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The Rise of Bin Laden

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

September 15, 2006

HALLIDAY: There’s been all sorts of speculation in the Middle East and outside about why a new kind of radical Islam is spreading; a conservative Sunni version often described as salafi, from salaf meaning ‘the pious ancestors’. One of the arguments used is that there is nostalgia for a lost empire or lost greatness in the Arab and Muslim world. This is sometimes linked to Bin Laden saying it all began 80 years ago with the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the end of the Khalifate. But I wonder if this is the real reason: I don’t detect much nostalgia for a great imperial past – Arab, Persian, Turkish or Mughal – in the Muslim world.

MAKIYA: I agree. It’s the disorder, the failure of the modern Arab order that’s far more of a driving force than any nostalgia for a great past. Here you do have something for which the invocation of the 80 years applies. Somebody like Bin Laden comes along and in every speech he writes off the whole of the last 80 years, to use the number he gives, in order to return to some ideal that is completely imagined.

HALLIDAY: Khomeini wrote off 1400 years. He said that between the death of the Prophet, in 632, or the death of the Fourth Caliph Ali in 661, and the Iranian revolution of 1979, was all jahiliya, ignorance. It was nul. So at least Bin Laden has narrowed the gap to some extent. I get the strong impression when visiting the Arab world, that there is enormous sympathy for Bin Laden; particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, but also in Egypt. Yet the basis for his popularity needs some explanation. He has no programme for politics or the economy; he’s not proposing any solution to the problems of the modern world, and nor has he any religious authority. Bin Ladin’s not a mullah or a sheikh, as many of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt were, or as Khomeini was. In no sense is he a man of learning, which is as important in Islam as it is in the Jewish tradition. He’s clearly a man of great violence, but what accounts for his enormous popularity?

MAKIYA: He stood up to America. It’s as simple as that. Like Saddam. It’s a replay of the 1990-91 Gulf War. It’s not that Saddam ever did anything for the Palestinians, but it looked like he was standing up to the powers of the West. Here you’re probing into a problem that’s got deeper roots, and I think this image he has will pass with his inevitable defeat. But the problem will remain.

It maybe that it will be the source of future Bin Ladens, and it is therefore something that troubles me very greatly. The anti-American sentiment that now exists in this part of the world is very deep, so a person like Bin Laden can come along and tap into that reservoir and emerge as a hero for a period of time.

HALLIDAY: Many commentators, in the Muslim world and in the west, see Bin Laden in atavistic terms, as a preacher of traditional Islamic and cultural themes. But does this not miss what is different, what is modern about him? If one looks at the ideology of the Al Qa’eda organisation’s reading of Bin Laden, they seem to be rather like that of many Islamic fundamentalists today: a mixture of certain Islamic ideas and broader themes of Third World radicalism. They claim ‘The imperialists have come to take our lands’, ‘they’re stealing our oil’, ‘they’re imposing colonialist settlers and client regimes on us’. Bin Laden quotes the Koran, but to illustrate a nationalist denunciation that is really a product of the modern world and of its conflicts. Is that your sense?

MAKIYA: By and large I agree with you. But there are some distinctive traits that I notice, at least in Bin Laden’s language, which are striking and new. For example, the various fatwas issued over the years and the statements, especially the 1998 one in which he announces jihad and legitimises the act of killing any American in the world, is a complete innovation. This is the only ‘terrorist group of global reach’, to use Bush’s phrase, to say this; no other group has issued such a general fatwa. Maybe some of the Algerian Islamicist groups did something similar, but their operations were local within Algeria. To repeat: what principally constitutes his driving force, the thing that really made Bin Laden as an individual what he is today, was his anger at the American presence in Arabia, ‘the Land of Mohammed’, as he calls it. Secondly there is the issue of Iraq and very much as an afterthought, and perhaps as a result of his Egyptian associates like Ayman al-Zawahiri, comes Palestine. It’s almost as if Palestine was tacked onto the radicalism that we’ve seen in the Arab world, although you know as well as I do, that the Palestine question is central, and has always been central.

Bin Laden was strongly opposed to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and actively proposed, in writing at the time, to organise his Arab Afghans to push Saddam out. The king refused and invited the Americans in instead. For Bin Laden this was the cardinal sin. Here began the journey of his break with the Saudi royal house, which I find very interesting. Let me develop the point a bit here. Bin Laden decided at some point that the Saudi ruling class was hardly worth bothering about, although that was his real target. His logic was: why deal with the puppet when you can go to the puppet master? So the thinking evolved that America was the source of all evil. At least this is my reading of his ideological evolution in the early 1990’s. Tacked onto this comes the Iraqi question. For Bin Laden the turn of 1990-91 was crucial. Again this points to how September 11th 2001 is so closely linked to the Gulf War of 1990-91 in so many ways, but not in obvious ways. It’s not a replay. Its origins lie in the way that that war, that 1990-91 crisis, evolved, and in the way it ended.

One other decision point that is markedly different about Bin Laden, compared to Third World-ist currents, is that in 1990 he came back to Saudi Arabia a victor. The whole Arab world is a story of defeat: four Arab-Israeli wars, civil wars, intifadas, military coups, defeat after defeat, both versus Israel and internally. Mountains of bodies piled up between 1967 and 1990. This is an Arab world that has suffered time and time again, defeat after defeat, from Jordan to Lebanon, to the West Bank, and now with the intifada. With regard to the Palestinians, you’ve got conditions that are hopeless and look hopeless. There’s no obvious resolution to them. Bin Laden acts against such a backdrop of defeat and hopelessness. Here is a man who considers himself a victor over a superpower. He actually believes, and he and the Afghans all believe, that they defeated the superpower.

HALLIDAY: And without American help? They never mention the role of American intelligence forces in the war against the USSR.

MAKIYA: He’s a different animal from, say, the Saddam Husseins, Muammar Gaddafis, Hafez al-Asads that have dominated Arab politics. The men of al-Qa’ida are a new breed. This is a new kind of animal. This is the revolt of the sons against the fathers – the battle of generations.

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