William Rees-Mogg: There's no future in the bin Laden revolution

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MONDAY OCTOBER 29 2001 William Rees-Mogg: There's no future in the bin Laden revolution WILLIAM REES-MOGG Osama bin Laden is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice of the Islamic fundamentalist revolution. The revolution itself is real enough, fuelled by religious puritanism, hostility to Israel and America, cultural changes and social deprivation. It is as real as the English Puritan revolutions of the 17th century, as the American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi Revolution or the Chinese Revolution. Like them it portends war. But bin Laden is not a great revolutionary leader. He is not to be compared with Cromwell, Washington, William of Orange, Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler or Mao. He is much closer to the immature charismatics who have come to the surface in many revolutionary situations, danced for the moment on the flood of events, and then been submerged by them. He is a Robespierre or lesser Trotsky, perhaps only a Duke of Monmouth. He is one of those of whom Lenin was thinking when he wrote of “left-wing deviationism — an infantile disorder”. For all his personal austerity, and his merciless use of terror, he belongs to the category of playboy revolutionary, a rich man’s spoilt son petulantly seeking the approval of his deceased papa.

The distinction between serious revolutionary leaders and these mayflies of the revolutionary process is that the great leaders have a strategic analysis of the real forces and develop an effective strategy for dealing with them. Of the seven great revolutionary leaders, six had such a grasp of reality that they died in their beds, even if Napoleon’s bed was on St Helena. Only Hitler, who lost touch with reality after 1940, had to commit suicide. Monmouth died on the scaffold, Robespierre on his own guillotine and Trotsky with Stalin’s ice pick in his head. Someone is going to kill Osama bin Laden; he will almost welcome it, because that is the only end that fits the drama he has scripted for himself.

Tactically, last week may have seemed a good one for bin Laden, with an unfortunate emissary betrayed to the Taleban and killed, and with some American bombs going astray. Yet that week has achieved nothing of substance for him, except another week’s survival. In all other respects, the coalition he has brought against him has become more decided. In particular, America remains wholly determined to destroy the terrorist network which committed the crimes of September 11.

That is bad enough for bin Laden, but the reality of the non-Islamic world is equally threatening. The modern world has five great regional powers: the United States, China, Russia, Europe and India. Before September 11, two of these powers were already at war with aspects of the Islamic revolution: Russia in Chechnya and India in Kashmir.

After September 11, the United States and Europe declared war on Islamic terrorism; the Chinese became more concerned about their Islamic minority. From two great power enemies to five in one day is a poor strategy. In effect, the five great powers, with more than half the world’s population, form an Iron Pentagon around bin Laden’s revolution.

His strategy should have been designed to divide the potential enemies of the Islamic revolution and unite his potential supporters. He has achieved the opposite. He has united his enemies by the threat of terrorism. All the five great powers have airlines, skyscrapers and post offices. We do not know whether bin Laden provided the anthrax spores. Perhaps so, perhaps not. The anthrax has, however, done its geopolitical work. It has made it clear to all the great powers that international terror is directed against the whole order of the world, as much a threat to Beijing as to Washington. We are all in this together, whether we like it or not.

He has united his enemies; no one has ever united the world’s powers in such a way before. It is an achievement of a kind, but hardly one he can have foreseen. Indeed we do not really know how much he does foresee. Undoubtedly his organisation authorised and facilitated the crimes of September 11, but did he foresee the consequences? He may, for he is a clever man, have seen an advantage in forcing America to respond against Afghanistan. But did he realise that September 11 would not be just another terror spectacular, but to Americans an unforgivable offence? Did he know that he was going to change the world, largely to the disadvantage of the Islamic revolution? If he has united the world powers against him, has he united the Islamic world on his side? In one sense. Almost all Muslims, even less observant Muslims of the West, feel a loyalty to the Islamic community, just as almost all Jews feel a loyalty to Israel. This loyalty is aroused when any Islamic country comes under attack, just as Jews feel most loyal to Israel when it is most threatened. Such loyalties exist even when the peoples concerned disapprove of the actions of the governments which benefit from their loyalty. Jews do not have to agree with Ariel Sharon to rally to the defence of Israel; Muslims do not have to sympathise with Osama bin Laden to rally to Afghanistan.

So far, so good for bin Laden’s strategy. Every bomb on Afghanistan recruits Muslims to support the revolution, particularly when bin Laden has not been caught and the Taleban not yet destroyed. Yet this is a superficial view. What bin Laden has done is also a universal challenge to the people of Islam and their governments. Some key questions will be answered in the negative. “Do I believe the New York massacre was compatible with Islamic principles? No.” “Do I support American bombing of Afghanistan? No.” “Would I like to be governed by people such as the Taleban? No.” These are the likely responses of many Muslims. There is a pro-bin Laden crowd, but the logic of Islamic development is against him.

All the Islamic governments are threatened. They have work to do. They face destabilising mass poverty and unemployment. They want to develop their countries in stable economic and political conditions. They need to work with the leading economic powers of the world, and expand trade and investment. They do not want to kill their customers. They know that bin Laden’s terrorists would kill them, given half a chance. Whatever they may think it prudent to say in public, every Islamic government must see bin Laden as a menace.

The modern world has not happened by accident. One of the insights of Karl Marx, who remains the most interesting historian of revolutions, is that the changes in the means of production changed the structure of society, creating new class interests and social ideas. One of the global challenges to Islam is the role of women. In the 20th century the social position of women in advanced countries was revolutionised by the vote, by the Pill and by the personal computer. The vote gave women political equality; the Pill gave them sexual equality; the PC gave them economic equality.

The modern world, including the larger Islamic countries, has come to terms with that. Both Turkey and Pakistan have already had women as heads of government, as has Britain. For the United States, Russia and China, that is yet to come. The Chinese had a narrow escape from Madam Mao. Do the women of the world, including Muslim women, want to return to their status in 7th century Arabia? They do not. Nor does the Koran tell them that they should.

Revolutions succeed where they represent the modern against the obsolete. Counter-revolutions fail. Even Nazism traded on the appeal of the modern. Bin Laden has identified his revolution not only with terror but with the reactionary and archaic brutalities of the Taleban. There are revolutionary forces at work in Islam; some Islamic societies are ripe for radical change. If Osama bin Laden had been able to identify his revolution with the real social and economic needs of Islam, he would have offered what revolutions must offer, a new dynamic towards a new society.

As it is, he has identified his revolution with everything that is most backward in the Islamic world. In the seven major revolutions of modern history, the future, however terrible, has always defeated the past. Anti-modernist revolutions have never succeeded, not even in Naples or the Royal Academy. Anti-modernism will not conquer Islam.

Osama bin Laden is not a serious revolutionary; he is a poseur, a silly but lethal boy.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 28, 2001


The article is very wide of the mark. Why does he use comparisons to old/western revolutions, rather than to recent middle eastern revolutions? Bin Laden has been trying to do to the corrupt, violent, hated regime in Saudia Arabia, what was done to the corrupt, violent, hated regime of the Shah of Iran. If the US "accidentally" bombs a mosque, bin Laden could become the next leader of Saudia Arabia... and in control of Mecca and about $200 billion of state of the art western weapons. The risk is too great ... the US should stop the air attacks now, and use spies, hired goons, and intelligence to shut bin Laden down.

Sending in the carrier fleets gave bin Laden unwarranted credibility, and an endless source of recruits... a huge mistake.

-- Mark Blaine (ytokca@yahoo.com), October 28, 2001.

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