Recent Thoughts on Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King Jr.

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden has been getting on my nerves lately. Not personally, mind you – we’ve never met. But he released a speech recently that did two annoying things.

(1) he claimed that the Pope was responsible for recent reprints of the cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish press, stating that Benedict XVI was part of a “new crusade”against Islam.

(2) Bin Laden again co-opteed the Palestinian cause for his own purposes saying that, “Palestine cannot be retaken by negotiations and dialogue, but with fire and iron.” (BBC reporting here) And also encouraging support for Palestine by joining the “jihad” in Iraq. Like that even makes any sense.

I find these two items annoying for two different reasons.

(1) When Bin Laden speaks out against the cartoons of Muhammad and links them in some obscure and nefarious plot by the Pope he connects with certain “fears” that exist in the Muslim/Arab psyche. Namely that Christians are in the business of antagonizing and disrespecting Muslims and that, worse yet, Christian leaders are plotting a crusade against Islam.

(2) When Bin Laden links himself to the Palestinian cause he connects with certain “fears” that exist in the Western psyche. Namely that muslims are religious extremists and that bin Laden, the Palestinians, and probably most Muslims are in cahoots against Israel and the US (and apparently Europe now).

Basically Osama bin Laden is a fear monger playing both sides against each other. Hitting at the core of what both sides worry about and what the other side doesn’t exactly understand. (Americans don’t generally get how anyone could be that upset about a cartoon and Muslims don’t understand why they are always guilty by cultural/ethnic association).

I was simmering in this annoyance the other day when I heard a fascinating episode of Fresh Air on NPR. Host Terry Gross was interviewing New Yorker writer Steve Coll about his new book entitled, “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.

Coll has studied the extended bin Laden family (54 children born to Osama’s father Muhammad bin Laden) and their rise from Yemeni poverty to Saudi wealth, and international notoriety. I was surprised to learn such facts as:

  • Muhammad bin Laden died in a plane crash caused by an American pilot’s error
  • Osama’s brother Salem died in an ultralight crash in San Antonio Texas
  • Before his death Muhammad bin Laden was the sole contractor for religious building projects in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem
  • That Muhammad bin Laden owned property in Jerusalem that was confiscated by the Israeli government in 1967

Hmm . . . and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Interesting, though to note the thin thread of connection with Palestine that I had not been previously aware of. Also interesting how having access to obscene amounts of money and powerful networks can “help”you cope with life’s tragedies in any way you want – from buying real estate and cars to fomenting religious extremism.

The episode is around 40 minutes long and well worth a listen (Fresh Air -The Bin Ladens a Complicated Family Tree). You can also find an excerpt from Steve Coll’s new book which deals with the broader family – not just Osama.

And now for the MLK connection. Today (well, Friday April 4th) is the 40th anniversary of his assassination. My friend David has posted a fitting recognition with some meaningful links. You can also look at a nice photo essay on BBC about some of today’s commemorative activities or a photo essay about MLK’s life at TIME.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Osama Bin Laden. Both charismatic. Both standing against oppression. Both still speaking today even though one is in hiding and one is in the grave. History will most likely count both of them as great leaders. Yet, these two men could not be more different.

One espouses the glories of martyrdom for a cause he is barely connected with, in hopes of using violence to end one form of oppression in favor of another. The other man dying as a martyr while he peacefully, but actively struggled to bring an end to an oppression that he knew all to well. MLK did not look at death as something to be sought, but was not afraid to face it. His martyrdom was significant in bringing a peace (though imperfect) to a troubled nation.

Both men fighting against oppression. One preaching violence, another peace. One encouraging others to die from a distance. The other dying unexpectedly right in the thick of the struggle. Who knows what historians will say about Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King 100 or 200 years from now. All I know is that from this angle, the martyrdom of MLK speaks more loudly from beyond the grave and is more relevant to Christians, Muslims, and Jews everywhere in this troubled world than OBL’s poisonous rhetoric from his hideout in a cave.

Here’s a 9-minute clip of MLK’s last speech given 40-years ago this past Thursday. If you don’t have time for that, click on the second one – it’s only 90 seconds or so. Profound, timeless, and a relevant example for all those seeking to end oppression and make peace in this world.

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3 Responses

  1. Ok – just saw that these clips have been disabled on YouTube – will have to find some new ones.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out Monica – wish MLK was still around today, but thankful for clips like these to remind us of his passion and point us in right directions.

  3. I love it!

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