11 September 2001>News Stories>Bubble has burst on bin Laden myth

Bubble has burst on bin Laden myth
David Lamb . Chicago Tribune . 31 December

`He's history' in the Muslim world

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Two months ago, his portrait adorned posters and T-shirts, and babies were named after him, but interest in praising Osama bin Laden has faded.

Some Muslims who revered him as the reincarnation of Saladin, the 12th-Century Arab hero who fought the Christian Crusaders and ruled an empire from Cairo to Baghdad, feel like victims of their own illusions.

Bin Laden's myth lingers only in grainy videos showing a gaunt, hunted man, leading remnants of a defeated foreign army and speaking of the Sept. 11 deaths of more than 3,000 people in the United States as a "blessed event."

"I think morally he has the obligation to come out of the caves and step forward," said Imtiaz Ahmad, who sells tea in the bazaar in Peshawar.

Though bin Laden's defense of Islam is admirable, he said, his deeds are not.

"Otherwise the killing won't end in Afghanistan," Ahmad said. "If he hadn't been there, there would have been no bombing, no killing, so I'm just as glad he's history."

The mosque near Ahmad's stall was emptying after prayers, and about 100 worshipers, followed by a platoon of police officers with shields and batons, were marching beneath banners toward Memorial Square. This compares with the 25,000 protesters who rallied in November to denounce the United States and praise bin Laden.

Instead of their anger being aimed at the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, the slogans were directed against India and its policy in the contested Kashmir region.

"Whether bin Laden is dead or alive now is immaterial," Kamal Matinubim, a retired army general, said in Islamabad. "Many people like me never thought he was a hero in the first place.

"He let Muslims down," Matinubim added. "His appeal was to the young, illiterate masses and the mullahs who exploit them to promote a twisted notion of an Islamic revival."

Bin Laden's appeal runs deep in a region awash in the paranoia that the West wants to destroy Islam. He was able to put together an army of 20,000 combatants and fought the Soviet Union during its 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan.

The Saudi exile eschewed the trappings of his wealthy family and lived as simply as the prophet Muhammad had. He believed that Islam was pure and that the West was spiritually crippled. He was part mullah, part soldier and the courageous upholders of the Koran.

The young and the mullahs had long searched for an icon. They had briefly embraced Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his Iranian counterpart, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and flirted with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But they all proved disappointments.

Other hopes for the Arab world were dashed by misfortunes: the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s killed more than 1 million Muslims; 75 percent of the world's current refugees are Muslims fleeing Muslim countries; oil did not bring prosperity to most people in the region; and political reforms sweeping the world from Latin America to Africa did not bring democracy to the Islamic nations.

The Golden Age of Islam seems tantalizingly distant. It was an age, after the birth of Islam in the 7th Century, when the great Arab cities, such as Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Cordoba in Spain, were the intellectual centers of the world, nurturing the foremost philosophers and scientists as well as the finest libraries and universities of their times. From this trove of knowledge, Muslims would introduce the techniques of irrigation, navigation and geography to Western Europe.

Then came bin Laden. He was a medieval man at odds with the modern world who gave the disenfranchised hope with a fundamentalist brand of Islam.

"People like to back a winner in the Islamic world," said journalist Ashfaq Yusufzaie. "They thought bin Laden could really stand up to the West, that he could defeat a superpower the way the Afghan mujahedeen had the Soviet Union.

"When his Al Qaeda and the Taliban crumbled in just weeks, sympathy for bin Laden fell drastically," he said. "People were left feeling totally demoralized."

Now that it is clear the Taliban is not going to be the vanguard of anything, some scholars say Islamic liberals have been emboldened. Their voices have long been muted by fundamentalists who hijacked Islam and advocate a militancy not shared by the majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims.

One Saudi-owned newspaper, Al Sharq al Awsat, recently accused bin Laden of "putting the whole Islamic nation on a butcher's block."