Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 179-184
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Bin Laden's Last Stand
David B. Edwards
In the last several months, the U.S. administration has aimed its most extreme rhetoric at the person of Osama bin Laden. In his public statements, President George Bush has routinely referred to bin Laden as "the Evil One" and "the Evildoer," and he has used phrases like "wanted dead or alive" and "we'll smoke him out of his hole" to indicate the administration's resolve in bringing bin Laden to justice. The rhetorical excess evidenced in statements about bin Laden stands in marked contrast to the restraint the administration has exercised in relation to the Afghan people, Muslims and the Islamic religion in general, for all of which the White House has gone out of its way to signal its respect.
While the administration has been trying to isolate bin Laden rhetorically, we also hear reports that the al Qaeda leader is viewed very differently by many in the Middle East and South Asia. We can't speak in terms of percentages, but news reports make it clear that many see bin Laden as a hero on horseback, intent on righting wrongs committed against the Muslim people. It is uncertain if those who demonstrate on the street in support of bin Laden know much about his political views or would be pleased to live in an Islamic state of the sort the Taliban established in Afghanistan, but that doesn't really seem to matter. At a time of general discontent with the political and economic situation [End Page 179] in the Middle East, bin Laden offers the image of someone who stands up for his beliefs and is incorruptible and unblinking before those in power.
One dimension of the rhetorical divide between how bin Laden is perceived in the Muslim world and in the United States concerns the manner in which his demise might come to be understood in the Muslim world. In this regard, recollecting an event from an earlier era might be instructive because of the parallels it shares with America's pursuit of Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The earlier episode took place in the summer of 1897 on the frontier between what was then called India and Afghanistan. 1 An Afghan religious leader known as the Mulla of Hadda organized the Pakhtun tribal people of the border area to join a jihad whose goal was to force the British out of India. For several months, the British came under tremendous pressure, as garrisons up and down the frontier were placed under attack. These assaults awoke in British minds memories of the so-called Mutiny of 1857 when hundreds of British had been killed, and newspaper commentators of the time spread the fear that the jihad would spread like a contagion, affecting an ever wider circle of Muslims in India, including the native regiments, who would be inspired to join in the general insurrection.
One of those who recognized the seriousness of the situation was young Winston Churchill, who finagled a job as a stringer with a London newspaper so he could accompany the British expeditionary force sent out to deal with the Mulla of Hadda and his allies. For Churchill, this was not simply a local uprising. It was, for him, as the conflict with bin Laden is for many in this country, a clash between civilization and barbarism. Great Britain was, in Churchill's words, pursuing a "course marked out ... by an all-wise hand ... of bearing civilization and good government to the uttermost ends of the earth." 2 The Mulla of Hadda, or "the Mad Mulla," as he was often referred to in the press, represented the forces of superstition, intent on keeping the people of India cloaked in darkness.
The Mulla of Hadda did not have access to al Jazeera satellite television to spread his message, but he did have the services of religious students, known as taliban who, according to one pair of contemporary British commentators, were "at the bottom of all the...