Hero for some, hate figure for many

While West Asia has officially condemned Osama bin Laden after his killing, his supporters and sympathisers have paid rich tributes to him publicly.

May 16, 2011 11:07 pm | Updated 11:07 pm IST

File Photo of Osama bin Laden.

File Photo of Osama bin Laden.

The killing of Osama bin Laden by the American Special Forces at a safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, has predictably evoked an array of emotions. In his death, bin Laden, the best known face of global jihad, has been either profanely condemned or hysterically eulogised. Even those who vouch that the al-Qaeda leader had become ideologically irrelevant have found it hard to remain emotionally detached from his persona. For those who lost their loved ones in the September 11 attacks or in the Shia mosques of Iraq or other terror attacks attributed to his network, bin Laden is a hate figure. But for his followers he is a hero, martyred during the course of a struggle between good and evil. For them, he is a new cult figure, extending the legacy of Islamic icons such as Ibn Taimiya, 14th century religious scholar.

A blot

In Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth, bin Laden is seen as a blot which needs to be expunged from national consciousness as quickly as possible. A statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency said his death is a “step that supports the international efforts against terrorism.” It added that the Saudi people in particular were targeted by “this terrorist organisation” — referring to the al-Qaeda, which was once active in the Kingdom, but later merged with its Yemeni branch to form the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Shortly after his summary condemnation at the official level, sections of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia pitched in to reinforce the rejection of bin Laden, and all that he stood for. Appearing before Al-Arabiya during a programme aired on May 2, Saudi cleric and author Sheik Muhammad Al-Jazlani declared that bin Laden's death was an occasion worthy of celebration. “Osama bin Laden is the spiritual father of al-Qaeda, and he continued to play a central role in that terrorist group, which has transgressed Islam. We can only say that rejoicing at the death of this tyrant is required by Islamic law. This is rejoicing at the grace granted by Allah.”

The Saudi establishment's fury towards bin Laden is understandable. He hugely embarrassed the House of Saud after his name cropped up in 1998 as the kingpin of the terror strikes on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While profiling bin Laden, the Saudi intelligence's role in funding and funnelling recruits for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan came into sharper focus.

It was in Afghanistan and Pakistan that bin Laden acquired stature in the company of ideologues and activists such as Abdullah Azam, Ayman al Zawahiri and Mohammed Atif. He also demonstrated his organisational skills there by mobilising resources from his country and deploying them for combat or establishing training camps in the Hindu Kush mountain ranges.

Security threat to Saudi Arabia

After the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden emerged as a national security threat to Saudi Arabia. And the Saudi-U.S. ties hit rock bottom, amid growing calls in Washington for a regime change in Riyadh and democratisation of the Kingdom.

By 2003, their hatred for each other reached a new level, when the Kingdom witnessed horrendous acts of terrorism attributed to the al-Qaeda network. “Since the terrorist attacks began in May 2003, the Kingdom suffered 12 terrorist explosions and 70 random shooting incidents, resulting in the death of 350 people including security officers, ordinary citizens and foreigners, and injuring 770 others,” Saudi newspaper Arab News noted.

In Iraq too, where Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, an al-Qaeda heavyweight, led a spate of attacks on Shia mosques, including the iconic Al Askari mosque in Samarra, the reaction to bin Laden was emotive and condemnatory. “Iraqis suffered a great deal at the hands of this man and his terrorist organisation. Thousands of Iraqis were murdered and killed because of his ideology,” said Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister. “We, like many people in the world, are delighted to see an end to his mentality and his devious ideology.”

‘Iraq welcomes news of death'

Ali Mussawi, media adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, slammed the al- Qaeda's ideologically driven sectarianism. He said Iraq “welcomes the death of Osama bin Laden,” and hoped it “will mark the beginning of the end of the sectarian way of thinking.”

In sharp contrast to his detractors, bin Laden's supporters and sympathisers have paid rich tributes to him publicly. Among them is a preacher at the Al Aqsa mosque, Islam's third most important religious site. In his brief videotaped outcry on May 2, the preacher shifts between unbridled praise for bin Laden and expressions of gut-wrenching hatred for Americans.

‘Reviver of Islam'

In London, cleric Hani Al-Siba'I, described bin Laden as a historic figure as he was “the reviver of Islam in our times.” The cleric then attributed bin Laden's appeal to his natural affinity for the cause of the underdog. In an interview aired by Al Jazeera (Arabic) he said: “Sheikh Osama is loved by millions of Muslims. Sheikh Osama is a hymn in the hearts of the downtrodden — from Jakarta to the Hindu Kush mountains, to the villages and rural areas of Egypt …”

Commenting on terrorism post-bin Laden, some prominent clerics point to Israeli polices as the root cause of Islamic extremism. Among them is Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the head of Al Azhar. He says the “real reasons for terror are to be found in the West, not the East.” He adds: “The existence of Israel as an unjust, oppressive, and colonialist power, which controls the entire region, is the number one reason for terror. Bin Laden is dead but the double standards on the part of the United States, the European Union, and the West live on, and if Israel continues to do whatever it wants in the region, there will be many more bin Ladens.”

Without commenting on bin Laden's relevance in history or theology, Iran has turned his death into an opportunity to fulfil its core political aspiration — the exit of American forces from neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan.

This view is amplified in Shia Post , a website which describes itself as the “Shiite leading news portal.” A commentary posted on the website says terrorism “cannot be buried with bin Laden and his accomplices. But hopefully his death will provide justifiable reasons for the foreign forces present in the region to leave in large enough numbers to allow peace to return.”

Ideologically irrelevant

For those basking in the “Arab Spring,” the pro-democracy revolts flaring in large parts of West Asia and North Africa, global jihad as an ideological force has become irrelevant. Blogger Iyad El-Baghdadi says “Bin Laden was made irrelevant in December 2010, when Muslim people discovered that they can achieve regime change through peaceful means, contradicting al-Qaeda's message that violence was the only solution.” Mr. Baghdadi was referring to the self-immolation by a Tunisian youth, which triggered pro-democracy revolts in Tunisia that later engulfed Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. However, he added that bin Laden had left behind a mixed legacy. “Never did we support him when he advocated the killing of innocents, and yet never did we complain when he called for picking up arms against aggressors and occupiers.”

The jury is still out on whether with Osama bin Laden's passing, political Islam as a violent millenarian project has suffered a fatal blow or has only gone into hibernation to remerge at a more opportune moment in time. But, for the moment, many among a new generation of Arabs with an Islamist background, are looking at the still evolving “Turkish model” — where Islam as a cultural force can creatively cohabit with nationalism, democracy and secularism — as an alternative.

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