The mythos of Obama and Osama


With his death, Osama bin Laden’s name and story will forever be correlated with that of Barack Obama.
Larbi Sadiki

Osama bin Laden’s death will forever be linked with Obama’s name [GALLO/GETTY]

Obama and Osama. Two names that will henceforth be coupled.
The hunter, Obama, is leader of the most powerful and feared nation on earth.
Osama, the hunted, was leader of a borderless state – a non-state actor – and probably the most feared religio-political association of the modern world since the rise of the Ismaili Hashashin assassins between the 11th and 13th centuries.
Obama and Osama may rhyme, but that is not their only correlation.

The Pygmalion syndrome
A Pygmalion resides in both of them. They are, to an extent, sculptors.
In turn, these two sculptors, Obama and Osama, are examples of how extraordinary men – when struck by the power of ideas, ideals and dreams, regardless of the cause – go on about sculpting their Galateas – their statues, dummies or puppets.
Each is in love with a statuesque vision, a set of ideals or dreams that they have sought to breathe life into.
Otherwise, how can one explain why a man who could have nymphs, Bentleys, yachts, and everything money can buy opts for the “illusionary” – to paraphrase Marx – rewards of the hereafter?


Osama could have opted for Al-Walid bin Talal’s lifestyle. This is where he puzzles. It has to be the power of faith.

Not unlike Osama in complexion and “otherness”, Obama dazzles. A hyphenated US citizen par excellence rises to occupy the White House.

Neither his colour nor his paternal roots, nor possibly the suppressed Islamic identity, have stopped him from mastering the art of political sculpture of self and public.

Obama and Osama as icons

They are, however, iconic for different reasons. Both, inevitably, are constructed in a variety of discourses. What is constructed is also de-constructed according to one’s bias.

Indeed, the two men belong to two diametrically opposed worlds and world outlooks. But both are social constructs, and their iconic status conjures up a spectrum of human feelings, ranging from love to hatred, admiration to suspicion.

Only very recently, Obama had to defend his “American-ness” to doubters, and very recently his birth in response to Donald Trump.

When “Holy War” was championed in Reagan’s war-by-proxy against the former Soviets in the killing fields of Afghanistan, Osama was proudly embraced as a Saudi hero.

Post 9/11, he was disowned, and his Yemeni lineage marked a new discourse aimed at re-inventing, or re-writing, bin Laden’s identity.

Both men sought to breathe life into their respective Galateas. For Obama, his core principles are a mix of left and right, centrism and progressivism, laced with liberalism.

Osama’s Galatea is a sculpture whose ivory is an eschatology and exegesis plated with a Salafi-Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

Archaeology of power

Whether Pygmalion or Narcissus, Obama and Osama share a realist’s vision of how power is wielded.

As a result, Obama’s state and Osama’s base (literally, “Qaeda”)-less state shamelessly deploy violence. Both are thus in love with a Galatea that is caught in an unstoppable archaeology of death and war-making.

Regardless of victimhood or guilt, both are victims of the ideals and ideas they are in love with, and in their pursuit – a Godly transcendence or the deity of modernism and capitalism – they construct myths, guards, weaponry, and languages to match.

These are the ornaments of power with which they adorn their Galateas.

True, Osama is guilty of mass murder. The 3,000 lives killed heinously, and his mis-reading of Islam confound Shia and Sunni.

Those Muslims who celebrated bin Laden’s acts of mass murder are guilty by association. The doctors of Islam should have declared the age of war between Islam and the abode of non-Islam as null and without foundation in the Quran, or in many an exegesis in diverse schools of Islamic thought.

Osama’s Galatea was sculpted, conveniently, out of a love with the ideal of “defence” of the “Umma”, the global Islamic community.

To that end, he sculpted not an object of love, but maybe a counter-barbarity pitted against the barbarity that he thinks the capitalists, the secularists and their clients heaped on his “Umma”, as if he were the “commander of the faithful”.

Obama, ex-officio commander-in-chief, another type of faith, may be not as guilty as his predecessor in the grotesque violations of human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan, but sculpted his own barbarity out of the rallying myths (for country, sovereignty, compatriots, God, liberalism, democracy) – a brand of “love” – in the name of civility.

Countries had to be invaded (under Bush) and maintained by Obama, an incarceration system had to be invented (Guantanamo Bay), also still continuous under Obama – and a senseless war against “terror”, authored by the neo-cons and sustained, in the name of a similar idea of love for country, and its sanctity.

Contemplate, not celebrate

Many Muslims did celebrate when Osama inflicted pain on the US. That was wrong. Many more did not. Today there is a reversal of roles: Americans celebrating as the news of Osama’s killing was made public.

The killing of Osama was a secret the Obama administration did well to hide from the world till after Will and Kate’s wedding in Britain.

US citizens are free to celebrate as much as they like. But they are also presented with a chance to contemplate. American lives – regardless of numbers – must be placed in terms of value and worth on equal footing with those of all humans regardless of colour, ethnicity, nationality, or creed.

When their elected governments support dictators – Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdallah Al-Saleh, even Gaddafi – arm them, shield them with undeserved legitimacy and funding, they must contemplate the consequences of the governments they democratically place in the White House.

Of those consequences, the torture regimes, deaths, exiles, exclusion, and war by proxy – in Gaza and Lebanon – the invasion of Iraq and attendant regimes of secrecy, rendition flights, incarceration – in which Americans are guilty directly or by association in the killing of non-American lives.

Their celebration will be more meaningful only if they heed the evil of indifference or ignorance of their successive elected administrations, with varying degrees and under different circumstances, of the acts committed in their name for myths that they cherish and love – but rarely reflect upon.

Celebration of fallen enemies – without self-reflection – may be no more worthy than celebrating a victory at a football match.

Osama no more – Islam is not Osama

Arab revolutions erupted and triumphed in Tunisia and Egypt, partly burying Osama’s Galatea. To an extent, they demonstrated in a vivid way that the “abode of Islam” is not blood-thirsty but freedom-thirsty.

But now Osama lays a soulless body, a trophy, already being paraded as a symbol of a hollow victory. Another body amid the countless fatalities in a senseless hubris and duel in which there are no innocents.

Osama’s death should – and one prays, will – give Arabs and Muslims a reprieve from chaos and violence, and a moment to take stock that Osama’s journeys delivered them against the Soviets but shackled them to systems of language, incarceration, profiling, and violence neither they nor the US and its allies can ever win.

In his stead there are new voices and forces of Islam which are pushing the boundaries of freedom to their most logical conclusion: an Islam in love with new conceptions of Galatea – of toleration, good government, humane treatment of fellow citizens, transparent governance, fair and free competition, gender-friendly politics, and fair slicing of the economic cake. To show that Muslims are in love with a beautiful Islam.

In his stead rises Essam El-Iryan, Abd Elmounim Abou El-Futuh, and Mohammed Mursi among others, suggesting new possibilities for the linkage of Islam and the vision of politics from a Muslim perspective.

Not an end but a new beginning

For now, one chapter has been read in the book of US-Arab relations. In this chapter, Obama killed Osama.

For Osama, as is written in the holy Quran: “Say: The Angel of Death put in charge of you, will (duly) take your souls: Then shall ye be brought back to your Lord.” There awaits his judgment.

For Obama, he killed Osama – legally or not is not the point.

The point is that this moment will form a meaningful moment only if the ghosts of hatred, hubris, and violence are laid to rest – with Osama – and the endless witch-hunt for the timeless terrorist Muslim or Osamas re-incarnate is reflected on for the sake of permanent reconciliation and collective healing – and a collective Galatea is sculpted of new futures, new understanding, and new possibilities…

Larbi Sadiki is a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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