With A Little Help From A Foe
By Stephanie Doetzer
The reactions following Bin Ladenâ€™s death are a disaster. A personâ€™s death may sometimes be good news. But somebodyâ€™s assassination never is. A commentary by Angela Merkel is happy. Hillary Clinton is happy. Barack Obama claims that justice has been done and hundreds of Americans celebrate cheerfully right next to Ground Zero. Hmm. Is this the Western world that likes to think of itself as an epitome of civilisation?
Bin Laden has never been the Arab icon that many Westerners believed him to be. And during the last four months of Arab revolutions Al Qaida has become even more irrelevant. But the fact that he was shot by American Special Forces on a â€œkill missionâ€ changes the picture. He now has a chance of becoming an icon after all.
To be sure, many Arabs arenâ€™t even interested in Bin Ladenâ€™s death. There are far bigger issues to care about these days and the young revolutionary crowd doesnâ€™t have time for a man they perceive as a mere Western obsession. They didnâ€™t care while Bin Laden was still alive, and why would they now?
German chancellor Angela Merkel comments on the death of Bin Laden in front of the press:
Epitome of civilisation? Chancellor Angela Merkel was chided in Germany for expressing â€œjoyâ€ of Osama Bin Ladenâ€™s death Others, however, do care quite a lot. They started caring when the news of the killing broke and changed the tone in which Bin Laden is being talked about. While most Western media prefer to use the word â€œkillingâ€ rather than â€œassassinationâ€, Arab media go for either ightiyaal, meaning political murder, or istishhad, which is martyrdom said to lead straight to paradise.
More than ever, Bin Laden is now referred to as â€œSheikh Osama Bin Ladenâ€. In most Arab countries this is a sign of respect â€“ or at least, itâ€™s not the kind of word one would use to describe a heretic who has besmirched religion and misused Islam for his own goals.
Complex picture of Arab realities
In secular media, formulations are neutral and almost indifferent, but in many more religiously conservative outlets the tone is clearly one of mourning. But how to write about this for Western media without distorting the complex picture of Arab realities with its many shades of grey?
Does it make sense to quote the most outrageous readerâ€™s comments from Al Jazeera Arabicâ€™s website? From â€œMay God have mercy on his soul and let him enter paradiseâ€ to â€œIf heâ€™s dead, then weâ€™re all Bin Ladenâ€?
Or is it more appropriate to quote those Arabs who say exactly the kind of stuff that Westerners want to hear? Like the commentators in Egyptâ€™s Al Wafd newspaper who call Bin Laden a â€œblack spot in Islamic clothesâ€ and hope to close a dark chapter of Arab history.
There has been plenty of both. What is new is that people who are neither Salafi, nor particularly religious now defend Bin Laden as a person. They donâ€™t approve of attacks on civilians, but they do consider him a fighter for a just cause rather than a criminal. And not because of 9/11, no. Itâ€™s because of his criticism of the Saudi royal family, because of his speeches about Palestine and because he allegedly relinquished his familyâ€™s fortune to lead a life of poverty.
Those who praise his principles and â€˜good intentionsâ€™ donâ€™t hate the West, nor are they likely to ever turn terrorist. But they feel an immediate urge for solidarity when one of them â€“ and thatâ€™s what Bin Laden remained after all â€“ gets shot by the special forces of a country of which they have ceased to expect anything good.
What may sound offensive to most Westerners, doesnâ€™t shock many Arabs. After all, Bin Ladenâ€™s image in the Arab world has never only been that of a ruthless mastermind of international terrorism. He was the man that you could see on those Al Qaida videos from time to time, until they were replaced by audio-tapes. A man with a calm voice, a charismatic face and a captivating way of speaking classical Arabic â€“ which is not exactly what the Western world got to see. Outside the Arab world, Bin Laden was reduced to fear-inspiring sound bites without context.
Front page of a Pakistani newspaper covering the death of Bin Laden
Is Bin Laden merely an obsession of the West? Al Qaida believes in violence as a political means, and, writes Doetzer, â€œthe problem with many Western powers is that they believe in similar things, but without ever openly acknowledging itâ€ By listening to him directly, Arabs could disagree, discard his ideas and compare him with their official leaders they liked even less. Unlike most Westerners, they knew Bin Laden wasnâ€™t only talking about US foreign policy and Israel, but also about climate change and food security. And that he sometimes came up with suggestions for a US withdrawal from the Middle East that werenâ€™t completely preposterous.
Emotional mishmash and contradictions
But events in these days also show that many Arab Muslims never quite figured out their own take on Bin Laden: Within one conversation, the same person may well claim that Bin Laden was on the payroll of the CIA, then deny his involvement in the 9/11 attacks â€“ and end up by saying that the attack could be morally justified given the American atrocities on Arab soil.
Itâ€™s usually an emotional mishmash without much moral reflection, but a high dose of an intra-Islamic sense of unity that allows downplaying crimes committed by oneâ€™s own group by pointing to those committing by others.
The mechanism is strikingly similar to what Americans and Europeans do when they celebrate the extrajudicial killing of an individual and justify their reaction by highlighting his crimes.
Itâ€™s yet another example to show that the current enemies may have much more in common than they would ever admit: The problem with Al Qaida is that it believes in violence as a political means. The problem with many Western powers is that they believe in similar things, but without ever openly acknowledging it.
Watching those YouTube videos of Americans cheering in front of the White House feels a bit like a DÃ©jÃ -vu. Last time, it was some Palestinians cheering the killing of Israeli settlers. And if I remember it rightly, Westerners were appalled by the pictures.
US Americans celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden in front of the White House in Washington
An eye for an eye:
Doetzer criticises the extrajudicial killing of Bin Laden, arguing the victory of Al Qaidaâ€™s ideology would have been more sustainable had it been achieved in court those chanting â€œU.S.A.â€ and â€œWe did itâ€ in New York and Washington donâ€™t sound fundamentally different from Islamists chanting â€œAllahu Akbarâ€. And in both cases, itâ€™s not the words that are problematic; itâ€™s the spirit behind them.
A myth rather than a man
Both are tearing at each other for double standards, but neither truly believe in the rule of law. After all, things could have been done differently: Bin Laden could have been captured and put on trial. We could have listened to his version of events and might have found out what kind of person he was.
Instead, all we have are a couple of pictures: Bin Laden as a young fighter in Afghanistan, and then the man with a turban and a greying beard. Itâ€™s not much. And it allows him to be a myth rather than a man who has lived until a couple of days ago.
Had he died of kidney failure instead of the bullets, it may indeed have been a blow to Al Qaida.
But as things are, American Special Forces did him a huge favour by making him a martyr in the eyes of many. â€œI swear not to die but a free manâ€ he said on an audio tape released in 2006.
He got what he wanted â€“ with a little help from a foe.