Saturday, May 07, 2011

Osama bin Laden: modern terrorist, not medieval jihadi

The killing of Osama bin Laden by CIA operatives at Abbottabad in Pakistan on Sunday night is not a nail in the coffin of global jihad. US president Barack Obama's grandiose announcement from the White House of the killing of the prime terrorist had something comical about it. It looked like a small town sheriff declaring the death of a criminal on the run.

The most powerful country in the world spent billions of dollars, deployed thousands of soldiers and needed 10 years to get at an individual, who was no Napoleon. There was a clear mismatch between the immense force and the puny target.

He was a brigand who had some following running into a few hundreds, perhaps a couple of thousands. But he had a lot of clandestine financial support from states like Saudi Arabia and the United States and Pakistan in the 1980s. Osama did not appear out of thin air. He was created by the powers that be to fight godless communists from the then Soviet Union occupying Afghanistan, a Muslim country. Americans, Saudis and Pakistanis fought an ideological war. Osama and Al Qaeda were the monstrous byproducts.

Bush and Obama have been careful to say time and again that the war against Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists was not a war against Islam – which they described as a religion of peace – and against Muslims of the world. But many Muslims did not believe in what they said. They believed that somehow the Western world, which is mainly Christian, was fighting a crusade once again against the Muslim world. It was a perception but a powerful one, which overshadowed the complex and untidy facts.

There was the ideological vacuum of the post-Cold War world, and there was the growing resentment among ordinary people in the Muslim countries against their overbearing, unjust rulers. The religious fanatics were waiting in the wings to tap into this vein of discontent. Osama was a fanatic and used the simplistic rhetoric of fighting the infidels, kafirs, and calling it a holy war or jihad.

That misled many people to believe that Osama was an anachronism, that he lived in the modern world in real time but he was inhabiting an imaginary medieval Islamic world in his mind. It became easy to give a rational underpinning to the war against terrorism and against Al Qaeda as that of a rational, modern world fighting the barbaric medieval Islamic world. It did not matter that this was inaccurate. This was a war of propaganda and rhetoric counted more than anything else.

The fact is Osama was no sentimenatlist like John Ruskin looking back to the simple verities of a vanished medieval world. He was a child of the 20th century who was at home with technology and who did not ever shun it as the work of Satan as do some maniacal evangelists in every religion. So, he valued the media and used it whenever and wherever he could to his advantage. He used satellite phones, television channels, video interviews to send out his message. He gave the impression that he had a large following and he was standing up for the billion-strong Muslim world. The Muslims never took him seriously, but the generals and policy wonks in the Western capitals did. He also fell back on modern medicine of the West to prop up his battered body.

What distinguishes a modern terrorist is the appreciation of modern weapons and communications. Osama used technology to the hilt. The term 'medieval jihadi' is both inaccurate and an oxymoron. Medieval Islam was a domineering power in the world at that time, and Europe was painfully emerging from the dark ages that followed the fall of Rome. It is true that the Muslim world had downed its intellectual shutters from about the 14th century onwards, but it did not have to fight a defensive war against the kafirs. The infidels were in no position to challenge the technological and cultural superiority of the Muslim world. And that was indeed the lesson from the 11th and 12th centuries crusades. The European and Christian kingdoms were the crusaders, that is jihadis. The Muslims never thought of it in terms of jihad.

Osama belongs to a 20th century where a rich man who had spent his youth in Europe with access to destructive toys like guns. He played around with them like any pampered young man rolling in wealth at the cost of other lives, mostly that of Muslims.

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