Saturday 22 October 2011


Kabir Bedi

You’ve got to admire the man’s brilliance. While the Americans combed the craggy caves, ravines and villages of Afghanistan and Waziristan, he hid in a million dollar home, surrounded by colonies of Pakistani generals, a quick drive from Islamabad. But that was only half of it. Starting with his escape from the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden outfoxed the world’s most fearsome hunters for almost a decade.

But he made one fatal mistake. Like Sherlock Holmes’ proverbial dog who didn’t bark, the absence of technology --- TV, internet, telephones ---- in an expensive Abbotabad house gave the Americans the confirming clue: it was a hideaway for “a person of great importance”. The rest is now history.

Historically, Osama’s power came from America’s mistakes. Ronald Reagan backed, armed, and hailed him as a “hero” while he fought the Russians in Afghanistan. It made him famous, even though he was really, in his words, “fighting infidels in a Muslim land”. Later, he used the same logic to demand the withdrawal of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Mecca. His “new jihad” led to the destruction of New York’s iconic Twin Towers.

But America’s biggest mistake had far deeper roots. For decades, it remained a mute spectator to Israel’s relentless attacks against the Palestinians, more so after the 1967 war. Whatever their justifications, those brutal TV images were beamed across the Arab world, week after week, year after year, breeding enormous resentment against Israel’s principal benefactor. Anti-American resentment was the fodder that fuelled Osama’s popularity on Arab streets. It made him a folk hero for millions, however merciless his war.

But Osama was on the wrong side of history. He attacked his foes, he claimed, “to defend” Islam. No matter who: Russians, Americans, Europeans, Saudis, Indians or Chinese, his battle cry was always in the name of religion. By targeting “the enemies of Islam”, he sought to rally the Muslim world behind him. His strategy cleverly obscured his real agenda: the propagation of a highly puritanical, regressive form of fundamentalism. Osama believed "the only Islamic country" in the Muslim world was Afghanistan under the rule of Mullah Omar's Taliban. Before they were overthrown in 2001, the Taliban had regularly cut off people’s heads, hands and noses, and reduced the historic Buddha of Bamiyan to rubble with cannons. That was Osama’s ideal state. If he had broadcast this loud and clear, it would have splintered his supporters and divided their loyalties. Knowing this, he kept the focus outside Islam, not within it. Osama was really fighting a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere.

Fortunately, Osama failed. No mass uprisings followed the news of his death. In fact, barely any demonstrations of importance were seen anywhere. Even those who may have admired him from afar for taking on, and humiliating, two world super powers seem to have been revolted by the wanton waves of death and destruction he set in motion. Many innocent Muslims suffered the ostracism of being seen as “terrorists”. In America, they became the new “niggers”. In the end, Osama didn’t dignify Muslims, he damaged them greatly.

Osama is dead, but his scattered army lives on. And his deeper agenda will not wither away easily. The battle between fundamentalists and moderates is still being fought in every country of the Muslim world. Extremists may have suicide bombers or violent enforcers on their side. But Muslim moderates have far more meaningful weapons. Numbers: the majority of people, in every religion, are not extremists. Time: everything evolves, but fundamentalists are preaching intolerance. Technology: new generations can’t be brainwashed as easily in the Information Age. Knowledge is the most potent weapon of all in the battle for minds. But it may be a while before victory can be declared.

Even as the absence of technology led to Osama’s death, its omnipresence today may help ensure that his brand of violent extremism becomes an unmourned relic of history. But, sadly, misguided lunatics remain a part of every society.

Kabir Bedi is an internationally renowned Indian actor and columnist, whose career spans Bollywood, Hollywood, England and Europe. He has been a voting member of the “Oscars Academy” (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) for almost three decades. . In December 2010, the Italian Government bestowed him a Knighthood, “Cavaliere”, its highest civilian honour. 

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