Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not
thine heart be glad when he stumbleth, Lest the Lord see [it], and it
displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.”
This is one of the most beautiful passages in the
Bible (Proverbs 24:17-18), and indeed in the Hebrew language. It is
beautiful in other languages too though no translation comes close to
the beauty of the original.
Of course, it is natural to be glad when one’s enemy
is defeated, and the thirst for revenge is a human trait. But gloating
– schadenfreude – is something different altogether. An ugly
Ancient Hebrew legend has it that god got very angry
when the children of Israel rejoiced as their Egyptian pursuers
drowned in the Red Sea. “My creatures are drowning in the sea,” god
admonished them, “And you are singing?”
These thoughts crossed my mind when I saw the TV shots
of jubilant crowds of young Americans shouting and dancing in the
street. Natural, but unseemly. The contorted faces and the aggressive
body language were no different from those of crowds in Sudan or
Somalia. The ugly sides of human nature seem to be the same
The rejoicing may be premature. Most probably, al-Qaeda
did not die with Osama bin Laden. The effect may be entirely
In 1942 the British killed Avraham Stern, whom they
called a terrorist. Stern, whose nom de guerre was Yair, was
hiding in a cupboard in an apartment in Tel Aviv. In his case too, it
was the movements of his courier that gave him away. After making sure
that he was the right man, the British police officer in command shot
him dead. That was not the end of his group – rather, a new beginning.
It became the bane of British rule in Palestine. Known as the “Stern
Gang” (its real name was “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”), it
carried out the most daring attacks on British installations and
played a significant role in persuading the colonial power to leave
Hamas did not die when the Israeli air force killed
Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the paralysed founder, ideologue and symbol of
Hamas. As a martyr, he was far more effective than as a living leader.
His martyrdom attracted many new fighters to the cause. Killing a
person does not kill an idea. The Christians even took the cross as
What was the idea that turned Osama bin Laden into a
He preached the restoration of the caliphate of the
early Muslim centuries, which was not only a huge empire but also a
centre of the sciences and the arts, poetry and literature when Europe
was still a barbaric, medieval continent. Every Arab child learns
about these glories and cannot but contrast them with the sorry Muslim
present. (In a way, these longings parallel the Zionist romantics’
dreams of a resurrected kingdom of David and Solomon.)
A new caliphate in the 21st century is as unlikely as
the wildest creation of the imagination. It would have been
diametrically opposed to the zeitgeist were it not for its opponents –
the Americans. They needed this dream – or nightmare – more than the
The American empire always needs an antagonist to keep
it together and to focus its energies. This has to be a worldwide
enemy, a sinister advocate of an evil philosophy. Such were the Nazis
and Imperial Japan but they did not last long.
Fortunately, there was then the Communist empire which
filled the role admirably. There were Communists everywhere. All of
them were plotting the downfall of freedom, democracy and the United
States of America. They were even lurking inside the US, as J. Edgar
Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy so convincingly demonstrated. For
decades the US flourished in the fight against the Red Menace; its
forces spread all over the world, its spaceships reached the moon, its
best minds engaged in a titanic battle of ideas, the Sons of Light
against the Sons of Darkness.
And then – suddenly – the whole thing collapsed.
Soviet power vanished as if it had never existed. The American spy
agencies, with their tremendous capabilities, were flabbergasted.
Apparently, they had no idea how ramshackle the Soviet structure
actually was. How could they see, blinded as they were by their own
The disappearance of the Communist Threat left a
gaping void in the American psyche, which cried out to be filled.
Osama bin Laden kindly offered his services.
It needed, of course, a world-shaking event to lend
credibility to such a hare-brained utopia. The 9/11 outrage was just
such an event. It produced many changes in the American way of life.
And a new global enemy.
Overnight, medieval anti-Islamic prejudices are dusted
off for display. Islam the terrible, the murderous, the fanatical.
Islam the anti-democratic, the anti-freedom, anti-all-our-values:
Suicide bombers, 72 virgins, jihad.
The US springs to life again. Soldiers, spies and
special forces fan out across the globe to fight terrorism. Bin Laden
is everywhere. The War Against Terrorism is an apocalyptic struggle
with Satan. American freedoms have to be protected; the US military
machine grows by leaps and bounds. Power-hungry intellectuals babble
about the Clash of Civilisations and sell their souls for instant
To produce the lurid paint for such a twisted picture
of reality, religious Islamic groups are all thrown into the same pot
– the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Ayatollahs in Iran, Hizbollah in
Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, Indonesian separatists, the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, whoever. All become al-Qaeda
despite the fact that each has a totally different agenda, focused on
its own country, while bin Laden aims to abolish all Muslim states and
create one Holy Islamic Empire. Details, details.
The Holy War against the Jihad finds warriors
everywhere. Ambitious demagogues, for whom this promises an easy way
to inflame the masses, spring up in many countries, from France to
Finland, from Holland to Italy. The hysteria of Islamophobia displaces
good old anti-Semitism, using almost the same language. Tyrannical
regimes present themselves as bulwarks against al-Qaeda, as they had
once presented themselves as bulwarks against communism. And, of
course, our own Binyamin Netanyahu milks the situation for all it is
worth, travelling from capital to capital, peddling his wares of
Bin Laden had good reason to be proud, and probably
When I saw his picture for the first time, I joked
that he was not a real person but an actor straight from Hollywood’s
Central Casting. He looked too good to be true – exactly as he would
appear in a Hollywood movie – a handsome man, with a long black beard,
posing with a Kalashnikov. His appearances on TV were carefully
Actually, he was a very incompetent terrorist, a real
amateur. No genuine terrorist would have lived in a conspicuous villa
which stood out in the landscape like a sore thumb. Stern was hiding
in a small roof apartment in a squalid quarter of Tel Aviv. Menachem
Begin lived with his wife and son in a very modest ground floor
apartment, playing the role of a reclusive rabbi.
Bin Laden’s villa was bound to attract the attention
of neighbours and other people. They would have been curious about
this mysterious stranger in their midst. Actually, he should have been
discovered long ago. He was unarmed and did not put up a fight. The
decision to kill him on the spot and dump his body in the sea was
evidently taken long before.
So there is no grave, no holy tomb. But for millions
of Muslims, and especially Arabs, he was and remains a source of
pride, an Arab hero, the “lion of lions”, as a preacher in Jerusalem
called him. Almost no one dared to come out and say so openly, for
fear of the Americans, but even those who thought his ideas
impractical and his actions harmful respected him in their hearts.
Does that mean that al-Qaeda has a future? I don’t
think so. It belongs to the past – not because bin Laden has been
killed but because his central idea is obsolete.
The Arab Spring embodies a new set of ideals, a new
enthusiasm, one that does not glorify and hanker after a distant past
but looks boldly to the future. The young men and women of Tahrir
Square, with their longing for freedom, have consigned bin Laden to
history months before his physical death. His philosophy has a future
only if the Arab Awakening fails completely and leaves behind a
profound sense of disappointment and despair.
In the western world, few will mourn him but god
forbid that anyone should gloat.