What do Muslims think of Osama bin Laden?
Ask Westerners and you'll hear how marginal he is. President Bush says bin Laden represents a "fringe form of Islamic extremism . . . rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics." American specialists on Islam agree. "Osama bin Laden is to Islam like Timothy McVeigh is to Christianity," says Mark Juergensmeyer of the University of California. Karen Armstrong, author of a bestselling book about Islam, reports that the "vast majority of Muslims . . . are horrified by the atrocity of Sept. 11."
Well, that "vast majority" is well hidden and awfully quiet, if it even exists. With the exception of one government-staged anti-bin Laden demonstration in Pakistan and very few prominent Islamic scholars, hardly anyone publicly denounces him. The only Islamic scholar in Egypt who unreservedly condemns the Sept. 11 suicide operations admits he is completely isolated.
American officials are still waiting for Muslim politicians to speak up. "It'd be nice if some leaders came out and said that the idea the United States is targeting Islam is absurd," notes one U.S. diplomat. They don't because the Muslim world is bursting with adulation for the Saudi militant.
- "Long live bin Laden" shout 5,000 demonstrators in the southern Philippines.
- In Pakistan, bin Laden's face sells merchandise and massive street rallies have left two persons dead. Ten thousand march in the capitals of Bangladesh and Indonesia.
- In northern Nigeria, bin Laden has (according to Reuters) "achieved iconic status" and his partisans set off religious riots leading to 200 deaths.
- Pro-bin Laden demonstrations took place even in Mecca, where overt political activism is unheard of.
Everywhere, The Washington Post reports, Muslims cheer bin Laden on "with almost a single voice." The Internet buzzes with odes to him as a man "of solid faith and power of will." A Saudi explains that "Osama is a very, very, very, very good Muslim." A Kenyan adds: "Every Muslim is Osama bin Laden." "Osama is not an individual, but a name of a holy war," reads a banner in Kashmir. In perhaps the most extravagant statement, one Pakistani declared that "Bin Laden is Islam. He represents Islam." In France, Muslim youths chant bin Laden's name as they throw rocks at non-Muslims.
Palestinians are especially enamoured. According to Hussam Khadir, a member of Arafat's Fatah party, "Bin Laden today is the most popular figure in the West Bank and Gaza, second only to Arafat." A 10-year-old girl announces that she loves him like a father. Nor is she alone. "Everybody loves Osama bin Laden at this time. He is the most righteous man in the whole world," declares a Palestinian woman. A Palestinian Authority policeman calls him "the greatest man in the world & our Messiah" even as he (reluctantly) disperses students who march in solidarity with the Saudi.
Survey research helps us understand these sentiments. In the Palestinian Authority, a Bir Zeit poll found that 26 percent of Palestinians consider the Sept. 11 attacks consistent with Islamic law. In Pakistan, a Gallup found a nearly identical 24 percent reaching this conclusion.
Even those who consider the attacks an act of terrorism (64 percent of both Palestinians and Pakistanis) show respect for these as acts of political defiance and technical prowess. "Of course we're upset that so many died in New York. But at the same time, we're in awe of what happened," said a young Cairene woman.
An online survey of Indonesians found 50 percent seeing bin Laden as a "justice fighter" and 35 percent a terrorist. More broadly, I estimate that bin Laden enjoys the emotional support of half the Muslim world.
That America's politicans and experts on Islam insist on seeing bin Laden as an isolated McVeigh-like figure is worrisome; they miss the danger that bin Laden's militant Islam poses to existing governments - perhaps their greatest challenge of recent times. Their fear of him goes far to explain why the authorities so heavily discourage pro-bin Laden sentiments (forbidding posters of him, arresting militant Islamic leaders, blocking street gatherings, closing schools and universities, patrolling streets with loaded machine guns, and even shooting demonstrators).
The wide and deep Muslim enthusiasm for bin Laden is an extremely important development that needs to be understood, not ignored.