Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thinking about Osama bin Laden before September 11

Note: long, academic-type post warning. Be prepared for some heavy wading.

Recently, I suggested that Edward Said's insight in his work Orientalism--that Westerners often confuse their understanding of foreign nations, individuals, or events for objective truth, could be applied profitably to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the so-called War on Terror.

Where to start? Try a 1999 monograph by Professor M. J. Gohari of Oxford entitled The Taliban: Ascent to Power. Two factors make this book particularly interesting:

1) Its pre-9/11 perspective--what was a scholar writing about bin Laden (he devoted an entire chapter to Bin Laden in that time predicting about his future importance?

2) Its non-Western (at least partly) perspective. Here's the review that Oxford University Press chose to put on the back cover:

This is an informative account of Afghanistan under Taliban rule. While there is a lot of material on the Taliban [this] covers all aspects of the country. . . . There would be an important argument for making the book a self-contained source for anyone wanting to know about Afghanistan today.

The source of this review? Professor [Emeritus] Mujtaba Farahani of the University of Teheran in Iran.

So perhaps it would be very interesting to probe the interpretation of Osama bin Laden that emerges in a country study on Afghanistan that so impressed an Iranian scholar living under the mullahs.

Here is Gohari's capsule biography of bin Laden [the section I am quoting does not cover the various terrorist acts even then attributed to bin Laden--like Khobar Towers--but they are included prominently elsewhere; I mention this so that you will not think their absence in these particular paragraphs is some sort of white-wash]:

Osama bin Mohammad bin Laden was born in the city of Riyadh 1957. He was raised in Medina and received his education in the schools of Jedda, then studied management and economics in King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda. Bin Laden is married and has children. He began his interaction with Islamic groups in 1973 and continued concentrating on Islamic concerns in modern times until the commencement of the jihad in Afghanistan. He is reported to have maintained links, in the beginning of the eighties, with the Mujahideen against the Communist party in South Yemen. His contribution to Afghan Mujahideen until the downfall of the Communist party is considered to be enormous.

He established alongside Sheikh Dr Abdullah Azzam the office for Mujahideen services in Peshawar, founding again in partnership with Sheikh Azzam the Sidda camp for the training of Arab Mujahideen who came for jihad in Afghanistan. His first visit to assist the Afghan Mujahideen started a few days after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He laid the foundation of "Ma'sadat Al-Ansar" which was a base for Arab Mujahideen in Afghanistan. In 1986 he participated in the battles of Jalalabad with the Arab Mujahideen which was one of the best know battles for the extensive involvement of Arabs.

He left Saudi Arabia in 1991, refusing to return later despite calls from the Saudi government. As a result Saudis reportedly withdrew his citizenship, cancelled his passport, froze his assets, and launched a media campaign against him.

He currently resides in Afghanistan, and has given a call to the Muslims throughout the world to declare a jihad against the Judeo-Christian alliance which is occupying Islamic sacred land in Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula.
[p. 135]

Before I comment on this, let's take a look at Gohari's interpretation of bin Laden's theology/ideology and his predictions about future activities.

On bin Laden's theology:

Bin Laden views the conflict in the light of "Muslim believers who are confronted with disbelievers (Kuffar, heathen). In his view, the term, "disbelievers" encompasses the "pragmatic" Arab regimes (including the government of his own homeland, Saudi Arabia), and the United States, which he sees as taking over the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and assisting the Jews in their conquest of Palestine.

Bin Laden's views are simple and more or less shared by the rest of Sunni and even Shi'te revivalist groups. This world view not only encourages the use of military and physical force but sanctifies this by religious edict. For Bin Laden, political gains through force have the standing of a religious injunction. He sees the "jihad" as necessary to raise the Muslim world above the world of the disbelievers, and argues that military action is justified by the degraded moral standards of his enemies, the Christians and the Jews. The United States, he maintains, is responsible for the most reprehensible acts of world terrorism, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and carpet bombing of Iraq. While the Zionsits, whom he refers to in terms reminiscent of the writers of "the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," are held responsible for the massacres of Dir Yassin, Sabra, and Shatila in Palestine and Lebanon.

In order to perform his religious "duties," Bin Laden founded the "International Islamic Front for jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders." This organization published a "fatwa" (religious ruling) proclaiming the "jihad against disbelievers who conquer Muslim lands" a duty incumbent upon all believing Muslims.
[p. 136]

From the Fatwa [which Gohari reproduces almost in its entirety]:

No one today argues about three facts that are known to everyone; we will list them, in order to remind everyone:

First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.

If some people have in the past argued about the fact of the occupation, all the people of the Peninsula have now acknowledged it.

The best proof of this is the Americans' continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to that end, but they are helpless.

Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the Crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million . . . despite all this, the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation. So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and to humiliate their Muslim neighbors.

Third, if the American aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.

The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper states through their disunity and weakness to guarantee Israel's survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.

All of these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on Allah, His Messenger, and Muslims.
[pp. 138-139]

Gohari's 1999 predictions about future bin Laden activities:

Bin Laden's adversaries hold that the principal danger presented by Bin Laden is the combination of tremendous financial resources coupled with an extremist ideology back, in his view, by heavenly decree; an ideology which advocates the wholesale demolition of its perceived enemies, whether soldiers or civilians, children or adults. To them, the alliance of such an individual with a group of trained and experienced fighters, steeped in Islamic indoctrination, is potentially deadly. All the more so when the fighters are veterans of a long, and for their part, victorious war for the sake of religion. Such a combination is a recipe for acts of political violence and mass destruction. One cannot ule out the possibility of an organization espousing such a doctrine employing non-conventional methods. In the estimation of many security analysts, this combination of wealth and extremism gives the Afghan Veterans Association a place among the most dangerous organizations threatening the Western powers and their allies in the Islamic world. [p. 137]

Now let's take a look at what's particularly interesting about all this:

1) Osama bin Laden has been consistent, both before and after 9/11 in his two-pronged jihadist view, that faithful Muslims were (first) combating the American [Crusader] military presence in Saudi Arabia and then resisting Israeli [Zionist] oppression in Palestine and Lebanon. He is not operating out of some vague hatred of capitalism, the American way, or an urge to establish a world-wide Muslim state; he is passionate about achieving two specific goals: the expulsion of America from the Middle East and the destruction of Israel.

This is one of the reasons that American rhetoric (even by Democrats) on the so-called War on Terrorism and the idea that the West is under attack because "they hate our freedoms" fails to convince even moderate Muslims. They know that Osama bin Laden laid out a specific strategy and has stuck to it for more than a decade, and it is not the strategy that Washington imputes to him.

2) Osama bin Laden's moral critique of the US as the primary architect of world terrorism from Hiroshima forward to the carpet bombing of Iraq in Desert Storm is one that most Americans dismiss out of hand, but it is also a critique that the post-colonial developing world finds to be (in general if not always in detail) credible. This is an important understanding: one does not need to support or accept bin Laden's actions in order to agree that his picture of America [and, by extension, Israel] is accurate. Whether we like it or not, from South America to Southeast Asia, bin Laden's portrait of America enjoys wide acceptance (and has enjoyed such acceptance long before Dubya came into power).

3) Bin Laden is capable of drawing some very fine political distinctions that are too often lost on American readers. For example, his relationship pre-9/11 with Saddam Hussein's Iraq is an ambivalent one. He lauds Iraq as the most powerful Arab country (and his use of Arab there, not Muslim, creates a distinction between Arab Iraq and Persian Iran that most Westerners are ignorant of), and decries the American massacres of the Iraqi people, but at the same time says nothing of Iraq's leadership. For bin Laden, Hussein's Iraq was a frustrating mixture of kowtowing to Western influences (Saddam was widely perceived as a Western cat's paw in the his decade-long war against Iran) and resisting them (refusing to admit defeat or give in to UN weapons inspections during the 1990s). The nuances of Osama bin Laden's political speech may be lost on most Western ears, but it is not missed by Muslim observers. If sometimes disdained as a zealot, he is respected as a political thinker.

4) Bin Laden gained great credibility in the Arab and Muslim world by continuing to predict during the 1990s that American strategy in the Middle East hinged on the destruction of Iraq as an independent military and political power. The 2003 invasion made him appear almost prescient, and his commitment to waging a prolonged battle for Iraq was a cold-blooded, clear-headed strategic decision, based on (a) his experiences opposing Western powers in Afghanistan and Somalia; (b) the pre-existing factionalism in Iraq; (c) the potential for drawing US forces into situations where they would kill large numbers of Iraqis in what could be portrayed as massacres; and (d) the ability to draw both Iran and Syria into his grand strategy for evicting US forces from the Arabian Peninsula.

The conclusion: The American interpretation of, and reaction to, Osama bin Laden is both different from (and oblivious to) the interpretation and reaction to bin Laden in the Middle East and throughout the developing world. He has successful melded together (a) a widely accepted critique of American foreign and economic policy; (b) a validated political and military analysis of American goals and strategies in the Middle East; (c) a direct negative linkage of those American goals to the perpetuation of Israeli oppression; and (d) a radical theology that is both internally consistent and useful as a recruiting/mobilization tool.

A simple question: how large an error do we make when we fail to see (or even fail to try to see) Osama bin Laden accurately through the eyes of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and the developing world?

And how long will that failure haunt us?

1 comment:

Brian said...


To change or reform an ideology is difficult, but to declare war on a tactic of warfare is damn near impossible. If we want to change the ideology of SOME parts of the middle east we need to make a distinction between the minority who hold this view, some who are sympathetic to it, and the majority who could care less as long as their lives are not screwed up anymore than they already are. It is going to be very difficult to change an ideology with bombs and guns.