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No kind of martyr: the death of Osama is not to be exploited by extremists, writes Mehdi Hasan

Mehdi Hasan is horrified at the reaction to the killing of Osama by a handful of people in the Muslim community.

At 7am on 2 May, less than three hours after Barack Obama dramatically confirmed that the world's most wanted terrorist had been killed, a press release dropped into my BlackBerry inbox from Anjem Choudary, the clownish ex-leader of the banned British Islamist group al-Muhajiroun. "May Allah accept Sheikh Osama Bin Laden shaheed [martyr]," it proclaimed.

A few hours later, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan named Qudos declared: "Losing him will be very painful for the mujahedin but the shahadat [martyrdom] of Osama will never stop the jihad." And in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, head of a Hamas government that is regularly denounced by al-Qaeda and its affiliates for its "apostasy", reacted to the news of Bin Laden's death by condemning "any killing of a holy warrior or of a Muslim and Arab person".

What on earth is wrong with these men? How can self-professed Muslims elevate a cold-blooded killer such as Bin Laden to the level of a mujahid, or holy warrior, and shaheed?

A disclaimer is due here: the overwhelming majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims have little time or sympathy for Bin Laden or al-Qaeda and won't have shed any tears on hearing of his death. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Centre's Global Attitudes Project found that support for Bin Laden "has dropped sharply among Muslim publics" over the past eight years. The percentage of Muslims voicing confidence in him between 2003 and 2011 declined from 72 to 34 per cent in the Palestinian territories and from 59 to 26 per cent in Indonesia. In Egypt, it is just 22 per cent, while in Lebanon, it crashed from 19 per cent in 2003 to 1 per cent this year.

Odious leader

To add to the Pew poll, I carried out my own detailed and scientific survey of British Muslim opinion: I rang the (Muslim) members of my extended family and social circle. Not a single person expressed anything other than delight or jubilation at the death of the odious Osama. The much-maligned Muslim Council of Britain promptly issued a statement on 2 May, saying: "Few will mourn the reported death of Osama Bin Laden, least of all Muslims."

Bin Laden thus had minority, not majority, appeal in the Muslim world. But - and here is the source of my continuing frustration - he did have an appeal. Disclaimer aside, take a second look at those figures from Pew. Despite Bin Laden's plummeting, Clegg-like approval ratings among Muslim communities in recent years, as of 2011 he still commanded support and trust from, among others, one in three Palestinians, one in four Indonesians and one in five Egyptians. In other words, millions and millions of Muslims.

The cult of Bin Laden has shamefully persisted. Why? One of the great myths is that his enemies were non-Muslims, or "Jews and crusaders"; his allies portrayed him as a doughty defender of Islam and Muslims from the depredations of an imperialist west. The more prosaic truth is that most of the victims of al-Qaeda's terrorist actions have been Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries, not non-Muslims living in western countries.

This was starkly illustrated in a study, entitled Deadly Vanguards, published by West Point's Combating Terrorism Centre in December 2009. "The fact is that the vast majority of al-Qaeda's victims are Muslims," it conclu­ded. "The analysis here shows that only 15 per cent of the fatalities resulting from al-Qaeda attacks between 2004 and 2008 were westerners." Between 2006 and 2008, the numbers skewed even further: "During this period, a person of non-western origin was 54 times more likely to die in an al-Qaeda attack than an individual from the west."

So much for Bin Laden, "hero" of the Muslim masses. To quote from President Obama's address on 1 May: "Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims." Indeed. He took sadistic delight not just in the image of burning New Yorkers throwing themselves out of the windows of the World Trade Center but in the mutilation of Afghan schoolgirls, the shooting of Pakistani mosque-goers and the bombing of Jordanian weddings.

His is a violent and nihilistic legacy of suicide bombings, beheadings, assassinations and hijackings. Few would dispute that the founder of al-Qaeda was the man most responsible for negative perceptions of Islam in recent years. Thanks to Bin Laden, a decade on from the attacks of 11 September 2001, ordinary Muslims across the west are defamed as "terrorists" and mosques are attacked and vandalised. I have spent countless hours being detained and questioned in the "homeland security" interview rooms at US airports, while cursing Bin Laden and his ilk.

Killing an ideology

So, from a Muslim perspective, good riddance. But killing Bin Laden was the easy part. After all, if former CIA officials such as Michael Scheuer are to be believed, the Clinton and Bush administrations gave away several opportunities to kill or capture him.

On a now notorious occasion, in February 1999, a US spy satellite photographed Bin Laden on a hunting trip, but White House officials prevented the CIA from launching a missile attack after discovering that the hunting party included minor princes from the United Arab Emirates. (In the end, it was on the executive order of the "secret Muslim" Obama that US special forces killed Bin Laden after a 40-minute gun battle in Pakistan.)

Destroying Bin Ladenism is the tricky bit. "The al-Qaeda ideology is bigger than any one man," says Noman Benotman, former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and one-time associate of Bin Laden. "The ideology of al-Qaeda is still alive and is still attractive to many people. This is not the end of the al-Qaeda problem."

The hate-filled ideology of Bin Ladenism - based on a deliberate misreading of Islamic texts and traditions and on an exaggerated sense of victimhood, combined with legitimate (and illegitimate) grievances about western foreign policy in the Middle East - will continue to radicalise young Muslim men across the world, long after the al-Qaeda leader's body has hit the ocean floor. Bin Laden is dead. Bin Ladenism isn't.

“I don't know where Bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care," confessed George W Bush in a rare, candid moment in March 2002. "It's not that important. It's not our priority." To be fair to Dubbya, he had a point. Bin Laden the man may have mattered more a decade or so ago, but it was always his ideology that posed a larger threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This remains true in 2011.

Special forces cannot win a war for hearts and minds. In that sense, killing Osama, though cathartic, is irrelevant.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, cuts that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.