By Barry Rubin
As so often happens, a peripheral issue has taken over the Western debate regarding the killing of Usama bin Laden. Whether or not the U.S. government releases a photo of the body isn’t so important. If bin-Laden isn’t dead let him prove it by sending a video to al-Jazira. The issue is whether or not killing him was a good thing.
As for photos, those who believe that bin Laden isn’t dead won’t be convinced by photos. Ironically, many of them will simultaneously say that the United States didn’t kill bin Laden but the fact that the United States killed bin Laden is a crime for which revenge should be taken.
We should have learned this from September 11, since many say that al-Qaeda wasn’t responsible and it was done by the U.S. government and Israel while, at the same time, saying that it was an operation that made Muslims and Arabs feel proud and America deserved it.
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Welcome to the Middle East!
Today–and for some years now–people in the Middle East haven’t hated America because of its policies so much as defining whatever it does as hateful because America is already an enemy. If you don’t want revolutionary Islamists to take over countries, repress all freedom, suppress women, wipe Israel off the map, and expel all Western influence from the region then you are their enemy. You can be a weak, contemptible enemy or a strong bullying enemy but that’s about the extent of your choice.
The reaction to the killing of UBL takes place in this context, Those Islamists and radical nationalists who saw bin Laden as a rival in life are finding him a useful martyr in death. Again, the issue is not whether bin Laden is dead but whether the United States was bad in killing him.
So far Hamas, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the highest Muslim cleric in Egypt, and Western favorite phony moderate Tariq Ramadan have all basically endorsed UBL as a great guy, a real martyr, and the victim of an evil United States.
The al-Aqsa Brigades of Fatah also apparently said so though it quickly withdrew the statement when it made the public relations’- conscious Palestinian Authority leadership uncomfortable. Yet the idea that this is just another American atrocity–one more reason to hate the United States–is a powerful force among Palestinians and also in public opinion in Egypt and Jordan.
And so the killing of UBL will enter the long list of U.S. policies for which America is disliked by many Muslims and Arabs in particular. There is a lesson here: whatever the United States does will be criticized because America as a great power, a civilization, a set of policies, and a presence internationally is hated by many, especially by revolutionary Islamists.
Consider the very “moderate” and sophisticated Mr. Ramadan, or perhaps I should say Professor Ramadan since he’s currently at Oxford University and Notre Dame wants to hire him. That’s pretty good for the grandson of a Nazi collaborator and the son of an agent working for a Nazi collaborator (Amin al-Husaini, the mufti of Jerusalem).
Not only did Ramadan criticize the killing of UBL but also called the burial at sea “against all the Islamic rituals.” Well, was bin Laden behind the September 11 attacks, Ramadan replies: “We don’t know. Nobody knows—even the Americans.” So much for moderation.
The killing poses a complex issue for Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. Iran is harboring scores of al-Qaeda leaders but the Tehran government—and also Hizballah—are Shia Muslims, a group that bin Laden despised. So no tears will be shed though perhaps some anti-Americanism can be stirred up in the Sunni Arab world by Iran.
Syria worked closely with al-Qaida in Iraqi terrorism but Damascus has also blamed al-Qaeda for internal attacks (ranging from possible regime hoaxes to democratic demonstrations) and so it isn’t well placed to cheer UBL now.
Regarding Pakistan, it has been an open secret—even published in the mass media—that the Pakistani government has sponsored terrorism and collaborated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet the U.S. government continued to pour money into the country.
Consider the murderous attack on Mumbai, India that took hundreds of hostages and killed so many people in cold blood. The group that conducted it operates from Pakistan with the knowledge of the authorities there. That government refused to cooperate with investigation or to extradite terrorists. We’re now supposed to be surprised that bin Laden was sheltering there?
In an official press release, the Pakistani army simultaneously claims credit for killing UBL and criticizes the United States for doing so. An official statement from the chief of staff of Pakistan’s army states:
“[We have] made it very clear that any similar action, violating the sovereignty of Pakistan, will warrant a review on the level of military / intelligence cooperation with the United States.
“The Corps Commanders were informed about the decision to reduce the strength of US military personnel in Pakistan to the minimum essential.
“As regards the possibility of similar hostile action against our strategic assets, the Forum reaffirmed that, unlike an undefended civilian compound, our strategic assets are well protected and an elaborate defensive mechanism is in place.”
So the U.S. killing of bin Laden is a cowardly attack on “an undefended civilian compound;” if the United States tries something like that again the Pakistani army will fight America; and the Americans are to be punished by expelling some of their personnel.
That’s quite a highly subsidized ally you have there!
Speaking of allies, a lot of the European media coverage revolved around whether the U.S. government broke international law by killing UBL. See previous paragraph.
And, once again, let me point out that al-Qaeda is a terrorist threat but not a strategic threat. The real problem is with revolutionary Islamists: Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood. If U.S. policy goes soft on these groups—even helping them at times—terrorism, anti-Americanism, and instability are going to get worse.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org/. His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com/.