Whether he was droning on about climate change or consumption, OBL’s ‘ideas’ were born and bred in the West.
Soon after the death of Osama bin Laden had been announced to the world, 72-year-old Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir – the purported spiritual leader of the Islamist militant group Jemaah Islamiyah – issued a statement from his jail cell in Indonesia, where he faces trial for allegedly funding and organising terrorist camps. The statement, to the effect that ‘Osama’s death will not make al-Qaeda dead’, was designed to instill a sense of foreboding across south-east Asia.
But like all nobodies who hide their own uncertainties and weaknesses behind the words and deeds of supposed somebodies – in this case, behind the dread of al-Qaeda – Bashir simultaneously revealed his own lack of substance. This was apt, because bin Laden himself was always fond of citing Western commentators, academics and diplomats in seeking to legitimise his ostensible cause.
Sounding like any other contemporary critic of American policy, bin Laden droned on about a rag-bag of causes at different times: he lambasted the US for not signing up to the Kyoto treaty to control greenhouse gases; accused Washington of being controlled by a Jewish lobby; suddenly became concerned about Palestine after 9/11; suggested that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were simply money-making ventures for large US corporations; and even had the gall – for one in thrall to the Taliban – to argue that Western advertising exploited women.
In this regard, bin Laden revealed his true nature through his statements – including his annual post-9/11 rants that became as boring and predictable as the British queen’s Christmas message. He was entirely parasitical on what was being said about him and about the state of world affairs in the West. After the Madrid bombings of 2004, he even proposed that Western leaders should pay more attention to surveys that revealed how few people supported the war in Iraq.
But what kind of spiritual leader is it who piggy-backs on Western opinion-poll data and the views of environmentalists to get his point across? Why did he advocate reading Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky, rather than the Koran? In truth, bin Laden was entirely lacking in any substantial ideas of his own, let alone anything that could amount to an ideology. More media-has-been than mujahideen after his escape from US forces in late 2001, bin Laden was the leader of nothing who became the quintessential celebrity terrorist of our times – unable even to control his own fans, never mind control the course of history.
Sadly, those who opposed him were just as devoid of principles of their own. Accordingly, across the political spectrum and in all countries, political leaders and officials who themselves lacked purpose and direction sought to justify their increasingly illiberal policies and actions on the basis of the need to defeat al-Qaeda. Bashir’s recent words of warning sound true because much the same point was made by President Obama in his address to the nation, as well as being echoed by the head of the CIA, the UK prime minister David Cameron, and countless others.
Without al-Qaeda, the global counterterrorism industry would find itself in a real quandary. Little wonder that there is such enthusiasm to reiterate the danger from radical Islam now. The fact that the recent transformations in the Middle East – heralded by some as an ‘Arab spring’ – made little to no reference to either Palestine, or bin Laden and al-Qaeda, makes not a jot of difference to the insights of the self-styled experts.
Far from representing the views and grievances of those in the East and South – whom he never consulted – bin Laden was always a product of the West. He jumped on every bandwagon like some demented blogger and echoed the Western self-loathing he found there. His words would then be picked up again by both followers and critics who lacked the courage to speak out for themselves but preferred instead to point to bin Laden’s empty threats as evidence of what Muslim frustrations and humiliations might lead to.
Instead of a clash of civilisations we had a war of gestures as every controversy in the West about cartoons, books – and now even celebrations – that might be deemed as offensive, were picked up on as further examples of the supposed victimisation of Muslims. This over-sensitivity to images and words only further exacerbated the situation, as whole populations were taught that they must never put up with being offended.
Many commentators, aside from implicitly supporting al-Qaeda’s cause by giving a nod to the simplistic notion that suffering, anger and resentment inevitably leads to terrorism, have also noted more critically how the group came to kill more Muslims than Americans through its actions. But this criticism suggests that if the figures had been skewed the other way, if fewer Muslims had been killed, then these commentators would have been somewhat more understanding towards bin Laden.
The solution frequently put forward to resolve matters has been to create de-radicalisation programmes. However, given that the clerics involved in such programmes share the same misgivings about the modern world as the people they’re supposed to be saving, one wonders if these initiatives could ever possibly be truly successful.
Most notable is the general presumption that the removal of bin Laden will somehow lead to a greater risk in the immediate future through the possibility of reprisal attacks that could occur against anyone, anywhere and at any time. This model is itself a construct of the contemporary culture of fear that exists in the West today, presuming that as one threat goes away, another steps in to fill the void.
Those who argue this way fail to note that while there may be aggrieved individuals at large, these people rarely target the symbols of imperial or racial oppression that are held to drive them. Rather, by lashing out at all manner of symbols of modernity – tall buildings, aeroplanes, shopping malls, night clubs – they reveal their frustrations to be a quite mainstream rejection of Western materialism, and not the religiously inspired attacks that so many commentators presume.