The Islamic fundamentalism under its terrorist version is an expression of the failure and the growing discredit of the contemporary Arab and Muslim States. True that the sword has always figured prominently in Islamic history, that the Prophet Muhammad was a man who vanquished his enemies on the battlefield, that Islam owes its rapid expansion to military conquest… But we cannot sum up the Islamic civilization in these sole facts. We do not need to remind anybody of the arts, the sciences, and the cosmopolitan drive of the Islamic thought. The Louvre as well as other great Museums contains enough evidence about the humanism and the universality of the Islamic civilization. And if Bin Laden is really the great leader and the “thinker” of those legions of terrorists, let’s ask them: What has he to do with Al Farabi, or Ibn Roshd? And where would they place him in the line of people like Al Kindi, Ibn Sina, Al Jahiz, Ibn Khaldun, and so many others who contributed to giving the Islamic civilization its universal direction? Who is Bin Laden among those giants? The real answer is that he is just the offspring of the contemporary Arab failure. He is more related to the dwarfs of this civilization than to its radiant figures.
Bin Laden is a terrorist, indeed, in the same measure that the Arab dictators themselves are. He is the product of an Arab society plagued, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, with the same flaws. And here is the reason whereby some half-lettered, half-ignorant Arabs and Muslims, are sympathizing with him or supporting his “cause”. If Bin Laden is their “hero” it is just because of their misery. Because with the hateful dictatorial regimes they got, the Arabs have reached the level zero of moral distress. For the man in the streets of any Arab capital, Bin Laden is just the ” right “, the “logical” answer to the State terrorism, to the absence of freedom, to the contempt of democracy so fully expressed by the rulers. Why would the crushed citizen of any Arab state identify to the ruler? Nothing, absolutely nothing binds them together. Where is the Arab citizen who can look into your eye and tell you proudly: I live in this country not only because it is my birth–land, but also because it is the land of freedom and democracy? That’s why the figure of the rebel is so appealing for the crushed Muslim population. No matter who is the rebel or what is he aiming at! Since he claims that he is against the establishment, he is enough good to be charged of all the hate the crushed man of the streets is able to dedicate to his ruler. Thus, from an isolated outcast living in a remote cave in the Mountains, Bin Laden is sometimes magnified as a popular hero. Whether his pretensions are true or not is not the point. Anyway, the legend will go on with the rumors exaggerating it and making of the man a kind of Muslim Superman! Whether he has masterminded the attacks against the twin towers and the Pentagon or not, is not the question that would haunt the street-man of the Muslim cities either. He has not asked for evidence. He does not need it to believe in his old myths. It is the rulers who did to give themselves more credit in the eyes of their population. So they believe! And that is why they are so reluctant, so cautious as to rallying the anti-terrorist campaign! All of a sudden, they have discovered that, after all, Bin Laden is a Muslim! But For the street-man, suffices it to know that the mighty superpower is now hunting down bin Laden! His conclusion is: a single man – and what a man! An Arab Muslim! – reveals to be “smarter and stronger” than the whole US, maybe the whole world! (Given the fact that he is actually excluded from that world!) So, if some Arabs, some Muslims are able to set up that hell, that means that “we” – Arabs and Muslims – are not as helpless against our rulers as they pretend!
The crushed street-man thus finds a figure that is almost symbolic. For him it is important that men like bin Laden exist, no matter what they preach. For he is not interested in their program, – he “knows” that no Arab leader has any program anyway! – but rather in the level of opposition and contradiction they are able to reach in their relations with the current regimes. Whether they are terrorists or not is no concern of him. The street-man is not an idealist. He lives in a milieu already filled up with violence. And if it is absolutely necessary for him to answer the question raised by the terrorist behavior, he would not fail to acknowledge that the first terrorist is his own state, his own ruler!
Not that the street-man of the Muslim cities does not feel the pain of those American families who lost their beloved ones in the attacks. He is not heartless. How could he, whereas he knows very well that, like them, he is also a victim? But like any citizen of any country, he focuses first on his own problems, then on the others’. Thus, if he happens to be an Iraqi, a Palestinian, or an Algerian, the question is resolved: We have our dead, they have theirs! And if he is from the rest of the oppressed Arab-Islamic world, he would wish that bin Laden sends out his terrorists to get the country ridden of such or such ruler, if America cannot fulfill the task! And so goes on the story…
Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.