Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Weight Of Osama's Millstone

Unless you've lived on some “green world” remove as far from the madding crowd as Fletcher Christian was on Pitcairn Island, the death of Osama bin Laden, for better or worse, has gotten under your skin. Who was this enigma now tied to a millstone alone, deep in a watery grave at the bottom of the Arabian Sea? For some of us the ignominious dispatch of bin Laden is seen as a just redress for his many crimes against humanity, thus his demise is rightly celebrated as the death of the devil himself. For others it is the martyred death of a modern prophet at the hands of the infidel West. Either way a virtual tsunami of pent emotion has found its breaking shore almost 10 years after its horrific release on 9/11.

What has given this wave its awesome world circumnavigating power? Why is there dancing in the streets in the USA and mourning in some cities in the Muslim world? How could this one man elicit such contradictory emotions? Who are we, those who rejoice in his death? Who are they, the people who lament? Why do some praise the man we behold as evil incarnate? Is it relevant to draw the question along such stark lines? Are there immutable principles of common human decency that should offer guidance on the right values, the right people, and the right god? How will the legend of Osama unfold now that he is gone and what portion of weight must each side bear of Osama's enigmatic millstone?

His death draws into sharp relief a deep and dark gulf between 2 divergent cultures and their respective religions. It is both the “Philistinism” and the ” xenophobic fear” with which each regards the “other” that defines most of this gulf and the rules of engagement with which they converge along bloody urban borders around the world. How is the West to come to terms with its misunderstanding of bin Laden? Are we even aware that there was an era in world history when Islam reached its own pinnacle and then precipitously fell from grace? For 600 years Islam was the renaissance culture of the world. It is hard for many westerners to imagine but western culture had all but forgotten its own intellectual, scientific and cultural roots as the rise of the Roman Church suppressed the glorious past of ancient Greece and Rome. This cultural amnesia was finally reborn with the help of the Muslim polymath Averroes and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides who began to translate into the vernacular all that had been lost through the Dark Ages. After this crescendo was reached in 14’th century Al Andalus, Spain and in old Baghdad, there have been many centuries of rapid descent and “cultural humiliation” felt by Muslims. The symbol of bin Laden, more than the man himself, may represent the desperate attempts of a culture trying to revive its own glorious past.

Wrought of this cultural humiliation Islam has clung to the only thing that connects it to its glorious past: Its Sacred Religion. Islam is a culture of deep and nostalgic remembrance of things past. Given so much poverty and dispossession experienced in the Muslim world today, it is only through this glorious past that this present humiliation can be assuaged. Bin Laden did not look forward, he looked back with a seething sense of the desecration of his sacred faith and his chosen means to expose this desecration was his violent jihad not only against the West, but also against moderate Islam as well. It seems essential to understand the crucial historical dichotomy between the Christianized West and the Islamic East. Where the West finally began its slow philosophical process of separating church from state, while still holding on to the vestigial exceptionalism that it is only through the sacrifice of Christ that salvation can be found, Islam, on the contrary, has never been able to accept this separation and has in fact seen the separation as blasphemous and infidel.
The Koran must be left in the pristine form with which Mohammad himself originally conceived it. For this reason it clings dearly to its Sacred Religion as the only thing that keeps the entire religious culture intact. The roots of this present jihad do not start with a war on the West, but, rather, a jihad within Islam itself, pitting the fundamentalists against the modernizing moderates within the faith. It has been largely an internal struggle starting in the 1950's.

This is why it is so important to understand the life and times of Osama bin Laden and just why he came to the fervent jihad he did. The raison d'etre of Osama bin Laden was not created in his own solipsist's vacuum, but brutally wrought in the crucible of these times. He is more than just an individual gone pathologically awry. He is both a symbol and an emblem to this defiance of cultural humiliation, this sense of being “cast out”. He was far more genuinely emblematic of his faith than was Saddam Hussein with his false Islamic Arabism. But, in the end, it was not so much his jihad to revive the pristine tenets of the faith that resonated with millions of Muslims around the world, but his defiance and unwillingness to submit, and most importantly, his efforts to turn back centuries of cultural humiliation and to find the lost pride of Islam that was once the jewel of the world.

End note:
If the reader concludes that this is an essay that attempts to justify bin Laden’s sacred jihad, then I have failed to clarify the point of the essay. It was not written in the spirit of an apologist’s appeal, nor as a rational defense of bin Laden’s horrific crimes against humanity. There is no doubt that all rules of international law and common decency demanded that bin Laden be pursued and brought to justice. Question is, was this final justice worthy of modern international jurisprudence or was it the same kind of justice- one of retribution and vengeance- that bin Laden himself believed so justified his sacred, bloody jihad?I think there is enough moral and practical ambiguity here to at least ask ourselves these questions.


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