So many bin Ladens, so much Arab pride

October 19, 2001|By Rand H. Fishbein

WASHINGTON -- A country that has been unable to find the anti-abortion fugitive Eric Rudolph in the hills of North Carolina is unlikely to find Osama bin Laden in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan -- half a world away and hidden among some of the most inhospitable mountain ranges on the planet.

For nearly two years, hundreds of federal, state and local law enforcement officials searched in vain for Mr. Rudolph, using the latest in high-tech equipment.

Now the allied coalition will try to do the same in an area nearly five times as large as North Carolina using specialized units of British and American commandos.

The odds are not on their side.

While bin Laden may be America's beast, to the vast majority of Muslim peasants he is a modern-day Robin Hood. His Sherwood forest is virtually impenetrable, dotted with thousands of caves, protected by armed guerrillas and laced with more than 10 million land mines. While bin Laden may not shower the masses with treasure taken from the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states, he gives his followers something much more valuable -- a sense of vindication.

Within the Arab world, few things are more sacred than personal honor. Its preservation, at all costs, forms the basis for many of the social codes that bind Arab families, clans and, ultimately, nation-states. The Sept. 11 attack restored a sense of honor and control to many Muslims who long have felt overrun by Western culture and dominated by Western military and political power. Bin Laden took aim at this edifice and in a single symbolic act brought it crashing to the ground.

His hero status is assured.

Bin Laden has done for Islam what Egypt did for the Arab world in October 1973, when its military forces crossed the Suez Canal and launched a war with Israel. Though it was a short-lived accomplishment, it was enough to prove to the Arab masses that Israel was not invincible. Egypt's pride was restored and with it a sense that it could deal with the Jewish state on an equal footing, perhaps even win in the next round of fighting. As proof of its newly found status, Cairo quickly became one of Washington's largest foreign aid recipients.

Arab pride received another boost in May 2000, when Hezbollah fighters forced Israel to beat a hasty retreat from southern Lebanon. After more than two decades of occupation, the Israelis slipped away in the dead of night and left behind large quantities of equipment and supplies. The rout has only emboldened Hezbollah in its war with Israel. It also has inspired the Palestinians to believe that a similar victory is in their future. In the Middle East, there is always a heavy price to be paid for even the perception of weakness.

Much of world history is centered on pride vanquished and pride restored. What Dunkirk was to the British and Pearl Harbor to the United States, colonialism was, and is, to the Arabs. The attack on Sept. 11 represents an effective, albeit crude, form of desert justice.

Never mind that innocents were killed. That is of little concern in the Middle East, where warfare is total and little distinction is made between combatants and noncombatants. In much of the Islamic world, war is made on the living, and on the bloodline of the enemy as well. And so it was in April 1978, when a Soviet-backed coup brought Nur M. Taraki to power in Afghanistan. His predecessor, Mohammed Daoud, was executed, but only after being made to witness the killing of 80 members of his extended family.

Bin Laden's ascendancy to the world stage is neither surprising nor unique. His is an uncompromising rage that has been brewing within the Islamic world since it first made contact with the West. Those who see in the current conflict a clash of civilizations are correct.

There have been many bin Ladens and there likely will be many more. Though Muslim spokesmen may say they abhor Western imperialism, they forget that their societies emerged from a period of violent conquest and the forced conversion of many Christians, Jews and unbelievers into the faith of Mohammed.

A reconciliation, it seems, is impossible between East and West until the Muslim world comes to terms with its own past; it must recognize that what it finds so dishonorable in Western society it also should find dishonorable in its own tradition. This is a tall order, one not likely fulfilled with a few days of bombing. It is unlikely the United States ever will take bin Laden alive. In a sense, the search is futile. For behind every stone, in every bazaar and within every mosque in the Middle East there are hundreds, if not thousands, more like him. It is a dilemma that the sheriff of Nottingham knew all too well.

President Bush is right to gird the American people for a long, drawn-out struggle. The fight has only just begun.

Rand H. Fishbein, a pubic policy consultant, is a former staff member of the Senate Defense Appropriations and Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittees. He was a foreign policy and intelligence analyst on the Senate Iran-Contra Investigating Committee.

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