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a New York Times op-ed that bin Laden was already dead before his actual assassination, since his message had already been replaced by secular uprisings.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 Noam Chomsky’s controversial article in Guernica on May 6, which highlighted the hypocritical U.S. stance in assassinating bin Laden, Chomsky was compelled to extrapolate in a longer piece on ZNet on May 20 in which he noted that bin Laden’s death meant less for the Arab world than the West since bin Laden “had long been a fading presence, and in the past few months was eclipsed by the Arab Spring.” Likewise, Tom Engelhardt argued that the Arab world had “largely left bin Laden in the dust even before he took that bullet to the head,” again because he had been replaced by “the massive, ongoing, largely nonviolent protests that have shaken the region and its autocrats to their roots.” Mainstream Western media have been so keen to discern what Arabs think of bin Laden, that the Guardian, the Irish Times, NPR, and CNN all ran extensive pieces documenting Arab reactions to bin Laden’s death, issuing a collective sigh of relief that the Arab “Awakening” will likely serve as a vent for the frustrations of Muslims who might otherwise turn to radicalism.


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 Woodstock. Western support for the 2011 Arab revolutions has been tenuous as long as the protesters are “peaceful,” while at the same time it has virtually ignored the violent catalyst of these revolutions, the act of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, now hailed as a shahid throughout the Muslim world.


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 Libya freely speak of their armed and violent struggle as jihad. In addition, the poor, the workers, the subalterns, the majority who don’t even have Internet access throughout Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain are ignored since they do not fit the media-manufactured youthful image of the protesters as elites who speak English and use Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps even more interesting is the nonsensical emphasis on non-violence, with the media highlighting only the violence of the repressive regimes, never the various acts of violence by the protesters, rebels, or revolutionaries, whatever the label may be. In Libya, for example, numerous acts of violence have been committed against suspected Qadaffi supporters.


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 Suez, arms were seized by protesters who used them against the police to defend themselves. State Security Police offices in Rafah and Arish, for example, were blown up by RPGs, hand grenades, and automatic rifles, while gas pipelines heading to Jordan and Israel were attacked.


“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 Israel’s borders with Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. In all, 16 people were killed and over 400 wounded.


Meanwhile in Egypt, the military-dominated regime sent troops and police who fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition into crowds of thousands who had assembled outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo in solidarity with the Palestinians. This type of “Awakening,” of course, was not welcomed warmly by President Obama whose concern was thinly veiled in his speech to AIPAC on May 22 in which he stated his unequivocal support for the security of Israel, justifying “why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels” and boasting of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system which protects Israel from attack. He praised Israel as an ally against Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, condemned any alliance between the PLO and Hamas, pledged that a vote for an independent Palestinian state would not pass through the United Nations, and affirmed, again and again, Israel’s right to defend itself, including, no doubt, against the unarmed protesters that gathered at its borders on May 17. The speech had a foreboding tone, warning of “a new generation of Arabs” who are “reshaping the region,” slightly wistful of the days when “a just and lasting peace” could be “forged with one or two Arab leaders.” President Obama’s message was clear: as long as the protestors do not threaten imperial interest in the region, including Israel, they can be managed.


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 Jordan, for example, to replace King Abdullah and Americans have been cynically supportive of the Saudi repression of change in Bahrain.


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 Iraq and Afghanistan through war; the people of Africa through displacement; and humankind, in general, through global warming; and that despite the talk of democracy by Bush, Blair, Sarkozy, and Brown, these figures displayed a “flagrant disregard for the intellects of human beings.” The “solution,” bin Laden argued, was for the American people, and the people of the world, to wake up from the not- so-sweet slumber of capitalism.


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 North Africa are changing and this change cannot be fully grasped by fitting it into prepackaged binaries of “secular” and “religious.” The methods and intentions of the assumedly secular “Awakening” and the religiously inspired jihad of bin Laden hold similarities in both methods and intentions. It is also evident that genuine and lasting change in the region cannot be sustained unless the “near” and “far” enemies of the people are confronted, entailing a significant shift in global relations in the region. For bin Laden that change was inspired by his moral vision of Islam. Though it is not yet clear which intentions the Arab “Awakening” will focus on, it can be argued that these spontaneous revolutions were not spontaneous at all, but were formed within the same political climate and social imagines from which bin Laden’s more radical vision of a global awakening were forged.


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 Qatar. She is awaiting the publication of her thesis “Representing Violence: Jihad, Theory, Fiction.”