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A man's monster is another man's saint.
Articles on terrorism before 2011


  • (may 2011) A man's monster is another man's saint.
    It is quite a coincidence that Osama bin Laden would get caught and killed just when the Arab revolutions made him irrelevant. (See The fall of the wall in Egypt and One million Gandhis). I often claimed that the difference between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden was simple: one was hated by the entire Islamic world, the other one was largely admired by the whole Islamic world. Many people were willing to betray Saddam, but almost nobody was willing to betray Osama, no matter how high the reward. That's why the USA caught Saddam almost right way, but didn't catch Osama for ten years. Coincidence or not, Osama was caught when the Arab revolutions, that aimed for Western modernity and progress, made Al Qaeda look terribly oldfashioned and even a bit embarrassing.
    Osama was relevant mostly for internal USA politics. Osama, like Saddam before him, would have been an interesting witness on the stand of a law court. There is little reason to rejoice that he has been killed. After Saddam Hussein the USA has eliminated another person who could have told us a lot about what really happened. In september 2001 we heard George W Bush proclaim that he had absolute proof that Osama bin Laden was guilty of the terrorist attacks (note that the same president was absolutely certain that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that a tax cut for the rich would create a booming economy). We will never hear Osama's version of the facts. The USA public will never hear Osama's voice on television. This will forever cast doubt and suspicion over the entire story. People who knew him before he became an outcast consistently describe him as kind and pious. Maybe he was a degenerate monster; or maybe he was just a convenient scapegoat. Most likely he was something in between. And almost certainly he was an expression of the mood in the Islamic world, something that most analysts in the USA prefer not to analyze even ten years later.
    I asked a friend who lives in an Islamic country what people think of this successful USA operation. He replied: "people think the USA are very good at assassinating". This is hardly a moral victory. There is also no question that the USA violated international law by invading Pakistan to reach Osama's hideout; and that the USA violated its own constitution by not giving Osama the right to a fair trial. My Muslim friend is right: the USA has become very good at assassinating. The new president, Barack Obama, learned from the mistake of his predecessor George W Bush: imprisoning suspected terrorists creates all sorts of legal nightmares. Hence, the new strategy is to just kill them. The USA under Obama has focused on drone-based killings of terrorrists, not on arresting them. Osama is just one of the many.
    If Osama's death is mainly important for domestic USA politics, there are nonetheless two aspects that project outside the USA. One has to do with Pakistan, and one with the abovesaid mood in the Islamic world.
    1. It is hard to believe that the Pakistani authorities were unaware that Osama lived just 100 kms from the capital Islamabad. It is also a bit hard to believe that four USA helicopters flew over Pakistan in the middle of the night (when the skies are not exactly overcrowded) and no military installation detected them: they came, they stormed a building, they flew away... and the Pakistani army did not notice. However, both are probably true. In order to understand this, one has to focus on Pakistan's eternal paranoia with India. Pakistan's military infrastructure, from its spies to its radars, is pointed east, towards India. They would immediately intercept an aircraft coming from India. They would immediately track down an Indian agent entering their country. But they would not so easily find out that a foreign citizen has entered Pakistan from the west (Afghanistan) and settled near the capital, and they would not so easily realize that helicopters have entered their air space from the west. Pakistan is certainly a dysfunctional country with three centers of power: the democratically-elected civilian president Asif Ali Zardari, who mostly presides on internal affairs, the head of the Pakistani army Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who still maintains most of his soldiers along the Indian frontier and has only half-heartedly moved some of them in the northwest to fight the Pakistani Taliban, and the chief of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISS) Ahmed Shuja Pasha, whose main concern is to understand what India is up to and certainly has close connections to anti-Indian insurgents (just like the CIA has always had close links with the enemies of its enemies). They have different degrees of interest in pleasing the USA: the president needs USA aid to salvage a collapsing economy, the army chief only needs USA weapons to keep its military competitive, and the ISS chief needs very little from the USA. Their motivation to cooperate is proportional: the president says all the right things, but only has police officers to carry out orders; the army chief is also willing but most of his soldiers are deployed along the Indian border; and the ISS chief has virtually no motivation to cooperate even if it probably has the right connections that could find out more about the network of terrorists based in Pakistan (most of which are not "terrorists" from his point of view but strategic allies against India). So that explains why Osama was living undisturbed in Pakistan and why the USA could fly in and out undisturbed: the explanation is the same. In a sense, Pakistan is only marginally interested in this curious war between the USA and some fanatical terrorists. Pakistan as a whole is probably much more concerned that India does not gain anything from this war than about the outcome of this war. Whether the USA or its enemies win is less important than making sure that India does not win. Hopefully, Pakistan will now realize that it is vulnerable both to USA violations of its sovereignity (a fact that was already well publicized but now extends to the very suburbs of the capital) and to infiltrations of undesired foreign guests such as Osama bin Laden (a fact that was mostly denied). Pakistan cannot take a seat in world affairs next to China, Russia, Brazil and its nemesis India (the emerging BRIC powers) if it remains mainly famous as a haven for sinister individuals. There is a fourth element of power, and it's the one that the USA continues to neglect: the Pakistani people. The Islamic militants, including Osama bin Laden, are immensely popular in Pakistan. Pakistan's only successes have been to unleash terror against India (originally in Kashmir) and to topple the communist regime in Afghanistan. Both were achieved not by the military but by Islamic militias, of which the Taliban is the most famous in the West but Lashkar-e-Taiba is equally infamous in India. Pakistan is in a quandary: more than 3,800 soldiers and police officers have died in the war against the Pakistani Taliban, and Pakistan has arrested more USA-wanted terrorists than any other country in the world. The world thinks that it helps the terrorists, but the Pakistani people think exactly the opposite: no other country has paid such a huge price for the "war on terror".
    2. I still believe that Osama was the product of an ideology, and that the ideology is the real problem, and therefore i don't believe that we have solved the problem. In fact, i have heard very few Islamic clerics openly declare that what Osama did was wrong and call him a bad man. The vast majority has never actually condemned him. Worse: i have heard very few ordinary Muslims (the so called "moderates") denounce Osama, Al Qaeda and their actions. The vast majority of the "moderates" in the Islamic world believes that Osama was a good Muslim. This will certainly not change just because Osama has been killed. In fact, it might simply reinforce the view of Western injustice and arrogance.
    The reason that so many Muslims think that Osama was a good Muslim is simple: he was a good Muslim. The West keeps spinning a narrative according to which the Quran preaches religious tolerance and world peace, but this is just wishful thinking or, worse, a deliberate lie. The Quran is very clear about what a good Muslim has to do in order to spread Islam all over the world: wage jihad. The Quran is very specific about what a good Muslim has to do to a country like the USA that has repeatedly sent soldiers on Islamic soil (no matter why): fight it. The Quran never says "don't kill". In fact, it clearly prescribes death for many sins. Mohammed remains the only founder of a major religion who personally killed people and started a war. Islam is the only religion that was founded by a war. None of this has gone away.
    The assassination of Osama did not change the fundamental issue: that any Muslim who believes in the letter of the Quran should do pretty much what Osama did. If you believe in the Quran and the Hadith, you have to be more like him than like "us". Otherwise you are simply not a good Muslim (which, of course, is great news for all of us who are not Muslims).
    This explains why Osama at one point had an approval rating of over 50% in countries stretching from Pakistan to Morocco: he was a good Muslim, doing in general what a good Muslim is supposed to do (although many would object against his methods and very few would want him as president). Today many ordinary people in the Islamic world are sad about his death, because Osama could have been the great Islamic leader that has been missing ever since the Ottoman conquerors. Many ordinary people are probably proud that he died a hero and did not surrender. That's it: not many ordinary people (the so called "moderates") are happy that a mass murderer was killed (because to them the fact that he was a mass murderer is secondary to his cause, just like Mohammed the founder of Islam was a mass murderer in his own times but had a divine mission that justified the killing of his enemies, and just like countless Western leaders have been mass murderers in the name of what they considered a "just cause").
    The real good news of 2011 is not the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but that millions of young people have staged insurrections against their governments. Those young people are not interested in whether the Quran is divine word or not: they are interested in justice and progress. Osama will sound terribly old-fashioned to them, just like so many Christian saints and Hindu gurus sound old-fashioned to the new generations in Europe and in India. It is not the death of Osama bin Laden that the world has to cheer for, but the decline of the ideology of Islam that is taking place in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, etc.
    To me the story of Islamic terrorism has always been similar to the fight against Nazism and to the fight against the mafia. You can kill Hitler and you can kill the boss of all bosses, but people were following these leaders and wanted to imitate them because, in the first place, they believed in the ideology of nazism and the mafia. The real fight was and is against the ideology of Nazism and the ideology of the mafia. What really ends the fight is the decline of the ideology. Call it the way you like ("radical Islam" or simply Islam, like i do) but that's the real enemy. That enemy has been wounded more seriously by the Arab revolutions of 2011 than by the assassination of Osama bin Laden of 2011.
    We often make comparisons with the Christian world in which very un-Christian politicians and popes killed millions in the name of the Christian god. I still think it is easier to oppose that violence, because in that case Christians have to remind those false Christians that Jesus specifically forbade violence. Jesus never killed anybody, and told his followers not to kill anybody, no matter what. Therefore it is relatively easy to use the Christian scriptures to tell the Christian politicians to stop killing. The case of Islam is exactly the opposite: Mohammed killed, and the Quran is full of references to killing, and the Hadith mention literally hundreds of cases in which murder is not only permitted but even mandatory. It is very difficult to use the Muslim scriptures to tell Muslim politicians to stop killing. Muslims have to "renounce" their faith in order to become true pacifists. Christians (and Buddhists and Hindus and so forth) have to "embrace" their faith in order to become true pacifists. The difference is colossal. That is probably the simplest explanation why the Islamic world appears to be a century behind the rest of the world when it comes to politics: peace, democracy and freedom require a much bigger sacrifice for them, it almost requires converting to another religion.
    There is another asymmetry that doesn't go away with Osama. We still have millions of Muslims who want to leave the Muslim world for the non-Muslim world, and virtually nobody from the non-Muslim world who wants to emigrate to the Muslim world. Worse: the Muslim world is de facto encouraging the few non-Muslims who still live there (the Copts in Egypt, the Jews in Morocco and Iran, the Christians in Iraq, the Hindus in Pakistan) to move out. The net result is that the rest of the world is getting more and more multi-religious and multi-ethnic, while the Islamic world is the only region of the world that is becoming more and more homogeneous. This is fostering a monolithic way of thinking inside the Islamic world that is likely to be less and less tolerant towards other faiths. And personally i still believe that this is one of the three main causes of the decline of the Islamic civilization. (See also "Why did the great Islamic civilization collapse?" in "The Historical Islam
    As for Osama himself, he probably caused more harm to the Islamic world than to anyone else. After all, many of the victims of Al Qaeda were Muslims. And Osama perpetuated the image that the only Muslims who are famous worldwide are either dictators or terrorists (as opposed to writers or scientists). His main victim was the Islamic civilization. It could be that Osama represented the lowest point of the Islamic civilization after the fall that started in the 16th century, and that his death and the Arab spring mark the beginning of the Islamic renaissance. And, judging from the success of the Tea Party in the USA and the xenophobic parties in Western Europe (most of whom mainly represent very ignorant and vulgar views), it could be that this Islamic renaissance will coincide with the decline of the West.
    Ironically, Osama bin Laden's declared intent (to expel the USA from the Middle East) backfired badly (the USA invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, and sent military personnel all over the Islamic world) and may succeed only now that Osama himself has been killed.

    (See also Why did the great Islamic civilization collapse?).

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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