Commentary: We Killed Osama bin Laden, Now Let’s Kill the Myth
Sunday, May 8, 2011

By William O. Beeman

The United States is jubilant over the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. However, it will be some time before history catches up with the mythology that arose around him and the al-Qaeda organization in the past 10 years. Osama bin Laden at the end was far from the looming powerful figure he was made out to be. He had outlived his usefulness both as a bogeyman for the West, and as an Islamic responder to the neo-colonialist forces his organization purported to confront.

The principal myth surrounding bin Laden was that his brand of religion represented a mainstream streak of something identified variously as “jihadism” or, in more genteel rhetoric, “political Islam.” This was far from the truth. No doubt, bin Laden justified his actions with questionable theology and bogus fatwas, but his organization’s actions represented an extremist view of religiously justified political action that was embraced by only a fraction of the Islamic world.

Second, bin Laden was seen as promulgating the United States as al-Qaeda’s principal target—a mythology that was certainly reinforced by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Actually, the target of bin Laden and the al-Qaeda forces for which he served as leader was the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. He turned to this mission after the Soviet Union was expelled from Afghanistan. Bin Laden viewed the Saudi Royal Family as having defiled the Arabian Peninsula—the Holy Land where the major religious shrines of Islam are located. Not only were the lives of the Saudi rulers seen as venal, they allowed the United States and other nations to establish military operations on Saudi soil. The United States became the target of al-Qaeda when they set up operations to protect and support the Saudi Royal Family.

Third, bin Laden was promoted by the Bush administration as the mastermind of a gigantic apocalyptic global organization under his control. They built the search for him into the Global War on Terror—for which they actually issued GWOT medals. This was a gigantic exaggeration that was largely accepted by the American public without question.

Fourth, exaggerating bin Laden’s powers also served disparate dissident groups in the Islamic world. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, bin Laden’s organization had enormous cachet among political resistance groups—many of whom predated the rise of bin Laden and al-Qaeda by decades. These smaller groups, with their own local grievances against repressive rulers, quickly “branded” themselves with the epithet “al-Qaeda.” It was a franchise operation that gave many small groups from the Philippines to Morocco instant attention and credibility. In fact, bin Laden never had direct control over these groups. They would occasionally come to him directly or indirectly for blessings of their actions, and he would routinely “approve.” This served everyone’s purpose—making bin Laden’s al-Qaeda seem more powerful than it was, and giving the local groups credibility. We now know that over 10 years, bin Laden’s organization had dwindled precipitously. In fact, its numbers were in the low hundreds in the Afghan-Pakistan theater in the end.
Fifth, bin Laden was presented by the United States—particularly the Bush administration—as impossibly clever, wily and able to evade U.S. military operations. This mythology was promulgated by Pakistan as well. In fact, bin Laden was an incredibly useful symbolic bogeyman. His mere existence justified the United States’ presence in Afghanistan, as well as billions of dollars spent supporting the Pakistan military regime without complaint from the American public. It is already apparent that the Pakistanis—and likely some Americans—knew very well where he was. He was not hiding out in a cave somewhere; he was 35 miles from Islamabad in a stable compound in a luxury neighborhood.
Finally, bin Laden has been portrayed with the power to reach beyond the grave. Virtually, the instant that his death was announced, global speculation about “sleeper cells” and attacks by “bin Laden’s followers” filled the airwaves. In fact, no one has ever identified these organizations. This is part of the continued mythology of a unified Islamic global movement organized to confront Western civilization. Such a movement never existed, though there are certainly individuals in both the West and the Islamic world who find it politically useful to promulgate such a fabrication.

As we have seen in the past few months, the dominant focus for political action in the Middle East and elsewhere is not religious-based. Movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and even Jordan are based in the principle of secular representative government free of Western political and economic control, channeled through repressive rulers. Even in Iran, dissidents seek to lessen the influence of religious doctrinaire control as their political system moves inexorably toward secular rule.

The mythic ideology of Islamic confrontation with the West, inherent in the bin Laden myth, should die with him. Americans, rather than celebrating a triumph over Islam, should instead be looking forward to a new era of cooperation with the progressive peoples throughout the region, who, with bin Laden’s death, have now begun to have the false accusation of Islamic extremism lifted from their shoulders.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minn. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years, and is past president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association.


May 8, 2011 - May 21, 2011 Edition


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