Bin Laden and the Arab “Awakening”
The assassination of Osama bin Laden and the twists and turns in the Arab Revolution, rebranded as the Arab “Awakening,” lends itself to reflections on the bipolar positioning of the two struggles, particularly in international media and policy circles. From a communication perspective, bin Laden had always been an easy target. Over the last decade, Muslims, the majority population in the region now being reformed, have been categorized according to their position on violence as a tool for revolutionary change. “Good” Muslims are disassociating themselves from bin Laden’s violent jihad and “bad” Muslims are asserting the necessity of violence to affect change. Writers such as John Esposito, Faisal Devji, and Olivier Roy have played a vital role in explaining bin Laden’s version of jihad in socio-political, ethical, and secular terms, often positioning bin Laden as a neo-Marxist in Islamic robes. However, it can be argued that the environment for hearing bin Laden has always been particularly static prone and is likely to remain as such while the CIA pours over bin Laden’s dairies and videos, collections of pornography, and marijuana plants, leaking information which will further demonize him. This reinvention of bin Laden coincides with assertions that his methodology of radical violence has been proven ineffective by the “peaceful” protests of twittering youths “awakened” to a new pan-Arab struggle.
Recent responses to bin Laden’s death, from liberals to leftists, have unanimously claimed that he is now obsolete and had been for some time. Gilles Kepel, for example, confidently declared in a New York Times op-ed that bin Laden was already dead before his actual assassination, since his message had already been replaced by secular uprisings. After
I want to argue here that these views, though valid to a certain extent, belabor the point that bin Laden’s messages are not opposed to that of the “Awakening” but are, in fact, contained within it. So consumed is interpretation with ticking off political action in the Muslim world as secular or religious and so determined are critics to prove that secular activism works better than religious activism, that some very obvious similarities between bin Laden’s methods and intentions and those of the Arab “Awakening” are ignored.
Let’s begin with the methods: bin Laden asserted that violence was an appropriate response to oppression and vowed to use violent means to rid the Muslim world of both its “near enemy,” its autocratic rulers, and its “far enemy,” imperialist powers. To achieve these ends he approved of spectacular attacks on symbolic targets on Western soil—attacks on oil fields and various symbols of imperial presence throughout the Muslim world. By contrast, the Arab revolution has been spun as a “peaceful” protest with Tahrir square, particularly, as an Arab version of
Mohammed Ali Atassi has noted: “Did not Mohamed Bouazizi commit what—according to traditional Islamic law—is considered the most venal of all sins when he burned himself to inject life back into the veins of the Arab peoples after the tyrants had bled them almost dry? And yet the violation by Bouazizi of such a fundamental principle of traditional Islam was not enough to prevent millions of people from sympathizing with him and turning him into an icon and symbol of the current Arab revolution.”
Likewise, did not bin Laden’s followers commit similar acts of shahid, despite condemnation from numerous Islamic scholars as to whether it was Islamic and were not they, too, much to the distress of pacifist observers, hailed as icons to many across the Muslim world? While both adopted heterodoxical stances, bin Laden’s was considered shameful since he advocated killing others along with the self, while Mohammed Bouazizi killed only himself, making him a hero more acceptable to Western standards of martyrdom. Bouazizi’s hetero- doxical act did not prevent him from being hailed as a “shahid” throughout the Muslim world in a language eerily similar to bin Laden’s. Further, the “revolutionaries”—or “rebels” as the Western media labels them—in
The following is a comment by an Egyptian participant/blogger in the uprising: “The revolution (like any other revolution) witnessed violence by the security forces that led to the killing of at least 846 protesters. But the people did not sit silent and take this violence with smiles and flowers. We fought back. We fought back the police and Mubarak’s thugs with rocks, Molotov cocktails, sticks, swords and knives. The police stations which were stormed in almost every single neighborhood on the Friday of Anger—that was not the work of ‘criminals’ as the regime and some middle class activists are trying to propagate. Protesters, ordinary citizens, did that. Other symbols of power and corruption were attacked by the protesters and torched down during the uprising. Revolutionary violence is never random. Those buildings torched down or looted largely belonged to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. In a number of provinces like in Sinai and
“Am I condemning this violence? No. Every single revolution in history witnessed its share of violence. The violence always starts by the hands of the state, not the people. The people are forced to pick up arms or whatever they can put their hands on to protect themselves. May all our martyrs rest in peace. Their blood will not go in vain. Revolution continues—3arabawy.”
3arabawy makes a critical point: revolution is always violent, people protect themselves from state violence through violence and they are willing to die in the struggle. Yet, strangely, the Arab revolutions have been packaged as non-violent protests, intent on affecting change peacefully, antithetical to bin Laden’s radical message.
Perhaps this binary positioning in opposition to bin Laden is due to the fact that the revolutions, though they have violently targeted the “near enemy,” the autocratic regimes of the regime, as of yet have not targeted “the far enemy.” Thus, the West feels insulated from the repercussions of the Arab “Awakening.” Will this continue if the “Awakening” threatens the slumbers that sustain the nightmare of American imperialism in the region? A taste of what could happen was felt on May 15 when tens of thousands protested to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. Israeli troops using live ammunition opened fire on protestors demonstrating on
Over the past months, American and European powers have tried desperately to protect imperialist interests in the region to ensure that the revolutions will not turn anti-Western, not threaten American and European capitalist interests, and not threaten the nearest “far enemy” of all, Israel. By positioning the Arab “Awakening” as the antithesis to bin Laden’s jihad, the media has once again drawn an imaginary line between “religious” and “secular” intentions in the region, which, of course, excludes the violence of the non-secular Jewish State of Israel. The message is that a “secular” revolution might not substantially threaten imperial designs on the region, while a “religious” revolution most definitely would. In fact, the theme of “Awakening” evokes early 20th century depictions of Arab unity and reclaiming of identity as envisioned in 1938 by the Palestinian-British intellectual George Antonius in his famous book The Arab Awakening which described the Nahda—Awakening—as a secular, literary, and cultural renaissance, which pre-dated the populist Arab unity movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The original Nahda focused on constructing a collective identity and community, but is that what the 2011 Spring is really about? The revolutions striking various countries have vastly different demands, and it appears the protests are less about identity than they are about authority and economic injustice. There have been no calls in
What all protests have in common is a challenging of the ruling elites, objecting to arbitrary, unaccountable, corrupt, and often brutal behavior, and well as the vast divisions between the rich and the poor. It is unclear whether the goals are nationalist or pan Arab, or even particularly Islamic. To actually look for a goal to the Arab revolutions is to assume that the goals of all the countries under transition, including Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, and Syria are the same—and hold equal value to American interests. This, of course, is not true.
An important indicator, however, of how “awake” the Arab masses are and whether they are willing and capable of mounting a tectonic shift to imperialist and capitalist interests in the region, is the type of mobilization that occurred on May 15 on the Palestinian Nakba. This event was unprecedented in the region and is bound to raise serious questions on the nature of sovereignty in an area where maps have arbitrarily been drawn, creating diverse conflicts. If the Arab masses are now awake, have they been asleep? And for how long have they slumbered? Osama bin Laden would have argued that, yes, not only has the Arab world been sleeping, but so has the entire capitalist world.
In fact, bin Laden often emphasized his intention to jolt the masses from their slumber. In one of his most widely analyzed speeches, “The Solution,” which addressed the American people on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of 9/11, bin Laden spoke at length about the debilitating effects of capitalism. He argued that capitalism and democracy have detrimentally affected the people of
Here, bin Laden posited the Western populations as victims of their political leaders and capitalism, living in a state of false consciousness, or slumber, under a false sovereignty. His call was international and, interestingly, he assured his Western audience that as they managed to free themselves from the false consciousness of their religion through secularism, they can now transcend secular capitalism to engage in a greater morality by sharing in the utopian vision of Islam. In a 2009 statement, he repeated this call for awakening and referred to John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, arguing “it is time to free yourselves from fear and intellectual terrorism being practiced against you by the neoconservatives and the Israeli lobby.”
The reality is that the political configurations of the Arab world and
Only if we admit that the methods and means of the current “Awakening” and bin Laden’s utopia are not so dramatically different after all, can we come to a better understanding of a region that has been prepared, particularly over the past decade, for such a dramatic upheaval. To truly begin an anatomy of the diverse “Awakenings,” analysts need to glimpse beyond the “good” and “bad” branding that offers prepackaged interpretations and instead deconstruct the faulty Orientalist binaries of the religious and the secular that have hampered an understanding of the region. In this sense, bin Laden is not “obsolete,” but contained and existent in the changes of the present.
Jacqueline O’Rourke is a consultant in research and communications who lives in