What was Osama bin-Laden for Muslims?

bin-Laden is dead. A decadent symbol has been assassinated. For some time before his demise, his influence on contemporary terrorism had been on the wane. Most likely Osama had little choice but to agree to retire to his Pakistani prison under the ‘supervision’ of the Pakistani secret services and Taliban tribes.  I did not write any blog post at the time of bin-Laden’s execution. There was nothing to say. His story has had the feel of a work of fiction from beginning to end, complete with impressive pyrotechnics, blood and splatter, where the director, producer and star of the drama was none other than bin-Laden himself. He died as he wished: one bullet in the chest, a few stumbling steps, and a final gore splattering bullet in the head.His end arrived without a defiant ‘Allah Akbar’, without a suicide belt, awe inspiring explosions or clever traps. To those familiar with his videos, bin-Laden may appear to be the perfect romantic anti-hero, walking through treacherous yet beautiful mountains while followed by admirers who listen carefully to his words with the kind of quiet contemplation that only the most renown and respected gurus inspire.

Now dead, the body is forever lost in the depths of the sea; surely not a good Muslim burial, but at least a romantic one for a man who spent his life obsessed with his own myth.  Osama bin-Laden was an unprincipled narcissist; he had a movie-style plot of his life in his head and dedicated much time and thought to being both the perfect producer and star of it.  As any actor, bin-Laden is replaceable and his death will only result in a short pause in the drama he created.

Of course, most of us know who Osama bin-Laden was. After 9/11, with the help of television and the Internet, we became increasingly familiar with his recurrent threats and appeals from deep, dark recesses within the Hindu kush. We even became used to his changing face, sometimes South Asian and sometimes Arab, but always enemy number one.

Indeed, bin-Laden made a good baddie as the personified new challenge to civilization and ‘our way of life.’ Yet he was also the perfect alter-ego to the many improvised Islamophobic ‘crusaders’ and fanatic Christians who grew in his post-9/11 shadow.

For many terrorist experts, he was bread; for the media, new and old, he was the wine with which to dull their readers’ awareness of internal disasters; and for some politicians, he became a savior upon his death. Indeed, since 2001, bin-Laden has been a sort of technicolor pyrotechnic show used to distract the world from political scandals, disastrous decisions, and a financial fragility which has now brought us to a very precarious economic, social and political reality.

He was the perfect casus belli for the US and the ‘west’ to forcibly reshape the Middle East and remove inconvenient dictators in the hope of new oil and markets. The US has spent millions and millions of dollars to kill a man that it helped to create; bin-Laden has spent a minute fraction of that to bring about generous helpings of terror, death and destruction: I leave the reader to decide whom, as in a Aesopian fable, came closest to achieving the desired result.

Yet what was bin-Laden for Muslims? This question is more difficult to answer than the previous one. First, I think we have to look at how western commentators, politicians, and of course the general public imagined what bin-Laden was for Muslims. Indeed, this is even more important than the former question since such perceptions have shaped how many people living in western countries saw and see Muslims. You only need to ask around in any European or US city and you will find people whom are strongly convinced that Muslims adore bin-Laden.

Some have even suggested to me that bin-Laden was the most influential recent Muslim leader. Others think that those Muslims whom condemned bin-Laden, or are overtly celebrating his demise, are faking it to achieve trust before following the orders of their master. Others still see bin-Laden as a good example of what a ‘devout’ Muslim looks like – so much so that it has become an abusive nickname in some places.

Yet many will be surprised by how little Muslims in the world really cared about bin-Laden. He was in most cases, as often happens in South Asia, a face for T-shirts or a banner to be waved about more to upset the ‘US’ than to demonstrate any supposed love for or allegiance to the jihadi emir. Indeed, it was not bin-Laden that the T-shirt wearers wished to celebrate, but rather a feeling of revenge. Bin-Laden’s Mona-Lisa smile on young Muslims’ T-shirts was (they are quite out of fashion today) a celebration of the idea that now Israel had found its match and Muslims may avenge their oppression, instead of a celebration of any misfortune that befell the US.

Those young Muslim people hoped for a hero. But Islamic heros, like Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (better known as Saladin), although brutal in battle, are not terrorists or killers of women and children. Bin-Laden refused to condemn the killing of innocents (i.e. non-military targets, according to those youth) and the increasingly indiscriminate murder of Muslims (the usual victim of al-Qaeda – according to one study, up to 90 percent) in the name of bin-Laden’s organization, together with his own silence on the matter, decreased the little support he had achieved by way of 9/11.

For the great majority of Muslims I have spoken too, bin-Laden was just another thorn in the already difficult life of Muslims today. Seen as the main culprit for damaging the reputation of their religion, statement after statement, many of which were ignored by western journalists too eager to popularize the romantic bandit and his delirious words, condemned bin-Laden, al-Qaeda and any form of terrorism; yes, including the terrorism that affects Palestinians and other civilians and is inflicted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

There is nothing to be surprised about in Muslims’ rejection of bin-Laden: a majority of human beings reject unlawful killings. Muslims are part of that human majority. Hence, even populistic polls, full of what we may call mistakes of logical types, reported that Muslims and atheists are the most likely to reject violence. Muslims are also perfectly able to integrate in non-Muslim societies, and as part of that integration suffer the same social illnesses as the society they are integrated within. Sadly, when general social illnesses are experienced by Muslim communities they are read by journalists and experts through the lens of ‘Muslim’ or even ‘Islam’ instead of simply noticing the similarities with other ordinary citizens. Indeed, people integrate where they live and so they absorb the good together with the bad existing in any given neighborhood.

Therefore, in the US, where the demonization of Muslims has reached fever pitch, polls have demonstrated how integrated and American they are. Another more recent Gallup Centre poll suggested that 60 percent of Muslims living in America felt as if they were “thriving,” up 19 points from a similar survey in 2008 and higher, with the exception of the American Jews, of any other faith group in the US. The survey also indicated that American Muslims saw their lives in terms of an upward trajectory, more than any other faith group, including Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Jews, and 64 percent claim their standard of living is increasing.

Ask yourself why those ordinary Americans, as Muslims are, would love somebody like Osama bin-laden, whom tried to destroy not only their American ‘way of life’ but also their dignity as Muslims by slighting their religion. Hence, I am not surprised about the celebrations of many Muslims over the end of the dark visionary anti-hero – Are you?

4 thoughts on “What was Osama bin-Laden for Muslims?

Add yours

  1. I thought the amount of media interest in whether Osama had a proper Muslim burial or not was unwarranted. Why does no one seem to care about the burials of the countless of Muslims and non-Muslims who die violent deaths every day in Somalia, Sudan, Mexico, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the jungle clad hills of Burma? Are they lesser human beings than Osama bin Laden?

    1. That’s a good point indeed. I suppose the reason is similar to the case when people start to cry desperately for a rock star or a celebrity but they have never met in reality such a person. The mass media creates personages – in this bin-Laden was no different. It was also a ‘creation’ of our contemporary mass media which directly or indirectly increased his myth and popularity.

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