Wednesday, May 04, 2011


"The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and essence of his age; he actualises his age."

Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel, The Philosophy of Right. (1820)

The happy demise of the Arab world's modern-day Napoleon of terrorist crime, Bin Laden has called forth many comments and thoughts. Some pertinent, some less so and some of the arriere-pensee variety. Regardless, what can one say of this rather twisted and seemingly demonic individual? First and foremost is that his historical importance, such as it is, is tied up with the political and cultural zeitgeist of the Arab and to a lesser extent Muslim world from the late 1970's to say circa 2010. Just as to pronounce the name 'Nasser', will immediately conjure up the era of the 1950's and 1960's, the era of classical Arab secular nationalism. So in the future, pronouncing the name 'Bin Laden', will conjure up, the era of Arab / Muslim terrorist outrages and Islamic extremist ideology. And just as the first era was eventually proven to be politically stillborn and bankrupt, so it appears that with the so-called 'Arab Spring', Bin Laden's form of Islamic radicalism has been shown to be similarly bankrupt. The question which puzzles me, and which an answer is not entirely clear, is why did the era of Bin Laden result in this widespread Arab, and Muslim urge to intervene in foreign conflicts? Per se there is nothing in the prior history of either the Arabs or Islam which either mandated or saw that volunteers for Jihadism in places as far afield as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir, among others, emerge ex nihilo. Where was this urge circa 1975 in the Lebanese Civil War? Or in the first three Indian-Pakistani Wars? Much less in earlier conflicts. Which seems to suggest that like all ideologies, the Islamic radicalism of the last thirty to forty years or so, is part and parcel of a certain dysfunctional dynamic of Arab and to a lesser extent Muslim, society & culture. For reasons which have been perhaps best explained by the French scholar, Olivier Roy, there seems to be endemic to the nature of Islam as a form of religious practice, aspects which seems to grant a form of legitimacy to the types of violence which 'Bin Ladenism' best exemplifies. As Roy noted a few years back in an interview:

"I think Islam provides a common denominator for different categories of the population. A young, modern, Western-educated intellectual can speak with an illiterate peasant in terms of Islam. Secondly, Islam provides a universal ideology, which is not the case with Hinduism, Shintoism, whatever you want. It's a universal religion with a tradition of fighting. Not necessarily of blood and things like that, but there is [conquest] in the history of Islam, which goes along with the nostalgia of the idea that we lost our identity, we lost our territories, so we now can restore that by using the paradigm of the time of the Prophet, when Islam was expanding world religion. This is a dimension of internationalism and universalism which is specifically at work in the new Islamic militancy." 1

Which seems to result in this militant felt need, nay necessity to use violence in extraneous conflicts, whose only commonality is that one of the parties, shares the same religion as oneself. The sheer absurdity of this (now seemingly common) point of view is perhaps best displayed, per contra by the notion that the recent, or current conflicts in Nigeria or the Sudan would necessitate Christians in either North America or Western Europe, volunteering to join their coreligionists in the fighting. This absurdity, puts paid to the idea (fondly evoked from time to time by our liberal bien pensants in the Anglo-American world) that Muslim extremists, are merely mirror images of so-called 'Christian extremists'.

Where the above state of affairs leaves us at this point in time is difficult to say. Except that in the absence of either a successful liberalization of both Arab political cultures in the Near and Middle East, as well in the surrounding Muslim countries, and a fundamental change in the nature of Islamic theology and practice, I am afraid that 'Bin Ladenism', while perhaps now in decline, may one day soon stage a return to the forefront.

1. Harry Kreisler, "Conversation with Olivier Roy," 16 April 2002. See also, Roy's best-known book: The Failure of Political Islam (1994). For a different approach which reaches similar conclusions to Roy, see some of the pertinent essays in: Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: interpreting the Middle East. (2004).


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