On a recent vacation to the Middle East, I chose from my sister’s pile of books, an intriguing book titled, ‘Growing Up Bin Laden’. It is a book about Osama Bin Laden as told to the author, Jean Sasson, by Osama Bin Laden’s fourth son, Omar Bin Laden, and his first wife, Najwa Bin Laden. From accounts of his first wife and fourth son, Osama seems to have been a kind husband to Najwa, and a strict, tyrant of a father to his children.
I have always felt sympathetic towards children of tyrants. Given that tyrants aren’t particularly loved by their subjects, this opens the children to endless persecution not to mention the harrowing experience of living with the tyrant themselves. If one does not agree with any part of their philosophy, how can a young child carve out an ideology for themselves? When it isn’t easy to fall out with a parent as an adult, it must be phenomenal to do so as a teenager, especially in the Arab world where obedience and respect are weaved into the culture for good or for bad.
The Bin Ladens lived a sheltered, rich, privileged existence with little knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s activities in Saudi Arabia. When they moved to Sudan, it was evident his fortunes were waning. By the time they were in Sudan, Osama Bin Laden was banished from Saudi Arabia, and his anger at the West was already seething. It is interesting to see the genesis of Osama Bin Laden’s hatred towards the West. Ironically, it was Saudi’s reluctance to continue to parade him as a war hero (after his efforts against USSR in Afghanistan), and take US help with the Iraq-Kuwait issue that seemed to have finally caused the rift. It was during the period that the family lived in Sudan that Omar bin Laden as a growing teenager first got whiffs of his father’s nefarious activities. The hectic activity, feverish planning and the subsequent euphoria in his father’s camps after the US embassy bombings in 1998 were his first clues.
As for Najwa Bin Laden, I must say that she sounds like a phenomenal lady. Her calm and un-quavering mind seems to have been the one place of security for the children. Probably the reason that none of them as adults sought to follow their infamous father in his footsteps. Hers is a sheltered and domestic life that few can imagine. A mother to 11 children of Osama, she was also his first cousin and first wife. Osama went on to marry 5 times in his lifetime, one ended in divorce. As the eldest wife, it was Najwa’s lot to maintain harmony: between wives, between her children and between the children of the various wives. She seems to have done so with her characteristic grace and charm. Osama went on to have 23 children, and towards the end of the book the author tries to figure out the fate of each of them. It was thanks to the persistent Omar bin Laden who had broken away from his father at 19, that Najwa left him mere weeks before the 9/11 attacks with her last three. Neither of them had any idea as to what was planned, just that something bad was going to happen.
The book does not condone any act nor do I. The truth is extremism has no rationale. Why do certain buy into extremism? No one knows.
It is a common malady of the West to try to bring everyone to their view of thinking. Often times, it is done with little understanding of the cultural forces in these places and that results in enmity and animosity that is quite baffling to the West. It is why I find it fascinating to read about other cultures. Diversity in reading. The conviction that different people bring to their way of life, the belief that works for them.
I am now following up with two books that offer food for thought:
- Al Qaeda, The Jihadist State and the Islamist State by Daniel Byman &
- The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama.
The Audacity of Hope was written by Barack Obama when he was a Senator in 2006. While some of the chapters are pedagogical, one chapter that is worth reading is the one titled ‘The World Beyond Our Borders’.
There are some questions that are worth pondering about through they are not the mainstay of the chapter. Why did US invade Iraq and not North Korea? Why intervene in Bosnia but not in Darfur? What about countries that are liberalizing economically but not politically like China?
Daniel Byman is an academic with a focus on Middle Eastern policies and his book analyzes the organization Al Qaeda to see how the organization profiles its recruits. But it is baffling to the point of no coherence. Students in western universities who feel alienated are just as good candidates as a rich businessman’s son in Europe. How this ideology appeals to people no one knows. How they drift towards extremism, no one knows.
The truth is that our actions are too complex. The ripples of our action interweave too intricately with other ripples to determine one cause and one action. Having the humility to know that we know not what the consequences are is worth cultivating.
The Dalai Lama’s world view in this article could possibly help us.
Quoted from the article: Book by Pico Iyer on The Dalai Lama and how he erupts so often into his famous giggles:
Seen from the vantage point of one who meditates several hours a day, traveling to the place where everything is connected, much of our fascination with surface or with division seems truly hilarious.