The Sheikh who shook two Superpowers By Satya Sagar

7 May 2011

Long after he is gone, in the mythology of the Western world, Osama Bin Laden will always remain the fanatical architect of 9/11, the evil man who brought down the World Trade Center, a long standing symbol of US power. On the Arab and other streets of the Third World he will pass into fable as the interloper who dared to hit America in its heartland, eluding its wrath for a decade before becoming a martyr.

However, years later, when the history of our times is written with less prejudice and more reflection, Bin Laden’s true role will be recognized as both far more complex and far reaching. He will, in my view, really be described as the ‘Sheikh who shook two Superpowers’ and a man who precipitated the fall of nothing less than the twin towers of the global Cold War itself.

The first tower was of course the Soviet Union, with its tall claims of standing for socialism, against injustice and as a beacon of hope for the oppressed people of the planet. When Soviet troops entered Afghanistan to prop up a pliant regime Bin Laden was there, fighting the invasion together with hundreds of other Islamic mujahedeen.

For most people in the Third World, the Afghan misadventure fully exposed the Soviets as just another big colonial bully, not different from its Cold War rival the United States, with its sordid history of imperial depredations in Latin America and Asia. It was a desperate attempt at diverting attention by the USSR from problems at home and for substituting its waning ideological influence abroad through brute force.

In the end for the Soviet Union, Afghanistan proved to be the final tremor, that brought down the wobbly pillars of its rusting Empire. A quake that occurred, thanks at least in some part, to Bin Laden’s enthusiastic stomping.

At that time Bin Laden – scion of a powerful Saudi family- was the blue-eyed boy of the United States, intent as it was on making the Soviets bleed in Afghanistan like they themselves had in Vietnam before. Both US and Saudi support helped Bin Laden set up the Al Qaeda network –with volunteers from the Middle East to Indonesia getting trained in Pakistan, which went on to become the global hub of Islamic radicalism.

Just two years after the Soviets and their communist allies throughout Eastern Europe collapsed Bin Laden had already set his sights on the second standing tower of the Cold War. On 11 September 2001 Bin Laden’s devastating attack on the World Trade Center in New York set in motion the collapse of the United States as a global Superpower.

Firstly 9/11 punctured the myth of US invincibility and questioned its ability to defend its citizens even on home ground. As a paranoid nation lashed out in fear and pain the US proved to be just like any other – bigger and mightier perhaps- but a vulnerable beast like the lowest of them out there.

In its fury- real or pretended – were jettisoned every international convention, principles of democracy and human rights and plain decency in a way not even its worst critics could have imagined.

The unlawful colonial takeover of Afghanistan and then Iraq, (the latter having no connection at all to 9/11), showed the US was willing to cynically use the death of its citizens as a front to achieve ambitious geopolitical goals to do with oil and other natural resources. By breaking every norm to carry out these invasions the US lost whatever little credibility it still had among nations of the world.

The Guantanamo concentration camp and the emergence of a quasi-police state within its own borders also exposed its hollow claims to being an alternative to the Gulag Archipelago of the Soviet Union. Looking back now, it is clear the US ironically carried out, on an even more spectacular scale, all the crimes it had always accused its Cold War rival of committing.

No wonder then, in the years since that fateful day over ten years ago, the US has declined as a military, economic, political and very crucially as a moral power advocating freedom and democracy around the globe. The dollar since many years now is just a pale imitation of its former self, still kept afloat by the propaganda and propped up by cheap credit from Communist China.

The blatantly illegal assassination of Bin Laden and the ensuing display of barbarism aka ‘celebration’ on the streets of New York too represent a defeat for every lofty principle of justice and rule of law ordinary Americans themselves have fought for over the last few centuries. It seems, even in his death Bin Laden has managed to pull the US a few notches lower than it has already sunk – a thought sure to make him chuckle in his watery grave somewhere.

But then what will future historians make of vision of the world Bin Laden himself represented? On the surface of course he comes across as an advocate of a return to an imagined past of Islamic glory and power. The Taliban in Afghanistan, with which he so closely allied himself, gave the world a horrific glimpse of what the re-establishment of the Caliphate could mean to women, dissenters, infidels and so on.

On the other hand Bin Laden’s life and actions can also be interpreted as that of someone already ensconced in the past and who deeply resented constant encroachment of his medieval world by the two erstwhile Superpowers. He represented in other words the rage of the vengeful mummy awakened from its deep slumber by the bulldozers of both socialist and capitalist ‘modernity’ searching for treasure.

‘Modernity’, within quotes, because neither Superpower was really interested in taking to the people of the middle-east or anywhere else their professed modern ideas of socialist equality or capitalist democracy. Instead, they supported dictators around the world catering to imperial interests, regimes that are now being challenged by the Arab people on their own.

Behind their grand slogans the two seemingly opposed systems represented by the Superpowers were rather united in their pursuit of the nineteenth century illusion of endless production and consumption. To fulfill their insatiable industrial appetite they were willing to commit any crime, as they sought to expand influence, manipulate poorer nations and extract resources relentlessly.

While in the end it turned out that Bin Laden did not really live in a cave but in a fancy mansion, most of his followers and associates, fighting earlier the Soviets and now the US, did/do represent a feudal and even tribal ethos. An older way of life, that has been under constant attack by predatory industrialization for many centuries now, spawning resistance of various kinds from the ‘backward’ people of the globe.

In assessing Bin Laden’s legacy it has to be understood that history is never really made by people with clean or noble motives. Bin Laden’s own way of challenging both Soviet and US imperialism was not necessarily the best model for everyone else to follow and the methods he used did incalculable harm to the task of building a better and just world.

However, as long as the technologically superior but morally inferior try to impose their will on a diverse planet through guile or violence there will surely be many more Bin Ladens born again and again. Distorted and perverse perhaps their methods may be, but they are and will remain an unmistakable challenge to the global towers of Superpower hubris.

Satya Sagar is a writer, journalist and public health worker based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at

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