Explainer Mailbag: What's Osama Talking About? Part 2

Explainer Mailbag: What's Osama Talking About? Part 2

Explainer Mailbag: What's Osama Talking About? Part 2

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 11 2001 4:19 PM

Explainer Mailbag: What's Osama Talking About? Part 2

Does Osama Bin Laden want to re-fight World War I? That's what Explainer speculated Monday. To recap: Bin Laden twice made references during his videotape address, which aired first on Oct. 7, to the abominations of the past "80 years." Explainer theorized that Bin Laden was referring to the colonial mandates and protectorates set up by the Great Powers after the end of the war. More generally, Explainer theorized that the end of World War I signaled, to Bin Laden, the collapse of Muslim political power. Here's what readers thought.

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A couple of readers advised Explainer to read David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Explainer did as he was told, though he hasn't plowed through all 635 pages yet. But here's the first sentence: "The Middle East, as we know it from today's headlines, emerged from decisions made by the Allies during and after the First World War." Fromkin conceives the Middle East as including Central Asia and Afghanistan, and he sees Russia playing a leading role alongside Britain and France. (As Explainer noted, Bin Laden feels he already knocked off one superpower in the Soviet Union, and now he's trying to complete the doubleheader. He's an Islamist Ernie "Let's Play Two" Banks.)

 

Steve Thornton observes that Bin Laden probably means 80 Islamic years, not Gregorian years. Jan. 24, 1924, is 80 Islamic years before Sept. 11, 2001. "1924 is the year Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate," Thornton writes. "Ataturk was of course the great modernizer of Turkey, which in turn was the remnant of the Ottoman Empire after about 300 years of steady decline. Osama specifically wants to restore the Caliphate, probably in Iraq with Osama in the chair. According to this site, the date was March 24, 1923, but several other sources call it 1924 with no date. I think that's a much more likely explanation--a much more dramatic single event--than any British treaty or whatever the other pundits are saying. It's the Caliphate."

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Several readers felt Explainer glossed over the reference to the "tragedy of Andalusia": "For militant Islamists, there is a very particular lesson to be learned from this tragedy," John Carney wrote. "Divided and decadent Islamic kingdoms will fall to the infidels. What is needed to avoid the tragedy is the universal caliphate. The invocation of Andalusia by Bin Laden is meant to intimidate America's Islamic allies by comparing them with those responsible for the tragedy."

 

But not all readers were in Explainer's "It's the caliphate, stupid" camp. The other camp: "It's Israel, stupid." Josh Moses says 1921 saw "from what I can tell, the first profoundly Jewish settlement in the heart of Palestine." In "The Fray," Ananda Gupta cited the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain proposed the creation of an independent Jewish state. "Less well known is that the U.S. Congress passed a resolution endorsing the Balfour Declaration on Sept. 21, 1922. Hard to get much closer. It is possible that bin Laden was referring to this resolution, and that the choice of date for the attacks was meant to get as close to Sept. 21 as possible?"

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And Bill Medaille had an alternative interpretation for the significance of the tragedy of Andalusia: "The 'tragedy of Andalusia' wasn't just the reversal of Muslim conquest," Medaille writes. "That had already been going on in Spain for nearly 500 years. But Andalusia was different. Muslims had ruled it for nearly 800 years when it fell to Spain. It had a thriving Muslim culture that was as indigenous to the region as anyone could be. However, that culture was completely annihilated by the 'Catholic Monarchs.' Arabs, Moors, and Muslims were killed, driven out, or forcibly converted. So, when Bin Laden refers to the 'tragedy of Andalusia,' he doesn't just mean Western imperialism (which his talk of '80 years' clearly refers to), but the complete annihilation of an indigenous Muslim culture, which most people in the Arab and wider worlds see the Palestinians as facing."

 

Finally, Joseph Britt summed up the "Who cares?" camp: "Shouldn't bin Laden have at least some warm feelings for Great Britain, since generations of British opposition to Russian designs on the Ottoman Empire was largely responsible for the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate lasting as long as they did? Might he be planning terrorist acts against Germany, on the theory that the Kaiser's dragging the Empire into World War I was the cause of its final collapse? He doesn't seem to think American intervention to save the Bosnian or Kosovar Muslims was terribly significant; would he hate us even more if we had stood by and let them be completely wiped out? And shouldn't he hold a special grudge against the Serbs, or at least against Milosevic? As far as I know he hasn't offered to testify at Slobo's trial at The Hague.

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"Alas, I don't think any of it matters to him. It's all about his abstract ideas and his place in history. Just what we need, a Me-Generation terrorist."

 

Explainer correction: In a column this week, Explainer wrote that Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State in 1996. As reader John Chitwood pointed out, Albright was U.S. representative to the United Nations at the time.