN LADIN: FROM HERO TO VILLAIN?
Usama bin Muhammad bin ‘Awad bin Ladin (1957-2011) was originally a hero of the Afghan Jihad against the decade-long Soviet occupation, leading Arab and other fighters in numerous, successful operations. He was a colleague and deputy of the Palestinian Jihad leader Abdullah Azzam. Once upon a time, the US was indebted to him for helping to inflict a major defeat on their superpower rival, as he was to them for their support of that Jihad. But the plain truth is that his “Jihad” later evolved into international terrorism and consistently violated basic Islamic and human ethics.
Whether it’s the barbarity of the modern warfare waged by nation-states or international terrorism, it is all inhuman. Let’s not forget that the twentieth century was the bloodiest in history, with governments all over the world guilty of collectively killing millions of people using increasingly-destructive weapons technology. To illustrate the irony, when President Clinton reacted to Ibn Ladin’s assassination by referring to a long series of murderous attacks, he could have easily been talking about the ongoing US drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed hundreds of civilians.
Those interested in Ibn Ladin the man may wish to refer especially to two detailed interviews that he gave to ABC News and Al-Jazeera before 9/11. In the ABC news interview, he condemned unprovoked terrorism but justified terrorism “against tyrants and oppressors in retaliation for their killing of innocent people.” He also referred to the influential “younger” Saudi clerics, then in prison, as his mentors: the two leading ones, Salman al-‘Awdah and Safar al-Hawali, distanced themselves from him after 9/11 and criticised Al-Qaidah’s tactics.
To Al-Jazeera, Ibn Ladin spoke of his father’s civil engineering work and mentioned that his father was sometimes able to offer prayers in the three holiest mosques in a single day, i.e. in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, since his father’s company, the Saudi Bin Ladin Group (not to be confused with an Al-Qaidah cell) had the maintenance and renovation contracts at all three sites. He also said, in a clear recruitment appeal, that the optimum age for Jihad fighters was from adulthood to about 35, but appeared to dodge the question as to whether or not he was involved in the 1989 assassination of Abdullah Azzam, in which other suspects include the KGB, KHAD, Hekmatyar, Zawahiri and Mossad.
Since his death, the praise for Ibn Ladin from some Islamists around the world may be largely based on those early days, since tens of thousands took part in that anti-Communist Jihad. (I did so briefly, Dec 1990 – Jan 1991 during Cambridge University’s undergraduate winter holidays, along with two other senior colleagues from the UK.) Unfortunately, his supporters seem to have forgotten, or ignored, what came next.
The Afghan mujahideen were largely religious and/or nationalist, and bitterly-divided, as the vicious civil war amongst them illustrated, 1992-6 after the fall of Kabul, until the Taliban disarmed the warlords and took power, heralding merely the latest in a long line of brutally violent phases that the Afghan people have endured over the last 30-40 years.
The Arab fighters tended to be pan-Islamist, and many were not able to return to their countries of origin, mainly ruled by Western-backed dictators and tyrants. The Islamists’ anti-Westernism was compounded by western support for Israel in its numerous conflicts with the Arabs. Their influence has been huge. (Many Muslims today, even Western ones, still speak of “Islam and the West” instead of “Islam in the West.”)
After the fall of Kabul, many Arab mujahideen fought in Bosnia and later Chechnya. A widespread idea in mujahideen circles was that these wars in Europe confirmed the teaching attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), that “Jihad will continue until the Day of Resurrection” – Bosnia erupted soon after the fall of Kabul, and Chechnya followed closely. Unfortunately, the Jihadists seemed unable to conceptualise non-violent, peaceful Jihads or struggles, e.g. those against colonial occupation, racism, apartheid, gender- or caste-discrimination, social injustice and poverty, that many peoples around the world have waged over the last century or so.
Once the Soviets, Serbs and Russians were no longer the leading targets in this “Jihad against all non-believers,” it was the turn of the western nations, led by the US. Ibn Ladin issued a nonsensical Fatwa at the end of the 1990’s, as he launched Al-Qaidah or the International Islamic Front Against the Alliance of Crusaders and Zionists, or whatever he called it. The fatwa said that all western taxpayers, and especially Americans, were legitimate targets due to western support for Israel, and thus sought to justify international terrorism. The core part of the fatwa was read out on live, national UK television (BBC Newsnight) by a hate-preaching, extremist cleric who has since been banned from Britain.
Then came a string of atrocities against the US and people of many other nations: the embassy bombings in East Africa, and 9/11. There is now clearly-overwhelming evidence that Al-Qaidah carried out the 9/11 attacks, although there remain a number of unanswered questions, including whether or not some people outside Al-Qaidah knew of the plots and could have done more to foil them.
The 9/11 attacks were, regrettably, celebrated across parts of the Muslim world and Latin America, exposing the level of anti-US sentiment. Arab media reported a spike in baby boys being named “Usama” and there was a surge in Al-Qaidah’s popularity that dissipated over the years as the organisation murdered more and more innocent people, most of them Muslims, in many countries. A notable exception to the initial celebration was in Iran, where there was no love for the fanatically anti-Shi’ite Al-Qaidah and Taliban. Protestors in Tehran chanted, “Condolences to America,” instead of the usual chant of “Death to America” that has become regular since the 1979 revolution.
Many people wonder how someone likened to Hitler in some parts of the world could have been so popular elsewhere. They forget that a certain US President is similarly hated in parts of the Muslim world: the award-winning journalist Robert Fisk is a witness to that, having been beaten up and left for dead in December 2001 by an Afghan mob that mistook him for President Bush Jnr. Similarly, others wonder how the Israelis once voted in General Ariel Sharon as their leader, despite an official Israeli inquiry finding him to be complicit in the 1982 massacre of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
The unfortunate western policy over the last few decades of supporting tyrants and dictators, whether military figures or absolute monarchs, as well as corrupt secular politicians, across the Arab and Muslim world, was partly to blame for Bin Ladin’s popularity there, as was the failure of those societies themselves to democratise. Of course the masses would choose a charismatic military hero, an eloquent warrior-poet, an ascetic from a billionaire family who renounced luxurious living and talked tough against Israel and America, backing his words with action, over utterly-corrupt kings, presidents and other dictators. (Similarly, supporters of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Mullah Omar point to their simple and ascetic lifestyles. The Muslim world seems to have too many leaders who are either ungodly and corrupt or are religious fanatics.) God bless the brave youth who have inspired the Arab spring, offering the hope of an escape from the madness on all sides over the last few generations, and forced western powers to admit the failure of their previous strategies. The leaders of the Arab spring have engaged successfully in a peaceful Jihad, for the Prophet, peace be upon him, is said to have taught that “the best Jihad is to speak a word of truth to a tyrant ruler.”
Celebrating the misfortune of others, especially an enemy, is an unfortunately-common, but negative, human trait. In Arabic, it is known as shamatat al-a’da’. In the Qur’an, Prophet Aaron (Harun) begs Prophet Moses (Musa), peace be upon them, not to expose him to the rejoicing of enemies by criticising him publicly and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, would pray for God’s protection from being the object of this vice.
But unfortunately, some Muslims celebrated 9/11 as a military victory, just as British tabloids had celebrated the bombing of Libya in 1986, some Israelis the Gaza offensive of 2008-9, and some New Yorkers the assassination of Bin Ladin earlier this month.
Such celebrations may also be attributable to a sense of justice and/or revenge, of course. One of those celebrating in Times Square had lost his wife on 9/11 and declared to the cameras that he knew for sure that his wife would watch from heaven whilst God would throw Bin Ladin’s soul into the depths of hell. This was a totally understandable reaction from the still-grieving widower, whilst some Jews and Christians, amongst many believers, were surely asking that difficult question, “Can God forgive Hitler or Bin Ladin?” Later today, the congregation of a church in Florida will be praying for Bin Ladin’s forgiveness.
Meanwhile, the latter’s former sister-in-law, Carmen bin Ladin, told CNN that Saudi society would be grieving the death of their brother, whom they regarded as a good Muslim, since he upheld the five pillars of Islam. A problem in Muslim society is that too often, a “good Muslim” man or woman is limited to someone who observes the five pillars and dresses in a certain way, whereas the five pillars are supposed to be the springboard that launch people into oceans of loving spirituality, humanity and generosity rather than reducing them to hate-filled fanaticism. A “good Muslim” is one who, inspired by the love and worship of God, helps to transform society for the better, standing up for the dispossessed and downtrodden against their oppressors. Muslim societies need internal Jihads against racism, inequality and religious fanaticism, amongst other things.
One or two Muslim theologians, whose attitudes can only be described as mediaevalist, have quickly pronounced that Ibn Ladin is in heaven, since for them, “any Muslim, no matter what his deeds, is better than any non-Muslim.” This is reminiscent of the rhetoric of the extremist Jews who glorified Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994 as they worshipped at dawn at the Hebron mosque and Cave of the Patriarchs. For example, one extremist rabbi declared that “a million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.” Other extremists praised Goldstein for “living the Torah,” just as plenty of Muslim fanatics claim to be “following the Shariah.” A wider irony is that Islamism and Zionism are mirror images of each other, united only in mutual hatred, since they both represent over-politicisations of their faiths.
The simple answer is that heaven and hell (or the Garden and the Fire, in Qur’anic language) manifest people’s nearness to God in this life: those in the Garden are near God and vice-versa, and those in the Fire are distant from God, and vice-versa. Those insisting that Ibn Ladin is in the Garden should at least reflect on the possibility that many, if not all, of the innocent victims of terrorism are closer to God.
We face a stark choice today: in many ways, one that is as old as humanity itself. We can either continue in cycles of violence and vengeance, or we can choose to break those cycles and embrace hope, forgiveness and peace. Al-Qaidah are partly motivated by revenge for Muslim suffering over many years. According to their stupid, clichéd and almost-meaningless slogan, “Americans will not taste security until the Palestinians do.” After 9/11, the US was partly motivated by revenge: “Who cares if we over-react!” as one TV pundit put it. Ten years later, there are thousands of Al-Qaeda, Taliban, US and ISAF soldiers, plus Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi civilians dead as part of the “war on terror.” Furthermore, terrorists have left hundreds dead from Bali to London, Morocco to Jordan, Madrid to Mumbai. How much more “revenge” do people want?
Zamakhshari, a classical commentator on the Qur’an, pointed out an oft-forgotten, basic aspect of Islam: the word itself means, as well as submission, “to enter into peace (after war)” – to put it another way, it means peace-making and renouncing war in favour of peace. A true Muslim is thus a committed peace-maker and, as Prophet Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, is reported to have taught, “Blessed are the peace-makers.”
Fourteen centuries ago, Islam put an end to the vicious blood-feuds amongst the warring tribes of Arabia, cycles of violence that continued for generations. Today, the South Africans, Northern Irish and the Rwandans, amongst others have chosen national reconciliation over continuing similar blood-feuds. We need to encourage and help the Afghans, Pakistanis and Kashmiris to do the same.
President Obama’s efforts for a new chapter in US-Muslim relations must be welcomed, and we can all play a part in building bridges amongst people locked in conflict. Crucially, the Israelis and Palestinians must be encouraged to end their mutual distrust and hatred. The work of Ali Abu Awwad and Robi Damelin, showcased in the film, Encounter Point, must especially be commended. Jews and Muslims living together peacefully in democratic western countries can help set an example to their fellow-believers in the Holy Land, traumatised by the decades of conflict, many of whom are not even aware that they worship the same God, revere the same Prophets, and share many aspects of language and religious practice. Efforts towards Palestinian unity and democratisation must be welcomed, although militant religious extremism, both Muslim and Jewish, must be marginalised and exposed for what it is: a perversion of faith and an immense obstacle to Middle-Eastern and world peace. Muslim and Jewish leaders and religious authorities around the world must especially make it a priority to help their colleagues in Palestine and Israel make the right choices on the path to peace and justice for all. Influential religious authorities in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria must be given the independence and freedom to criticise their governments constructively and thus reclaim their role as reflecting the spiritual will of the people, rather than being forced and intimidated into always toeing the official line.
One of Ibn Ladin’s gravest mistakes, regrettably, was to pervert the nobility of Jihad, including his own earlier sacrifices, and to recast it in purely violent forms with the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. It is time for Muslims to reclaim the wider and deeper aspects of Jihad, for as Ibrahim bin Abi ‘Ablah, an ascetic Successor to the Companions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, observed on his way back from a military expedition, “We have returned from a lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad: the struggle against the vices of our own souls.” Let us put the last ten years behind us, and move on.
© Usama Hasan
22nd May, 2011