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Bin Laden: Beyond a modern Mephistopheles

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Public reaction to Bin Laden’s bloody demise offers an incisive window into our relationship to violence. In response to the news that celebrations had erupted in New York and Washington, the Vatican issued a sobering statement, which ought to have universal resonance: “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.” The message of introspection, responsibility and reflection in order to avoid the perpetuation of hate is a crucial one and should lead us to assess how the very violent end of a very violent man, can be the seeming cause of celebration. It would suggest, there are indeed, certain types of violence which are acceptable, justifiable, worthy of gaiety even?

Clearly, the modern sensibility is not horrified by all types of pervasive violence – some are considered justified, carpet bombing Germany and Japan during the second world war, drone missiles causing “collateral” damage in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Israeli air raids on the most densely populated strip in the world, Nato’s bombing of Mizrata, despite the casualty implications, can all be explained away as rational violence, the violence which characterises modernity. What irks the modern sensibility is violence which is deemed senseless, in other words, violence which cannot be explained by notions of progress. This later type of violence is discussed, Mahmood Mamdani tells us, in two basic ways, in cultural terms for pre-modern society, and theological terms for modern society. Examples of the cultural explanations can be found in a plethora of articles discussing anything from the Sudanese conflict to the Rwandan genocide – it is “ethnic” conflict, the roots of which are located in the DNA of those involved, something in the very essence of the Hutus, which made them massacre the Tutsis – nothing to do with power or control, but something tribal, something primal.

Political violence which doesn’t fit the narrative of progress is discussed in theological terms to avoid having to take stock of the real factors within our modern society, which may be implicated in the crime at hand. That’s why rather than assessing Hitler as a product of a neo-Darwinian, post-colonial climate, his actions are merely dubbed “evil”, their cosmic basis beyond rational assessment, the holocaust assessed ahistorically, outside the context of imperialism, colonial genocide and racial theories which not only characterised the era, but were applied to the decimation of native populations across the world, the Native Americans, the Maoris, the Hereros… “The Holocaust”, Mamdani tells us, “was born at the meeting point of two traditions that marked modern Western civilization: “the anti-Semitic tradition and the tradition of genocide of colonized peoples.” For Mamdani and others, moving beyond the essentialization or reductivism involved in explaining away non-“progressive” forms of violence, is the only real way to guarantee these types of violence are not replicated. In essence, it is only when we truly assess the root causes, the factors and influences within ourselves and our society which have led to the emergence of any given evil, that we can truly claim to be seeking to eradicate it.

What is striking about the death of Bin Laden is that the rapturous applause and spontaneous celebrations point to the fact that Bin Laden has come to be viewed as the human embodiment of evil in our time, bin Laden was no longer merely a man, he had become a symbol both for his supporters and his detractors, elevating his importance far beyond the almost marginal role he had come to play within the loose network that is al Qaida, and conferring upon him an almost mythical status, which has seen attributed to him, more atrocities than even he could have dreamt of committing. But this larger than life depiction of Bin Laden has proven a serious impediment to assessing what exactly he does represent. Just like the best of humankind do not appear in a vacuum, but are the product of a multiplicity of influences which have forged their outlook and path, the worst of mankind are also a product of ideas, philosophies and events which helped forge them. To essentialise our understanding of Bin Laden’s actions as merely “evil”, is to overlook the important factors which helped nurture him. If we are to avoid a thousand Bin Laden’s in his wake, we need to look deeper than the idea of “senseless” violence rooted in some sort of cosmic evil, to the context which shaped the Bin Laden phenomena.

How does for example, Al Qaida fit in with the Middle East’s history of colonialism, dictatorships and modern day imperialism? How do the violent tactics advocated by Bin Laden fit with the flip side of colonialism, after the settler’s violence against the native, the native’s violence against the settler, in other words, to use the phraseology of Revolutionary theorist Franz Fanon himself, with the idea that “the colonized man liberates himself in and through violence.” For Mamdani, anti-colonial violence is not irrational, but belongs to the very script of modernity the settler had come to propagate, in this sense, the violence itself becomes a “midwife of history”. The native’s violence, the violence of the former victim, was according to Fanon, the violence of those who’d chosen to become masters of their destiny, not victims of other people’s. In many ways, it was a learnt tactic, which when applied, would shift power relations and place the former colonised on an equal footing with the former coloniser. Roy Arendathi sums up the relationship between the two types of violence when she discusses the link between the concepts of war and terrorism, both words used to refer to types of, at times, indiscriminate violence: “Terrorism is vicious, ugly and dehumanizing for its perpetrators as well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war. They are people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.” Arendathi doesn’t argue that there is no alternative to terrorism of course, the alternative she states, is Justice. But establishing this laudable ideal is somewhat more complex and requires some serious soul-searching as a nation.

According to Mamdani, there “is huge resistance, both moral and political, to exploring the historical causes of the Nazi genocide”, largely due to the implications such conclusions could have for the philosophies and ideas which continue to guide our lives and which, having been ignored through the essentialization of the Holocaust as strictly “evil”, have failed to be adequately scrutinized. The continued presence of anti-Semitism, joined in recent years by rising islamophobia should be an indication enough that the historical and theoretical demons which underpinned Nazi ideology should never have been laid to rest, but unpicked, deconstructed, demolished. Similarly, in the wake of Bin Laden’s death, we should move beyond the temptation of essentialising the figure and in so doing, reifying the factors which led to his birth, not as the 54th son of a billionaire Saudi family, but as the symbol of modern day violent resistance to perceived Western imperialism.

The story of Bin Laden began long before his birth, his roots stretch from the shores of pre-partition Palestine to the bloody borders of Iraq to the mountains of Algeria. His ideas are as much indebted to a skewed reading of the Quran as they are to the strategies of the Tamil Tigers, the guerrilla tactics of South America and the American concept of collateral damage. Bin Laden was a global figure, not only in the limited but real appeal he held for the disillusioned, but in the factors which helped create the myth beyond the man. When we fail to assess what aspects of modern culture are complicit in forging the man who’s come to represent our modern Mephistopheles, we fail to stop his potential for perpetual renewal.

Written by Myriam Francois

May 4, 2011 at 23:41

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