“You Americans, you think when something dies, it goes away.”– Robin Williams in the play “Tiger”
In Urdu/Hindi the phrase “Tere bin Laden,” which was also the title of last year’s hit Bollywood comedy about the American War on Terror, is a play on words which can be read as “Your bin Laden” or “Without you, Laden.” The phrase succinctly captures the current reality in which bin Laden is both absent and polysemic.
As Faisal Devji has argued, Americans and Arabs have tended to forcibly fit this Saudi man — who swore allegiance to a reclusive Afghan mullah: who lived and fought in Africa and South Asia; and who led a global network — into an exclusively Middle Eastern milieu and Arab ethnicity. The Internet is now dotted with pundits who are telling us that the Arab Spring had already rendered bin Laden and his organization “irrelevant” before his assassination. “Bin Laden died in Tunisia before he died in Pakistan,” they say. This is nonsense. Bin Laden’s de-territorializing movement which foreshadows the emergence of a truly global politics cannot be negated through the actions of those in one country or region. The utopian global project of creating a modern Caliphate/Khilafat that has inspired generations of militants and activists is now almost a century old — and it is a project with its deepest roots in South Asia not the Middle East. The project unearths a long buried cartography in order to reject all of the states that emerged in the wake of the end of the Ottoman empire — in other words there is a reason that Al Qaeda affiliates use words like Mesopotamia, Maghreb, Khurasan, Hind, and Jazeerat al-Arab. The aim is not a return, but a rejection of the Western desire to treat Muslim lands like a palimpsest. The failure to see this cartography (in part due to crude translations and Orwellian acronyms, e.g. “AQAP”) and think outside the network of post-war Euro-American regional territorial constructs occludes a longer history of anti-imperialism and anti-westernism, of which bin Laden was only the latest avatar.
Even the nefarious Taliban which emerged in 1994 (or during the anti-Soviet jihad if Mullah Zaeef is to be believed) have a Deobandi ideological lineage that traces back to the mid-19th century and the defeat of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857/ Great Rebellion. Moreover, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in which some of the fiercest militant organizations have emerged or gathered is still governed by the legacy of British despotism: the Political Agent and the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). The North West Frontier Province / Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which is now drenched in blood, was once the site of a major non-violent struggle against colonial domination. An understanding of colonial history and its legacies is therefore imperative if one seeks to address the perennial sources of militancy and resistance in South Asia.
We in New World however often lack a curiosity about the complex history and culture of others, particularly as one moves away from the Ivory Tower. Hence, our politicians and soldiers cannot help but imagine the badlands at the foothills of the Hindu-Kush as a return to the unconquered American Southwest, peopled as it is by “tribes” (as if this were an uncomplicated and homogeneous concept). President Bush famously referenced a standard Wild West image of the outlaw when he said Bin Laden was “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” Our military even went so far as to call the operation to kill Bin Laden “Geronimo,” unwittingly conflating Goyakhla’s violent resistance against Mexican and American territorial encroachment with Bin Laden’s muderous post-territorial struggle. America’s Bin Laden is thus transformed into either a Hollywood caricature of either an Arab terrorist or a Native American outlaw.
Of course unlike Goyakhla and so many other natives who resisted, Bin Laden’s ghost will continue to haunt America by the militants he inspires — he will not be tamed into a mascot or a battle cry through sentimental affection and nostalgia with the passage of time. As few of the underlying sources of militancy have been address or eliminated (in fact, quite the contrary has happened), there will be more militancy particularly amongst Muslims within South Asia. A (rather un-Islamic) burial at sea to prevent the emergence of a shrine will hardly matter. After all, the Muwahhidun who did not stop themselves from desecrating and effacing the grave of the Prophet’s mother, his family, and companions were hardly likely to build or permit a shrine to someone like Bin Laden — and the same could be said of the Taliban who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan. In fact it is probably fitting that a man who organized a deterritorialized network and struggled for a moral ideal (i.e. the caliphate) on behalf of a global community would be buried at sea.