Show Hide image

The NS Interview: Omar Bin Laden

“People are surprised when I say I’m the son of Osama Bin Laden”

What is it like having the world's most ­infamous surname?
I am proud to have the name of my grandfather, Mohammed Bin Laden. He travelled to Saudi Arabia, worked hard to build a construction empire and put himself at the right hand of King Abdulaziz. I would be a lesser man than my grandfather if I were to scorn his name.

How do people react to it?
People are surprised when they learn that I am the son of Osama Bin Laden. But once they get their wits in order, they are curious about my life and usually extend a hand of friendship, which leads me to believe that most people have very good hearts.

Do you have problems trying to get on a plane?
I have not experienced any problems getting on a plane, although I have had problems getting off! Once, I travelled to Spain - I didn't have a visa and requested political asylum. But the officials escorted me from the line and took me to the asylum unit - I was there for about a week while they looked at my case. My request was refused, but I applied for a court hearing. Nothing has been decided at this point.

What's your memory of 11 September 2001?
I was staying in the home of my father's mother in Jeddah. I had been sound asleep and was woken by my uncle yelling: "Look what your father has done!" I went into the sitting area and my family were gathered around the television. I soon learned that America was under
attack. It was a very sad day.

Did you imagine that Osama was involved?
I did not agree with my uncle's reaction. I never thought my father was capable of the carnage in America - it was too big for his small organisation. I cannot speak for my father's family. This topic is too painful for us to talk about. We were all so shocked by the suffering of those poor people that, after that morning, none of us ever had a conversation about it.

What was life like in the Bin Laden household?
There were lots of kids, so it could be noisy. But when my father was around, we were quiet and obedient. My childhood was mainly sad and lonely because of my father's passion for supporting the Afghan people against the Russians. I rarely had time with him and he was afraid for our safety, so we had to play indoors. When we left Saudi Arabia for Sudan, we lived more normally, but then we moved to Af­ghan­istan and life became more than tough.

In your book, Growing Up Bin Laden, you ­describe your father as stern. Do you have any fond memories of him?
Although my father was stern and did not ­hesitate to use his cane, there were good times when he stopped his war plans and played with us. My father could be very kindly and he was very close to his mother. I remember his face glowing with happiness when he was with her.

Do you think he is evil?
I would never answer such a question about my father. I will not let myself think about it.

Did he ever ask you to take up arms, before you broke contact with him in April 2001?
Only once, at a meeting with his fighters. His sons were in attendance, although none of us was a fighter. He spoke of how it is a great honour to give one's life for Islam and said anyone who wanted to give their life should put their name on a paper in the mosque. He never asked me to join al-Qaeda, but he did tell me I was the son chosen to carry on his work. He was disappointed when I said I was not suited to that life. I do not like disagreement or violence.

What would you like to forget?
I believe everything I have ever known was put in my life according to God's plan. If I list things I would like to forget, I am questioning God.

Do you plan to enter politics or public life?
I do not believe that I would be a good politician - I have a habit of speaking the truth, even when it does not serve me well. But I would like to be in a position to promote peace. I believe that the United Nations would be ideal for me.

What is your passion in life?
I have a great love of horses and I have a passion for taking care of my family. I also passionately want to try to stop violence. I do not yet know exactly how this will happen, but I know it will.

Where is your father?
What a question! Everyone asks me that. Very smart men all over the world are looking for my father, and they cannot find him. Does anyone really believe that I know where he is? If so, they are not thinking clearly.

If you knew where he was, would you tell?
If such a time comes, God will guide me to the correct path. But any child on earth would have difficulty with such a situation.

Are we all doomed?
I do not know God's plans for people on earth, so I cannot answer that.

“Growing Up Bin Laden" is published by Oneworld (£16.99). Interview by Mehdi Hasan.

 

Sign up to the New Statesman newsletter and receive weekly updates from the team

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 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496