Journeying through the Muslim world during the height of the so-called “war on terror” was to experience a region mired in a powerful dream world. No pronouncement from the West or, for that matter, from local leaders, was met with anything other than a labyrinthine counter-narrative. But the mother of all conspiracy theories was saved for the events of September 11, 2001. What does Osama bin Laden’s death mean when millions believe he wasn’t responsible for the crimes for which he died? By RICHARD POPLAK.
It’s a sweltering day in the city of Peshawar, when finally I snap. Peshawar, near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been on the frontline of global terror for almost as long as there has been global terror. Many on the “Most Wanted” list have lived there, in dusty compounds with rhododendrons, shaded porches and the ghostly whiff of Pims and lemonade.
I have just spent my day in the old city’s canton, among vestiges of a barely remembered Raj, interviewing the usual array of Taliban or Talibanish folk who really rule the roost. The grand and terrible joke defining the war on terror, at least for those of us who have limned it, was indeed Peshawar and its environs. So porous is the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and for so long has it been the de facto home of Islamic radicalism, that one enters a shadow world where the news coverage and political newsspeak seem to come from another realm. This was the heart of the war. Why, then, wasn’t it a theatre?
The symbol presiding over all this was Osama bin Laden, or the horrific Boy’s Own caper he engineered on September 11, 2001. I bring up Boy’s Own, because Peshawar featured once or twice in stories in the old paper, which hitched the mores of Protestant colonialism to tales of valour, over the Khyber Pass and beyond. It always seemed to me that 9/11 originated in a barely formed adolescent mind, a Boy’s Own mentality where McGyvering and Jerry-rigging and derring-do, all in the service of some amorphous greater good, were the reigning morality. The attack always felt hormonal, petulant, the sort of thing a boy who salts snails or fries ants under a magnifying glass would do, while assuring us there was some larger ideological merit to his actions. Never has a Little Lord Fauntleroy, a child of such munificent privilege, spent his daddy’s money in such an awful way.
Such thoughts are on my mind as I hitch a ride back to my hotel with a young man who hopes to be my fixer. We rattle through the gloaming in an auto-rickshaw and fall into conversation. As so often happens in these parts, our chat morphs into a disquisition on the evils of the West, which doubles as a parsing of the nature of truth. I am informed that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founding father, was a Jew—how else could he champion rigid secularism over the glories of Islam? I learn that Yasser Arafat was poisoned by Mossad. I am told that Bush is not the President of the United States, but the puppet of a powerful cabal who want to rule the world. (Which was true, I suppose, but in a far more prosaic way than my new friend imagined.) Then this—the old shibboleth, the dread canard I suffered through countless times to leach a story from a source: 9/11 was an inside job; there were no Jews in the Towers on that fateful day; it is impossible for an airplane to bring down a building etc. etc.
“My friend,” I say. “Have you flown in an airplane?”
“Never,” he says.
“You have an engineering background?”
“I do not.”
“So how is it you can sit here and confidently tell me that an airplane cannot bring down a building?”
“It is not possible?”
“Have you ever seen a skyscraper? Been inside one?”
“So you know nothing. And you’ve seen nothing. And you go on the Internet and you believe everything you read, and you swallow everything the mullah tells you. You question nothing. You are an ignorant fool. Shame on you. Shame.”
My new friend is gravely offended, so much so that he quietly begins to weep. I have insulted him far beyond the point where violence would redact the slight; I have broken him. I expected this, because for young men of intelligence in that place, the crust of their belief is much thinner than it appears. They are confident in nothing, believe in nothing, except an etiolated version of Islam that inhabits their soul crowding out everything else.
It wasn’t so much the conspiracy theory itself that brought me to a boiling point, or even the anti-Semitism, which I’d heard from Sweden to Syria, often pronounced by people who had flown in airplanes, who were educated, and had themselves spent a few glorious moments atop Minoru Yamasaki’s south tower, looking out over the magnificence of Manhattan. And if we’re splitting hairs, how was I so sure the Bush administration hadn’t rigged the Twin Towers to blow? Do I have an engineering degree? Jewish I may be, but can I account for the whereabouts of my brethren on 9/11, or any other day?
No, what troubled me so deeply was the following: Truth here is impossible. And if that’s the case, the war is unwinnable.
The central paradox of travelling the region in that time, everywhere from Afghanistan to Yemen, from Syria to Lebanon, was that most Arabs I met did not believe Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. They didn’t believe it because they could not fathom how an Arab could inflict such a blow on America. The profound lack of self-confidence, the enormous mistrust of their own leaders (so many tacitly in league with the US), meant conspiracy theories could no longer be defined as such, because a sense of deep circumspection was truth. This shouldn’t be confused with critical thinking. When nothing can be believed in except the opposite of what you are told, the fundamentalist has won. He preaches the unshakeable word of God, and everything else is dust.
If this was the case, I mused, then the death of Osama bin Laden would mean nothing.
In my dingy hotel in Peshawar, on a rare off-day between suicide bombings, I lay on my bed and ruminated on the following: Arabs are schizophrenic. These are not, I should point out, my words. In my two years working in the region, I wrote this statement down as a direct quote perhaps three-dozen times, from the lips of some of the region’s best and brightest thinkers. It could serve as an Arab intellectual bumper sticker, those words. It did serve as an explanation of the Bin Laden paradox: We do not believe he did it; we do not believe in al Qaeda; there is something essentially admirable in their continued existence. Indeed, by 2007, Bin Laden was sullenly regarded in the region as a mass murderer of Muslims, the Arab Awakening was underway in Iraq, and insurgency groups had become so diffuse that to think of the war on terror as a war on al Qaeda was preposterously reductive. Nonetheless, in places like Peshawar—which are not, it should be noted, Arab—he played an essential, if complicated, series of roles. The shadow figure. The chimera. The devil imp. The saviour.
I thought back to my time in Yemen, where young men—and they’re all young men in Yemen—pasted stickers of Saddam Hussein in his glory days on the plastic screens of their motorcycles, or on their battered cars, or on the walls of Old Sana’a. It was several years since he’d been pulled, bearded and lousy, from his rat hole. Yet he was another strongman paradox perched uneasily on the razor’s edge of local consciousness. When I asked why all the Hussein-ophilia, I was told by an embarrassed publisher, “They love him, yet they hate him. He was strong, he made war, but he failed. He has become folklore.”
Folklore. A tragic lesson on the perils of war-mongering? A David who stood up to Goliath and lost, like a hero in a love poem? Certainly, elements of both. In this, there are notes of an Arab cultural sensibility that is all but unknowable to Westerners. But also, and perhaps more importantly, disapproval of Yemen’s leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is viewed as a Western stooge. The Saddam pictures acted as cultural and political opprobrium. Why can’t you be strong, they asked? Why can’t you stand up to the West?
Bin Laden is a different case, because his project was never secular, unlike Saddam’s regime. He was expressly Islamic and backward-looking, hailing a caliphate the likes of which Saddam hoped to rule without the benefit of Islam. He stalked the background of every conversation. He loomed over discussions of the war. He became, over time, both more and less than what he was, mostly because his war had entered a phase that no longer required his brand of imagination, or his money. The regional insurgency campaigns valued on-the-ground commanders and wily warriors like Haqqani and Al-Zarqawi. Bin Laden became folklore. Dead or alive, no one knew. But many believed that he was both guilty of 9/11, and not guilty of it. Which, I suppose, is one way of describing schizophrenia.
Now, Bin Laden is dead. The circumstances of his demise could not be more absurd, and yet make perfect sense. He was killed minutes away from the heart of Pakistan’s military establishment, both a stalwart American ally, and one of the several institutions in the world that still believes unequivocally in his mission. Instead of putting the situation to rest, President Barack Obama and his team have seeded a fertile super-crop of further conspiracy theories. The raid’s Zapruder footage is unlikely to be released; it gives away too many military secrets. Publishing pictures of Bin Laden’s corpse rubs up against the Obama administration’s morality, not to mention the Geneva Convention. And even if both were posted on YouTube tomorrow, for those who believe the moon landing was faked, staging the death of a sinewy terrorist is small beer by comparison.
Osama bin Laden still presides over a shadow world. He still figures in the popular regional narrative in which Jews brought down the Twin Towers, while he must earn credit for striking such a blow against America. He remains the ruling boogieman in a schizo reading of recent history, laughing at us from his watery grave.
I think back to the potential fixer who I so gravely offended in Peshawar. Were I to extend him some empathy, I’d allow that he has grown up in a brutal place, suffering a daily grind of personal, cultural and spiritual humiliations. He cannot gain perspective, because his aperture is too small. Truth is a cudgel used by the powers-that-be to beat him further into the ground, so he must neuter truth, whatever truth may be. Up is down; left is right.
In this world, Osama bin Laden is immortal. DM
Photo: Several dozen students from a nearby madrasa shout anti-American slogans while protesting the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Quetta May 4, 2011. Bin Laden was unarmed when U.S. special forces shot and killed him, the White House said, as it tried to establish whether its ally Pakistan had helped the al Qaeda leader elude a worldwide manhunt. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed
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