bin Laden the Myth

by Bennett Furlow

In the immediate aftermath of Usama bin Laden’s death there was no shortage of news and commentary trying to explain the significance of his demise. What does his death mean for the U.S. and al-Qaeda, or for the War in Afghanistan? The unilateral action by the U.S. also presented many questions about the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations.

But beyond Usama bin Laden’s death and its immediate implications, there was also the issue of his legacy. The White House clearly wanted to avoid any further elevation of his status among the extremists. They released still-caps and video of bin Laden that were intended to strip the man of the mythology. He was not the terrorist mastermind hiding out survivalist-style in the mountains and caves of the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, he was a vain old man sitting alone under a dirty blanket in a small room watching himself on a cheap, little TV set. He dyed his beard before making videos, which were directed by someone else off camera, and exhibited a strong concern for his image. This is not exactly the terrorist mastermind imagined among the extremists.

It made perfect sense for the White House to attempt to draft his legacy. They don’t want him to be a grand martyr for the cause that can inspire others to emulate his conduct. The U.S. acted to show a weak and pathetic, cowardly man, hiding behind a woman (an erroneous statement later taken back by White House officials). They wanted the most feared man in the world looking painfully ordinary and unremarkable. .

The White House and media pundits were not alone in trying to craft the image of bin Laden after death. In the weeks after his killing, numerous extremist groups and leaders have released eulogies for “Sheikh Usama” that attempt to reclaim his legacy and portray a very different view of the man.

In extremist eulogies, bin Laden is the “lion of Islam.” He is a “knight among the knights of jihad.” He has achieved martyrdom, which he has sought for the past thirty years. It was a death that he was destined for. He “was killed with his finger on the trigger as he fought the enemies of God” (a statement not backed up by the facts as bin Laden was apparently unarmed). He is even compared to the Prophet Muhammad, and, we are told, certainly wishes that he could “return to this world to be killed again and again just as [he] used to tell us about [our] beloved one [the Prophet], God’s peace and prayer be upon him.” Citing a hadith, the eulogy relates that: “The Prophet swore that he wished he would be killed in the cause of God, brought back to life to be killed again, and be brought back to life once more to be killed also.” According to Islamic history, however, the Prophet Muhammad died while lying sick in his bed, and in the arms of his wife, at the age of 62.

Beyond these attempts to secure bin Laden’s place as the grand martyr of the his global movement, the extremists also want to convey what his death means practically in the temporal world. That message is simple: The struggle will continue. As one might expect, there are cries for revenge and vengeance (which is the norm when a extremist leader is killed). And President Obama himself is “wanted dead or alive,” appropriating President Bush’s well-known language regarding bin Laden.

Eulogizing a “martyr” is certainly not new or unique to bin Laden. There are ample examples of biographies of extremist martyrs with vivid retellings of their deaths. But the stakes are higher with bin Laden. He is not simply a foot soldier with a suicide vest. He was, at least symbolically, the ideological leader of the global movement. His eulogy is therefore hardly a three-line press release, but rather, taken together, these eulogies constitute the formative phase of a hagiography of sorts. His life, if it has not already, will take on mythological qualities. Usama Bin Laden is the champion in a classic tale of the small defeating the powerful. He is Muhammad and the Muslims at the Battle of Badr. He is David facing Goliath.

While the White House may want to portray bin Laden as a weak old man, these eulogies depict him as a spiritual warrior fighting for the downtrodden and oppressed. They are not histories (which require facts), but are the beginnings of a legend. And this is the rub. The mythical bin Laden cannot die. He can emerge as an eternal inspiration to all extremists going forward, with none of the faults that the historical bin Laden had. Certainly, those engaged in writing these eulogies have a high degree of respect and reverence for the man, but strategically they know his real value. Alive, he was the man able to evade capture for many years. Dead, he is a heroic lion of God and a symbolic tour-de-force. Now that the man is gone, the challenge ahead is how the U.S. can defeat the legend of Usama bin Laden.