Bin Laden’s Grand Finale
It was another marvelous episode of American Idol’s tenth season in which the top three contestants competed in the semi-finals, and in the process gave some of the best performances this year. As soon as it was over I noticed a tweet on my twitter stream saying that Osama Bin Laden’s final address was released posthumously and that he praised the peaceful revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. It had been years since I gave him any attention but I immediately sensed the profoundness and went on Youtube to check it out. The sudden and abrupt transition between Idol and Bin Laden is the story of my life.
Come to speak of it, I was actually introduced to American Idol through Islamic radicalism. When attending a court hearing for a friend charged with conspiracy and terrorism, I was alarmed by one of the arguments to prove the danger the defendant posed on our national security. According to the prosecutor, the defendant gathered with his radical friends to watch videos of Americans being beheaded overseas while young Americans were getting together to watch American Idol. From that day on, American Idol became the litmus test to ensure that my hybrid identity wasn’t too Islamically radical and my wife and I started to watch in earnest. However, identity insecurities aside, we enjoyed the family time and some of our most precious memories in 2010 were watching Lee Dewyze and Crystal Bowersox perform and compete.
But this is about Bin Laden, not Simon Cowell’s baby. Osama’s final address is a historical speech of unfathomable proportions. Tariq Ramadan best described how I felt when Bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs earlier this month; it had “all the force of a fading wind, of a random event.” To me Bin Laden became irrelevant in the past few years and especially after the Egyptian Revolution. He was neither a villain nor a hero. Rather, he was a symbol of Militant Jihad against Western Might and despite (and because of) the innocent lives lost on both sides, the fight itself was a fair one.
Bin Laden had sowed discord in the world and in my soul while alive, but his posthumous address brought harmony to my identity, and I predict, to the identity of a generation. Just like President Obama praised in goose-bumping oratory the revolution that inspired Americans, Bin Laden, through flowing and untranslatable prose, hailed the inspiring revolutions as a source of hope for millions. Not only that, but he effectively endorsed it as the hardcore Jihad of our times. The importance of this speech is that it gives pro-democracy activists and peaceful revolutionaries a priceless bargaining chip when negotiating what it means for Middle Easterners to change their sorry condition. It especially helps them when negotiating this with puritan interpretations of Islam. Not only that, but it further proves the complacency of Puritanical Imams in Egypt who did not endorse the revolution except at the very end, and strengthens our resolve not to be intimidated by the rhetoric of similar Imams in Gulf countries who seek to discredit current uprisings.
We grow up in the Middle East, and aside of a defunct educational system, we are exposed to soccer, televangelicals, Western movies, Arabic plays, Intifada footage, dubbed Japanese cartoons, online porn and Jihadist videos. In integrating it all, the last one sticks out like a sore thumb. It is easy to dismiss some of these as vices and symptoms of a weak will and to consider others mere entertainment or sources of inspiration. However the dilemma is to irrevocably dismiss the sole form of serious dissent in our region … the instinctively praiseworthy stand to say “No!” to [perceived] Western hegemony. However the entire world was rejecting Bin Laden, and we learned to reject him as well, shrugging our shoulders as we left a crouching Jihadist hidden in the back of our minds. Yet, with his last address, Bin Laden comes once again to the forefront, not as an abandoned militant leader, but as a departing sage blessing us with his last words of wisdom, “Your revolution is the source of hope for those who are suffering … do not waste this opportunity.”
When [democratic and open societies finally reign in the Middle East and] Arab historians sit down to write the story of a Winter that lead to their Spring, Osama Bin Laden will not be the villain. The harshest assessment will consider him analogous to those harsh and bigoted puritans who paved the road for the United States of America. Today, we only transiently consider the atrocities committed to establish this country before shaking them away as a necessary evil not to deter us from our progress. For the majority of historians and for the populace, however, Bin Laden will go down as an average Arab Muslim. His only uniqueness was that he was radical enough … insane enough to pursue the private logical conclusions reached by millions of Arab minds but nullified by the public logic of Arab societies. He was human enough to err in the process. He protested the complacency of Arab rulers and was assassinated by the West.
So tonight, as a I watch American Idol hoping that Haley Reinhart will make it the finals, I will also be watching to Obama’s speech on the Middle-East. In the grand scheme, Obama’s important speech is inherently of less significance than Bin Laden’s final address. However, the challenge of my generation will be to integrate both and synthesize a coherent way forward. For although we may have fallen, we are back on the stage and the show must go on.
*Waleed Naïf (a pseudonym) is an essayist, poet and author of Ground Zero Mosque: The Confessions of a Western-Middle-Eastern Muslim (February, 2011).