Skip Navigation
Making Sense of Osama

Making Sense of Osama

A daylong conference recently attempted to clear some of the fog surrounding the real Osama bin Laden, who, if he's still alive, turns 50 this month. Titled "Jihadi Islam," the Nov. 13 event was sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies and held at the UCLA Faculty Center.

Whether dead or alive, OBL has become more than an active agent of terror he has become a canvas of multiple images for future posterity.

This article was first published in UCLA Magazine.

By Ajay Singh

ARE WE any closer to understanding Osama Bin Laden and his religious war?

If anything, the mystique surrounding Osama Bin Laden, or "OBL," as he is often referred to, has grown steadily stronger in the years since 9/11. Yet not much is known about what this Saudi-born terrorist mastermind really stands for — and even less about how we should think about him.

A daylong conference recently attempted to clear some of the fog surrounding the real Osama bin Laden, who, if he's still alive, turns 50 this month. Titled "Jihadi Islam," the Nov. 13 event was sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies and held at the UCLA Faculty Center.

"Whether dead or alive, OBL has become more than an active agent of terror — he has become a canvas of multiple images for future posterity," said Bruce Lawrence, a noted scholar of Islam and a professor of religion at Duke University, who delivered the conference's keynote address. "It is very important how we — whether academics or policy makers or the general public — label him."

Although OBL is widely seen as a "fundamentalist" and a "terrorist," those terms do not adequately depict him, Lawrence argued. "'Fundamentalist' may help describe him to outsiders, but it does not help to understand him from his own worldview or that of his followers," he said. Similarly, from his own perspective, OBL is "not a terrorist seeking a target, but a leader avenging his victimized community."

More than anything else, OBL is a "polemicist," Lawrence said. To recruit Muslims to his cause, OBL contrasts the perfection of early Islam with its defilement in the modern world. But he deftly conceals the fact that he has no useful or realistic plan of action to restore his faith's early glory beyond urging Muslims to wage jihad, or "defensive struggle" against those who wish to undermine Islam.

Moreover, despite his penchant for quoting the Quran repeatedly, OBL overlooks the norms of generosity, hospitality and peace that characterize not just Islam and Islamic civilization but present-day Muslim societies as well, Lawrence said.

The lack of any practical goals in OBL's ideology, coupled with the highly decentralized nature of Al-Qaeda cells pursuing violence for its own sake, presents a striking parallel with anarchist movements, argued James Gelvin, a UCLA professor of history and a leading authority on the Middle East who organized the conference.

In his talk, titled "Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian's Reply to Terrorology," Gelvin rejected the view, shared by many experts, that the Al-Qaeda's jihadism is the result of globalization.

Rather, argued Gelvin, it is more plausible that the Al-Qaeda's actions resonate among Muslim populations that feel threatened by globalization, accounting for the group's spectacular success. See Gelvin’s paper.

"In the end, it has been (globalization's) actions that have enabled Al-Qaeda to carve out a niche for itself and for its brand of jihadism in an already crowded public sphere among those alienated from the global economic and state systems on the one hand and the non-anarchist alternatives to those systems on the other," Gelvin said.

Center for Near Eastern Studies