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Osama’s T-shirt and the Prophet’s Mantle
Guardian, February 2003

I saw the face of Osama bin Laden just before Christmas. I was wandering through the market-day crowds of a remote African town on the edge of the Sahara, looking for a café. The place was poor beyond the conceptions of a privileged 21st-century Westerner. The rope used at the police roadblock was made of knotted rags and the service station was a row of eight recycled glass bottles half-filled with petrol. A young man politely asked ‘for what I looked for’, and took me to a shaded kiosk. I was astounded when he insisted on paying for the coffee, but my jaw dropped even further when I caught sight of the face of Osama bin Laden emblazoned on his brand new T-shirt.

Perhaps I should have refused the coffee. As we travelled on I kept thinking back over this incident. How could such an hospitable and generous man idolize the terrorist held responsible for such a massacre of innocents as that of 9:11? I thought back to those famous video images of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. And then it dawned on me, the extraordinary way in which so much of Osama’s life mirrors that of the Prophet Muhammad. For the first time I could begin to imagine how his supporters might see him.

All young Muslims are bought up to follow the example of the Prophet. He is the fountain-head of good manners and correct social behaviour as well as the ultimate spiritual and ethical guide. A Muslim audience judges every physical gesture, every attitude, every item of clothing worn by a believer against the absolute role model provided by the Prophet.

Look back on any video of Osama bin Laden and you will see how faithfully he has followed this example. Not for him the silk suits or battle-dress and berrets sported by many Muslim leaders, with their Western connotations. He wears the simple, plain coloured, loose fitting clothes preferred by the Prophet, including a turban rather than the long head-dress of Arabia. He chose to grow a beard - again like the Prophet - which in some Muslim countries (such as Turkey, Tunisia and Algeria) has become an anti-establishment badge. Like the Prophet he is of “average height with a good bearing and head of thick, curly hair.” Like the Prophet his face normally wears a serious expression, he is quiet of speech, with a soft smile but seldom given to laughter. You might also have noticed how Osama remains seated when greeting new arrivals, rather than standing up in the Western tradition of good manners. As the Prophet declared, “I am a man like you. I eat food like you and I also sit down when I am tired – like you!”

Osama, like the Prophet, has never shown a taste for rich decorations, fine foods or the trappings of power. When Peter Bergen and Peter Jouvenal filmed him in 1997 they recorded that when “the interview came to an end…bin Laden lingered for a few minutes, courteously serving us cups of tea.” Although born into great wealth (his personal fortune has been assessed at anything between 15 to 250 million dollars) even as a young man he preferred to live in a small flat in Jeddah and insisted that his family ate and dressed simply. Osama has also, once again in the style of the Prophet, given his daughters in marriage to his closest companions. These personal qualities are ignored in the West but they have greatly added to the respect with which he is treated throughout the Muslim world.

Osama, like the Prophet, is a pure-blooded Arab brought up in central Arabia. He is also, like the Prophet, a member of a powerful clan of merchants. Osama’s father was a millionaire businessman. The Prophet’s grandfather (his father pre-deceased him) was one of the great merchant sheikhs of pre-Islamic Arabia. Both these patriarchs fathered large families from a number of wives, both were intimately involved with the holy sanctuary of the Kaaba at Mecca and both were renowned for the open-handed genersoity with which they cared for pilgrims. Both the Prophet Muhammad and Osama occupied fairly low positions within their clans: the Prophet Muhammad was the orphaned child of the youngest son, whilst Osama was his father’s seventeenth son, born to a different mother than his powerful elder half-brothers. Although Osama cannot in anyway approach the Prophet’s harrowing experience of childhood (his father died before he was born, then his mother died followed by his beloved grand-father), he was known to have been much affected, aged 13, by the death of his father. When Osama was in trouble with the authorities he could rely on the help of his elder brothers, when the Prophet Muhammad faced persecution by the pagans of Mecca, he depended on the protection of his uncles, such as Abu Talib.

Motivated by a strong religious sense, Osama worked energetically to help the refugees that began to pour out of Afghanistan after the Russian invasion in December 1979. Throughout the 1980s he built safe camps and forward bases, as well as raising funds and attracting Arab recruits to help the embattled Aghan freedom-fighters. Many idealistic, or merely adventurous, young men were drawn to this cause from all over the world. The guest house that Osama set up in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar was called Bait al Ansar - the house of the Helpers. To Muslim ears this immediately brings to mind the Ansar, the men of Medina who first protected the persecuted Prophet from his enemies. By the end of the decade Osama had proved himself something of a hero, though his shy, self-effacing persona, coupled with an enthusiasm for slightly techy administrative efficiency, fell some way short of charismatic leadership.

So what went wrong? Osama’s life took an increasingly political turn after the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Rather than celebrating and working for peace (like a true Muslim) he started tinkering with the idea of starting armed rebellions against secular Arab regimes. The Yemen and Iraq were his principal targets. In the eyes of the Saudi authorities he passed from home-spun hero to wacky-irritant over night and they started putting him under surveillance. Osama was infuriated when his offer to use his fighters to defend Saudi Arabia was left on hold, while US forces were welcomed with open arms during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

In 1991 he publicly broke with his homeland and fled to the safety of the Sudan; just as the Prophet had been forced to leave his hometown of Mecca for Medina. In 1996 he moved back to Afghanistan, and Osama’s old reticence was replaced by a new taste for publicity and power. He issued a 12-page Declaration of War against the American military presence in Arabia, and intervened enthusiastically and bloodily in the Afghan civil war. Indeed without the intervention of his Arab-Afghan veterans the Taliban would never have withstood Shah Masood’s army. Shah Masood was the absolute hero of the Afghan resistance who combined a passionate concern for Islam with tolerance and humanity. Masood’s credentials were impeccable, indeed as a devoted supporter of Professor Rabbani, he had actually been in rebellion against the indigenous Afghan Communist party before the Soviet invasion.

In 1998 Osama spun completely out of control. He went ‘global’, calling for a pan-Islamic International Front and arranged for forty Taliban ‘scholars’ to back a fatwa sanctioning the killing of Americans and Jews. The bombs in Kenya and Tanzania that July, with their callous disregard for local civilian casualties, complete the picture of a man who had completely lost his grip on the principles of his religion. He began to dream of reviving the Caliphate, a world-wide Islamic state, and had lost all sight of the goals of the Prophet, whose lifetime struggle had just one purpose: to reconnect mankind with the divine. All his life the Prophet taught that the only way to honour God was to serve mankind.

Osama’s simultaneous assassination of Shah Masood, his principal Muslim rival within Afghanistan, and the 9:11 attack on the USA was a deliberate attempt to start a new world war. He hoped the USA would be humiliated in Afghanistan just as the Soviet Empire had been a decade before. It appears to have been a serious tactical miscalculation. However his long term strategy may yet prove to be inspired - especially if the USA becomes embroiled in a long drawn out war within the lands of Islam.

The current President of the USA could certainly learn from Osama’s mistakes. Any man who publicly boasts of his constant use of prayer, while completely ignoring the essential message and eternal example of Christ, is no more worthy of leading the West than Osama is of uniting Islam.

“Do you love your Creator? Love your fellow-beings first” – The Prophet Muhammad

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