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Resounding Victories for both Obama and Osama May 9, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Roberts, Michael , trackback

Michael Roberts

Both Obama and Osama are happy.

The killing of Osama bin Laden is a major triumph for President Obama and USA. It is a momentous symbolic victory. “Yes We Can” has been confirmed and underlined. It will boost Obama’s re-election chances immeasurably. The triumphalism displayed on the streets and in media outlets in USA reveals the depths of patriotism as well as the hostility to extreme Muslim fundamentalism. Though Australian human rights crusaders have criticised the action as a “summary execution,” there are no qualms in most of USA. The story of this commando strike is pictured as an “act of justice” not as an “outrage.”

This victory for Obama is also a victory for Osama. Having trod the path of mujahid in the path to Allah, he is now a shahid at the feet of Allah. Sura 9: 111 runs thus: “Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their wealth in return for Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah, kill and get killed. That is a true promise from Him in the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur’an; and who fulfils His promise better than Allah? Rejoice, then, in the bargain you have made with Him, for that is a great triumph” (Cook 2005: 9).

It is no accident, therefore, that the attack on the World Trade centre occurred on 9/11. But alongside this faith in numerology lies a commitment to the “salvific covenant between God and the Muslims” as David Cook has argued in his Understanding Jihad (2005: 9). This “covenant,” stresses Cook, “is presented in contractual terms.” The Muslim believer embarking on the journey that involves a “fight in the path of the Allah” receives an assurance of Paradise at its end. He is before Allah as a monad.

This is one point where the shahid’s selflessness and devotion differs from that of the Japanese kamikaze who died for Emperor, land and people during WW Two. I was guided here by the two books produced by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (2002 and 2006) The Islamic martyr’s sacrifice also differs from the men and women of the LTTE who took an oath to swallow their cyanide pill rather than be captured or converted their bodies into a killing weapon. As my earlier writings have clarified, there was self-negation in their sacrifice. The Tamils were informed by the Indian tradition of pilgrimages unto death and devotional self-punishment directed to fusion with the deities of their choice; and an understanding that the benefits that accrued to each as individual extended to kin and thereafter influenced all their future lives. As with the Muslim mujahid’s selflessness, these are perspectives which the vast majority of people in the individuated West will never grasp.

Osama now is at the feet of Allah. He is thus immortal and his kinfolk will be mighty pleased by this sacrificial outcome. Many Muslims will also be angry. This victory of the shahid Osama will generate acts of vendetta directed at USA, Americans and the West in general. “His martyrdom has the potential to reinvigorate Al-Qaida’s brand among those already radicalised to the cause,” said security analyst Leah Farrall in Canberra.

The Salafi ideology will receive a boost and the failed Al Qaida objectives of overthrowing “the near enemy” and hurting “the far enemy” will receive another impetus. The “far enemy” is a code word for the West and with its companion concept is the brainchild of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian intellectual, who was so central to twentieth century currents of radical Islam. His thinking is clarified in Roxanne Euben’s Enemy in the Mirror (1999).

These currents, as so many reports stress, have many offshoots not just the Taliban. But Osama’s shahada (martyrdom) will also provide another burst of energy as new buds spring forth in the form of new generations of radical Islamic youth — in the West, Middle East, Indian subcontinent, everywhere.

Salafi thinking is rhizomic – referring here to the rhizome or horizontal, usually underground, stem that often sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. I adopt here a thesis recently elaborated by the Israeli anthropologist Don Handelman in his essay “Self-Exploders, Self-Sacrifice, and the Rhizomic Organization of Terrorism,” (2011).

Therefore, the simple point is that radical Islam’s war against both enemies near and far does not require an Al Qaida organisational fountainhead. However, Osama bin Laden in shahada will continue to be a powerful stimulus to their participation in the Salafi and Al-Qaida cause.

So, this World War will simmer for decades to come.

Also see “Obama and Osama triumph: a win-win outcome” 




1. Vikas - May 13, 2011

I think Prof. Roberts completely ignores the diconnect between stated (in al-Qaeda’s case advertised) beliefs and practice. (In absence of such a disconnect Osama should have been found with his stormtroopers along the AfPak border rather than in a relaxed safehouse.) This issue has been debated extensively in the sociology of religion and theology. Prof. Roberts attaches disproportionate importance to stated beliefs. Scholars like Mario Ferrero are able to show within a secular contractual framework that extremist violence involving self-sacrifice can be explained without invoking afterlife considerations. I am not saying that theological nuances can be ignored or that religion is superstructure. Only that it is not the sole or even the primary explanatory variable. Otherwise we cannot explain why extremists have never won elections in Pakistan. Otherwise we cannot explain why Naipaul’s characters first campaign for an Islamic state and then run away when it is around the corner. A number of factors mediate between theological beliefs and actual practice. These intervening factors decide who becomes a living Osama and what becomes of a dead Osama.