“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes…”
- T. E. Lawrence
Cool scents of juniper and lapsed rainfall slipped past as he sat and contemplated life.
He wondered about the father he’d never gotten to know, about how his life might have been different. He was tired. Life in the desert dictated this. It also dictated that he would witness the extraordinary. In the daily mosaic of wind-brushed dunes, in the leisurely explosion of stars stretching across the horizon each night.
These casual miracles would provide the stage for witnessing events of far less permanence, but much greater consequence.
None of this beauty he’d been ensconced in since his wailing ordinary birth was noticed as he sat and contemplated what he’d made of his life so far.
The parents he’d never met had died shortly after he was sent to be raised by relatives, as so often happened among his people, the desert’s tribes. But he adjusted to the experience well, and prospered. As a youth he began to work for a wealthy widow named Khadija, fifteen years his senior. Work as a merchant suited the gregarious and sociable young man well, and his travels brought him in touch with peoples of many other faiths. Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews.
And many others, some who would consider God a matter of Them instead of Him. Each would offer ideas that later worked to mold his conception of God and Faith, and one group would offer sanctuary to him during the time of most pressing and legendary threat to his life.
But history would soon forget this, as followers claiming to champion his name would continue perhaps the world’s most aged and determined bigotry, joining in on the persecution of these fellow People of the Book that would at one point or another become a chorus of many of the world’s civilizations. Though all of this was yet to come.
For now, he sat.
Like another man he revered as a great Prophet, he was troubled by what he saw becoming entangled with the places, rites, and traditions of worship. He didn’t and never claimed to build the Kaab’a at Mecca. But he saw the countless animist deities enshrined there not as vehicles for personal realization or redemption, but rather only lugging the corruption and immorality that had become Gods of their own by becoming the focus of donations meant as down-payments on an estate in heaven.
He saw that these Gods were propped up by Mecca’s religious leaders, who were either too cowardly to condemn the forces undermining the souls of the people, or who were simply in cahoots with the merchants and traders who profited off the illicit trade of coin for conscience. If the status quo was allowed to continue, if nothing was done, souls would degrade and the societies which they comprised would drift farther and farther away from salvation.
Suddenly his deep contemplation was violently ended as an inexorable and invisible presence slammed into his body. He struggled for his life, but the force pulled his last breath effortlessly from his chest. At the moment death seemed inevitable, terrifying light and sound washed over him and replaced awareness of his own soul with the words that would make him a prophet. The words were stamped upon his heart, and then as unexpectedly as it had come the presence was gone. He slumped onto the floor of the cave. Mountain slate cold against his body, he knew then what he would do next. He did what any of us would have done.
He made his way home, curled up like a small child into the arms of his wife and figured he’d just gone mad and that it might be about time to kill himself.
For all of their easy differences, what is most striking in the comparison of Christianity and Islam are their uncanny similarities. These similarities run the gamut from the superficial through the historical all the way to the syntactical. And, in fact, it’s the last of these that is the most surprising, and the most uniting.
Unlike observant Jews, who for the most part dubiously eye Jesus as a false prophet, Muslims accept the life and teachings of the biblical Messiah as both historically factual and divinely inspired. His story is told in the Koran alongside those of Moses, Abraham, and the rest of the New and Old Testament prophets in near-perfect conceptual unison with what is stated in those ancient texts. Tweaks are made along the way, not only his overall message but one of the most important elements of Jesus’s significance in the Bible – that his second-coming will herald the End of the World and usurp Satan’s control – is mirrored exactly in the Koran. Muslims revere Jesus Christ, his importance as a prophet is second only to Mohammad, and they too wait eagerly for Jesus Christ to descend from heaven to finally bring peace to mankind.
The Koran covers many of the same tales told in the biblical canon, with the most notable twist coming in the story of Isaac doling out his inheritance. Whereas both Jews and Christians remember it as Isaac naming, after a bit of hirsute trickery, Jacob as his favored son, in the Koranic version it is his half-brother Esau who becomes the patriarch of God’s most blessed people. But other than this dissonance of descendance, much more than you’d think is the same.
From a rough reading it seems to many that the Koran first presents a Cliff Notes version of the Bible before adding on a few bits, points, lessons, and rules of its own. In both holy books Abraham is called to sacrifice his son but has his hand stilled by God at the last moment, Job is tested brutally and then held as an exemplary man of the faith, and Jesus is persecuted by the entrenched Pharisees in Jerusalem. And even more telling than the fact that these and other elements of the narrative kinship are shared by the two books, is the historical circumstances of the New Testament’s, the Old Testament’s, and the Koran’s heroes.
It’s a tough call whether oppression or fatherlessness is a stronger shared theme through the lives of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad. Although Moses was the only one of the three who was forcefully made a reed-basketed orphan by his own parents in an effort to save his life, we are given the impression that neither Jesus nor Mohammad were particularly close to their dads.
The Bible is a bit fuzzy about what exactly Joseph of Nazareth thought of his young betrothed’s claim that she’d been knocked up by God, but it doesn’t make any effort to pretend Joseph was ever warm and doting with Baby Jesus. Joseph is credited for giving Mary some benefit of the doubt and doing his best as a husband to her, but the Bible gives us the impression that Joseph never quite knew what to do with Jesus. The Bible doesn’t portray Joseph as abusive – it’s not like he made Baby Jesus cry all the time. But it does mention how a precocious Jesus spent loads of time at the local synagogues, questioning, debating, and challenging the religious Fathers there instead of bonding with his own father.
Mohammad’s life more parallels Moses in that he was sent away by his family, in Mohammad’s case after both of his parents died while he was young, and in his case not to save his life but to learn a trade and to be less of a financial burden on what was already a large tribal family. Loneliness wasn’t a facet of Mohammad’s early years, as he is conspicuously garrulous with members of every social group he encounters. But it is hard to imagine that the absence of a biological father didn’t weigh on Mohammad at all, and that it has no influence on him whatsoever.
As he aged, he spent more and more time on his own forging his own relationship with a more permanent Father. Just as Moses and Jesus take time away from society to spend a large chunk of their time not with their fathers, but with their Father. Like Mohammad, as Jesus hits adulthood he begins to spend much of his time out in the middle of nowhere, praying. However praying has a sense of the communal to many Christians, and of making specific entreaties to God. From what we know in the Bible, both of these elements were more lacking from Jesus’s prayers than not. As Jesus prayed he wasn’t surrounded by members of a shared faith, nor was he making specific entreaties to God.
For the majority of Christians today, you pray surrounded by members of your church and you pray for something or about something, much of the time you don’t just sit in a pew by yourself and vaguely “pray.” Moses too is portrayed as a devout man of God without a religious community – he was, of course, surrounded by idol-worshipping Pyramid-builders – who doesn’t pray exclusively in the specific requesting sense.
Although Moses does ask his God to “let my people go,” many times he leaves to spend time alone to commune with his Father with no specific request or reason in mind. On one of these occasions he gets, without asking, a couple of stone tablets that play a rather important role in the lives of a few people.
So “in prayer” isn’t the best way to describe how Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad spent the time they did communing with their Father.
But then besides being in some state of paternal orphanage, an even more obvious and more decisive bond shared by all three men is that they were born into societies brutally oppressed by greedy men. The oppression of greedy men may be a theme throughout recorded history, but if nothing else, the unique brutality of the ages which gave us the fathers of the three great Western religions is illustrated by the fact that it was in those ages our greatest religious leaders were compelled to make their mark.
It is the worst of times that give us the best of men.
Although it’s arguably overkill to place the 1970s in the negative superlative, at the very least those years did tip the world’s geopolitical balance towards conflict. In the aftermath of all the turmoil, no force emerged to take the reigns of opportunity and lead the region back to peace and prosperity.
During what is seen as the apex of Islamic civilization the Muslim ideal was realized, in that the Koranic model of a unified political and religious leadership sat as one: a caliphate. This was hundreds of years ago, and in the time since wars and colonialism have segmented what was considered an ideal Islamic civilization into a disparate group of nations that pay only nominal and symbolic homage to any idea of Islamic unity. And modernity didn’t provide the Muslim world with an opportunity to return to this early ideal until Western intervention in the Middle East once again created the instability necessary for the formation of a supremely violent State Shell: the Islamic State. It was the Islamic State that finally managed to rebirth the ideals of Arab-Islamic unity and primacy that other historical attempts had never fully given life to.
Arab-Islamic civilization remained as far as it had ever been from realizing the ideal of a united political and religious leadership throughout the first dozen years of the twenty first century, and although most Arab-Islamic governments made at least symbolic concessions to Muslim ideals in an effort to appease their populace – and especially their cantankerous Islamist factions – no one was really fooled. And so when the Islamic State stepped forward to fill that power gap, Muslims the world over who were either disgusted by the decadence of their current regimes or disillusioned by their disenfranchised second-class status as immigrants in European and other Western nations surged to join what they saw as the first legitimate caliphate in hundreds of years. By the spring of 2015, ISIS had amassed 20,000 foreign fighters from 90 different nations.
Within the regional-civilizational interpretation of the world’s current political clime, most areas have one or more Core States, which are “the principal source or sources of the civilization’s culture. …These sources are often located within the core state or states of the civilization, that is, its most powerful and culturally central state or states.” How many Core States there are and what their role is may fluctuate, as the West now has two relatively balanced Core States: the United States as one and a joint Franco-German one as the other.1 Since Core States provide both guidance and a sense of identity, the lack of a Core State opens a civilization up to several potential problems and conflicts. This is because a Core State “can perform its ordering function because member states perceive it as cultural kin.
A civilization is an extended family and, like older members of a family, Core States provide their relatives with both support and discipline. In the absence of kinship, the ability of a more powerful state to resolve conflicts in and impose order on its region is limited.2 Extending this idea to immigrant communities, when immigrants in a foreign country do not have one nation from which to draw identity and guidance they are opened up to influence by other non-state actors.
But understanding the Islamic State and the role they’re currently playing as a Core State is impossible without first giving bin Laden the credit he’s due: opening Muslim minds to the ideas that a different political existence was available to them and that embracing violent conflict with the West was the best way to free their fellow Muslims from oppression and subjugation. The proliferation of these ideas was a vital prerequisite for the Islamic State’s emergence – bin Laden set and arranged the geopolitical stage for the re-emergence of the caliphate by goading America into invading Iraq and creating the cracks of social instability ISIS first used as footholds as well as by lighting the pyres which served to guide modern Islamic fundamentalism to prominence.
The guidance and leadership the Islamic State provides doesn’t only seek to lead the Muslims who live in their home states, but also Muslims who have settled across the West as immigrants. And when these immigrant communities acknowledge ISIS as a legitimate caliphate, the results will blow you away.
Arab-Islamic civilization went without a Core State for so long for many reasons. In this civilization, loyalties run from broad to narrow – from tribe out to nation – which creates a very weak framework for any kind of nationalistic loyalty to begin with. Within Arab-Islamic civilization “the small group and the great faith, the tribe and the ummah, have been the principal foci of loyalty and commitment, and the nation state has been less significant.”4 This creates immediate legitimacy issues, because, existing states are quite literally lines drawn in the sand by colonial powers, with no correspondence to ancient cultural or tribal boundaries. They share a broad common heritage, but no common leader until the Islamic State decided to ignore those lines and create their own nation in the form of a State Shell.
Adding to the chaos is the problem of several entities all competing to try and claim leadership of the ummah: Saudi Arabia, Nasser, Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan all had a part in creating organizations aimed at grabbing the banner of Islamic leadership at some point in the recent past, or countering another existing group which was gaining too much power.
And it didn’t help that individual Muslim leaders were seen as “mostly effete kings and princes who preach austere Islam but live in luxuriant debauchery; or murderous family dictatorships.”5 Lacking a Core State, Arab-Islamic civilization was fair game for almost any entity to seize the mantle of leadership – an opening that has allowed the Islamic State to surge to the front of the pack of potential leaders. But this never could have occurred if Osama bin Laden hadn’t first laid the groundwork.
Despite being portrayed to most Westerners as a madman on the fringe of Arab society whose time has come and past, bin Laden was a pivotal player in the Arab psyche. It is important to keep in mind the potential perceived madmen have because, as it was noted as far back as the late 1800s “the madmen win sympathy, the mass of the people secretly applaud their courage, and they find imitators… acts of illegal protest, of revolt, of vengeance multiply.”8
He might have been seen by many in the West as a madman, yet Osama was a “cult figure in much of the Muslim world: with his posters everywhere and even a perfume named after [him].” Pakistani parents have named well over 10,000 of their sons after him since 1998.9 Eighty-two percent of Pakistanis considered him a freedom fighter in an October 2001 Gallup poll, and with a former CIA analyst characterizing him as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.”10
However, Osama’s genius did not lie in his masterminding of terrorist attacks, but in making a two-pronged appeal. First advocating a defensive jihad against “what we have done and are doing in the Islamic world and not because of who we are and how we run our political, economic, and social systems.” And secondly by having been perceived as “a heroic and holy man who lives and works only to protect his brethren and preserve their faith… a combination of Robin Hood and St. Francis of Assisi, an inspiring, devout leader,” rather reminiscent of the Prophet Muhammad.11.
Understanding the combined force of these strategies, combined with the lack of a legitimate claim on power from a Core State, bin Laden occupied an important and influential role in the Arab-Islamic world beyond the resources and capabilities of his organization. Or, framed another way, the resources and capabilities of his business. Because, like all men with a cult-like religious appeal, Osama bin Laden can be examined as a Salesman.
The basic role of a Salesman is to “persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing.”12 In the context of Tipping Points, to sell us on an idea, to get us to buy into it and embrace it. It is hard to imagine that any great ideology, either religious or political, spread without first being hucked by a Salesman.
You know it when you meet a Salesman, they have “some kind of indefinable trait, something powerful and contagious and irresistible that goes beyond what comes out of their mouths that makes you want to agree with them.”13 Call it energy, enthusiasm, charm, panache, likability, or charisma – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that when you meet with one you’re compelled to listen to him, and more often then not to adopt the opinion or belief that he’s expounding.
And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, because their appeal is hardwired into our very humanity.
Studies of news anchormen covering presidential elections have shown that when the anchorman of a particular station displays positive body-language when talking about a candidate, viewers who watch that station will be more inclined to vote for that man. Another study showed that if you’re asked to repeatedly nod your head up-and-down when listening to an argument, you’re going to be much more prone to later agree with it.14
The opposite happens if you’re shaking your head back-and-forth, you’ll be prone to disagree. These studies imply that non-verbal cues may be more important than verbal cues in the context of persuasion, a concept which likely works on levels that we simply don’t appreciate. An extraordinarily creepy thing happens when you slow down a video recording of kids playing on a playground to frames 1/45th of a second long. A-la the creepy jump-roping Children of the Corn, you’ll notice that the group displays a rhythmic pulsation.
This is a reflexive phenomenon that’s also seen when you watch people talking around a table at an ultra-slow film speed. They sustain a series of subtle movements that makes it appear as if they’re dancing to their own speech, and with the speech of those around the table. And not only do their bodies move, but the pitch and volume falls into a peculiar harmony.15
All of this happens completely involuntarily, and is something that science is just beginning to try and explain. This synchrony of movement and speech is a kind of super-reflex that we’re barely aware of. And, “like all specialized human traits, some people have more mastery over this reflex than others.”16 These people are our Salesmen. The people with the highest degree of mastery are our greatest persuaders, as they are able to draw others within their verbal and physical dance. They lead, and we – irresistibly – must follow.
And once drawn into this unseen dance, we are much more susceptible to the ideas that are being sold to us. Our best musicians and speakers are masters of this phenomenon, leading the massed crowds in a dance that we’re powerless to escape from.
A Salesman is able to build a level of trust with us in five minutes that the average person would take a half-hour to construct, as “the essence of Salesmen is that, on some level, they cannot be resisted.”17 You don’t even have to be in person for them to make their Sale, simply watching them speak on video will have the same effect as if you were in person.
Something that Osama bin Laden seemed to understand well.
In his attempt to spread his social contagion of al-Qaeda he has relied heavily on videotaped speeches, with tremendous success. In one case, only three months after watching him speak on tape a group of men found themselves driving to train stations on a mission to try and kill hundreds of civilians. Portrayals in the Western media of bin Laden and other militant Islamists as purely evil or motivated only by the hatred of some intrinsic value in our societies are totally off the mark, and ignore both the simple and straightforward message bin Laden delivered in an attempt to appeal to the foundations of Islam and the innate magnetism of his charisma.
There are superficial parallels between bin Laden and Muhammad: both are associated with spending an inordinate amount of time in caves, fleeing from their homelands, cloaking themselves in “a riches-to-rags persona,” estranging themselves from a well-connected family, and using asymmetric military tactics to defeat a better-equipped enemy.18
But the most profound parallel goes well beyond the superficial.
In the era of Mohammad’s birth the whole of the Arabian Peninsula was dominated by one tribe, the Quraysh. The crux of their control rested in the city of Mecca, more specifically in the Ka’ba.
The Ka’ba, a massive hollow ornate cube that served as a sanctuary to dozens of deities resting at the center of the city, was the focus of the annual ritual pilgrimage made by almost every one of the Arabian Peninsula’s variegated sects, from animist to polytheist to monotheistic. And after the Quraysh became the Keeper of its Keys they were able to harness the socio-economic potential of this pilgrimage by collecting tolls, administrating marriages and circumcisions, and – it could be argued most importantly – cornering the real estate market.
The Quraysh quartered up Mecca, and settled themselves in the ring of concentric settlements laying closest to the Ka’ba. Because “the closer one lived to the sanctuary, the greater one’s power,” by establishing themselves so close to the Ka’ba that they seemed attached to it, as one with it.19
The Quraysh were imbued with the very mystique of the Ka’ba and all of the economic and social power it held. To even approach the Ka’ba you would first literally have to walk through a door of a Quraysh house. The Quraysh shored up their power by collecting every idol they could from the surrounding desert and relocating them in the Ka’ba, and then maintaining a monopoly on the exchange of goods within Mecca and leveling a tax on every Meccan inhabitant. This exchange of goods generated enormous trade revenue since the entire city of Mecca was a neutral zone where no weapon and, it would follow, no fighting was allowed.20 The ensuing peace brought unrivaled prosperity, causing the Quraysh to soon posses unrivaled power.
By “inextricably linking the religious and economic life of the city,” the Quraysh had “developed an innovative religio-economic system that relied on the control of the Ka’ba and its pilgrimage rites – rites in which nearly the whole of the [Peninsula] participated – the guarantee the economic, religious, and political supremacy of a single tribe.”21
What followed in the wake of this monopoly was an all-out disintegration of the social order of the Arabian Peninsula, one which had been based on the fact that every tribe held comparable power to the other and so a somewhat accidental form of social egalitarianism had existed because no tribe was strong enough to fully dominate another for long, and so each tribe was able to look out for its own.
With the dominance of the Quraysh came a “sudden tide of personal wealth in Mecca [that] swept away tribal ideals of social egalitarianism. No longer was there any concern for the poor and marginalized; no longer was the tribe only as strong as its weakest members.”21 The Arab tribal ethic of looking after those unable to look after themselves soon went out the tent flap, and social stratification began to aggregate on the Peninsula – crushing the poor and dispossessed with its weight.
By the time of Osama bin Laden’s birth, the Arabian Peninsula had undergone quite a few name changes, finally coming to be known as Saudi Arabia. The “Saudi” in Saudi Arabia refers to the Saud clan, the present Keeper of the Keys to the Ka’ba who gained their own monopoly early in the 20th century after an uncannily similar peninsular power-grab as the Quraysh’s, and who posses a aura of entitlement that is nearly identical. However their wealth doesn’t come from the pilgrimage – even though much of their prestige does – but from the vast oil reserves preserved beneath their sands. And although those Muslims who live within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are well looked-after due to massive government subsidies, today the Muslim population of Saudi Arabia is only a tiny fraction of the world’s total Muslim population.
Just as the Quraysh tribe looked after its own, the Saudi government looks after its own citizens. And just as the Quraysh turned their back to the plight of those who weren’t part of their tribe, the Saudi government is seen by Muslims the world over as turning its back on the plight of the tens of millions of Muslims who don’t actually live within its borders but who are poor, oppressed, or otherwise victimized.
Osama bin Laden is popularly said to have snapped and decide he would destroy the West after the Saudi government turned down his offer to help turn back the Iraqi invasion that set the stage for the first Gulf War. What role that event played on a personal level will remain known only to bin Laden himself, though what is clear is that bin Laden has framed al-Qaeda’s mission in other terms. After all, it was “his leadership that held together an organization that had been bankrupt and thrown into exile.
“It was bin Laden’s tenacity that made him deaf to the moral quarrels that attended the murder of so many and indifferent to the repeated failures that would have destroyed most men’s dreams.”22
The Saudi Arabian government is, bin Laden said, in heretical cahoots with the West. It supplies the West with the oil that is absolutely vital to run the imperialist machinery which keeps Muslims in their second-rate place. And unlike the Arab-Islamic world, which until recently lacked a clear Core State to guide its policies and serve to set an international example of behavior and belief, the West has a rather obvious one.
If you’re American, you’re living in it.
A large part of what drove Muslims to follow bin Laden is the perception that “the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America… [this] simultaneously motivates some Muslims to act alone and attack U.S. interests; a great many more to join organizations like al Qaeda and its allies; and massive numbers to support those organizations’ defensive military actions with prayers, donations, blind eyes, or logistical assistance.” Bin Laden wasn’t leading an all-out attack on everything the West represents. Much of his sway came from the fact that “he recognized early on the difference between issues Muslims find offensive about America and the West, and those they find intolerable and life threatening.”23
It’s against the second category he lead his jihad, and there is no shortage of items which qualify his claim that America is leading the West in a crusade against all Islam.”24 The policies and actions which qualify for the latter are “almost exclusively, U.S. political, military, and economic policies toward the Islamic world,”25 and have little to do with hating our freedom or way of life. Although, granted, they do view our decadent capitalism and debauched sexuality with some distaste. The extent and breadth of these practices gave weight to bin Laden’s cry to jihad, and legitimize his claims that one is necessary in the face of an assaulting Western force. They fall into several categories.
Among those challenging Islam directly: America’s declaration that “waging jihad against Islam’s attackers is a criminal act,” and the arrest and incarceration, without trial, of hundreds of Muslims throughout the world; America’s demands that “Muslim regimes limit, control, and track the donations Muslims make to charitable organizations that serve their poor, refugee, or embattled brethren” and America’s push to have Muslim educational authorities change their curricula to teach a more modern version of Islam, and one which keeps more with U.S. interests.26
Next are those assaulting Muslims and their resources: American support of “oppression and often aggression by Hindu Indians in Kashmir, Catholic Filipinos in Mindanao, Orthodox Christian Russians in Chechnya, Uzbek ex-communists in Uzbekistan, Chinese in Xinjiang Province, apostate al-Sauds in the Arabian Peninsula, and Israeli Jews in Palestine.”27
As well as military support against muhajideen in the Philippines, the Caucuses, Yemen, and eastern Africa; America’s propping up of apostate governments in which “are corrupt, ruled by manmade not God’s law, and oppress Muslims trying to install shariah law.” And finally the imposition by the U.S. and UN of “economic and military sanctions on Muslims,” and U.S. interests controlling the Arab Peninsula “to make sure its energy resources are sold to the West at below-market prices.”28
Last come those which are seen as the desecration of Muslim lands: America’s aiding the UN creation of “a new Christian state in East Timor, taking it from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state, and ignoring the principle of self-determination,” while independence has been kept from many Muslim provinces such as Kashmir and Chechnya. As well as American occupation of and inordinate influence on “Afghanistan, Iraq, and the states of the Arabian Peninsula, the Prophet Mohammed’s birthplace,” which is illustrated further by the military presence in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait; and America’s backing of Israel’s oppression and occupation of Palestine through political and military support.29
All of these are based in geopolitical realities, and add up to “the resulting impression of America that is a nation determined to eliminate all aspects of Islam it finds unsatisfactory, if not Muslims themselves.” With the conspicuous lack of an Arab-Islamic Core State when he first started out to carry the mantle of leadership and present a focus for an alternative course of action, bin Laden was presented with the opportunity to unite at least part of the Muslim world under his banner of defensive jihad.
Parallels of bin Laden’s life to Mohammad are only part of the righteous image he has successfully groomed since his years in Afghanistan. Detractors assiduously attempted to discredit him as “intellectually incapable of managing al-Qaeda and designing its operations… [ranging] from the abusive to the condescending to the gently dismissive,” if not simply an egomaniacal loony skulking from cave to cave while clumsily dragging an IV-tree.
However these attempts will inevitably be proven completely inaccurate, since through decades of terrorism “bin Laden demonstrated patience, brilliant planning, managerial expertise, sound strategic and tactical sense, admirable character traits, eloquence, and focused, limited war aims.”30
Even more telling of his firm grounding in reality and his keen and intelligent perception of international affairs is the fact that bin Laden refused to blame Muslims’ struggles on the West, but “put the blame for the decrepit condition of Islamic civilization squarely on Muslims themselves.” The power of his message was in admitting Islam is being attacked by the American-led West, while asserting that “Muslims, if they return to Islam, have it in their power, and need help from no one but God, to annihilate the attackers.”31
And all this while fostering, the image of a man who is extraordinarily determined to defend his faith and his people through any means necessary, as long as they are compatible with Islam – a qualification that, as discussed, gives a rather girthy amount of leeway. To accomplish his ends, bin Laden realized that terrorism is the only means by which a defensive jihad against the invading Western forces can be waged.
A concept, a dream, that he’s using all his skills as a Salesman to sell.
Bin Laden never made any claims of divinity, however it’s not much of a stretch to say that he became something of a messianic figure for many Muslims. If anyone is making an argument that he alone picked up the mantel left by Mohammed – it was bin Laden, both through his actions and his words. Just like Mohammad, bin Laden proved he’s not afraid to call out oppression and injustice when he saw it, and did everything in his power to stop it. Which, when you really think about it, is what the world’s great religions have always been about.
The passage of time softens the starkness of each story’s oppression.
Moses’s Jews were quite literally shackled with slavery until death by a dictatorial Pharaoh. Jesus’s followers were constrained, still inescapably though without iron shackle, by Roman imperialism and the economic exploitation of religion. Mohammad’s people were free to wander as they pleased as mercantile desert nomads – however he saw them incapable of truly living as one with God because their slavery to gold and profit kept them from leading godly lives.
Their place in humankind’s history varies, and so these cultural differences lead to very different religions being formed. But in each case oppression was overcome by what started as one man’s force of will. And it is by defying this oppression, whose control and underpinnings diffuse from one person into the bonds of society as time passes and societies complicate, that each man gains his greatness and seals his fate.
Moses goes mano-a-Pharaoh and summons the original Biblical plagues to free the Jews, beginning a journey to a Promised Land that he will never set foot in, but during which he would be given the foundations of his faith. Jesus rages against the money-changers who are encouraged to use the temples as convenient banking centers and who he sees as leading his Jews away from God, an act which seals his crucifixion. Mohammad at first flees persecution, but then turns to confront it – beginning a conquest that he dies during but that his descendants will carry on for hundreds of years to the Western coast of Africa, the Southern coasts of Europe, the Northern border of the Caucuses, and East to the isles of Asia.
As much as anything, all three men were revolutionaries. They forever changed the way people thought about themselves and their place in the world, and at the core of each of their messages was a challenge to economic justice. Their followers would invoke their names for the rest of history, when doing everything from caring for sick babies to spitting and carving babies.
Some might argue the specifics, but in each case a mortal man took it upon himself to change the way things are, to not sit back and accept that everything happens for a reason – but to find reason in everything that happened.
That one man can change the way we think about ourselves and bring out boundless acts of grace and horror is born out again and again throughout history. During some point of each man’s life, they were considered crazy and on the fringe by established society. But they paid no attention to this.
In each case a religion, an ideological movement, was founded by a man lacking a strong bond to his earthly father who was disturbed by the oppression, economic and otherwise, that he felt binding him and his followers. In Moses’s case his people were already locked in chains and so his followers were, as a matter of fact, slaves. Jesus’s message was first welcomed by the weak, poor, and disaffected. As subjects of a dominant imperial Rome, even the Jews not stuck in poverty at the time were still in some sense economically enslaved. And Mohammad’s ideas first gathered more than a few of Mecca’s slaves, on whose stripped shoulders much of the trading society was based, in his nascent faith which meant to undermine the merchant society he so detested.
And to gain the direction and courage to defy the evil each man saw around himself, he spent time alone, by himself, without distraction or earthly companionship. A practice which isn’t really prayer in the conventional sense, but better described by the actions of another man who saw the oppression of society as reason enough to remove himself from society and spend thousands of moments seemingly alone with himself.
But not really alone at all.