It is hard to know whether to be enraged, confused, or simply impressed that, eight years after the attacks of 9/11, the most wanted man on the planet is about to celebrate his 52nd birthday, likely in the company of his friends, family, supporters, and well-wishers.
That’s right. Osama bin Laden turns 52 years old today. And while it has been a while since he has been heard from, it is almost certain that he is alive and well and living comfortably somewhere among the imposing hills and steep valleys of the North-West Frontier Province on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
From London to Jakarta, kids continue to wear Osama bin Laden T-shirts as though he were a modern-day Che Guevara.
Of course, as with many leaders pushing past 50, bin Laden is struggling to remain relevant to the movement he himself helped found. There was a time when the mere mention of his name would send chills down our nation’s collective spine. Indeed, so dreaded was the leader of al Qaeda that for months after 9/11, George W. Bush referred to bin Laden not by his name, but by the ominous, almost apocalyptic, and frankly silly moniker, “The Evil One”—a reference either to Satan or to Darth Vader (Bush never made it clear).
Today, bin Laden is little more than an absent figurehead with almost no command control over al Qaeda’s many franchises across the globe. In no way can he be described as al Qaeda’s “commander in chief.” He is not even the organization’s principal ideologue. In a survey of the most oft-cited theorists on militant Islamic websites conducted by the Combating Terrorism Center, researchers found that Osama bin Laden’s name was barely mentioned at all. Poll after poll across the Muslim world has revealed overwhelming majorities among all classes, ages, and sectors of society rejecting bin Laden and condemning his actions. (The best and most comprehensive data can be found in Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito’s Who Speaks for Islam, a publication of the Gallup Muslim World Poll). Even fellow jihadists like the infamous Dr. Fadl (a.k.a, Shukri Mustafa), founder of an organization called Takfir wal Hijra, which many consider to be the precursor to al Qaeda, have written tracts denouncing bin Laden. “[Ayman] Zawahiri and bin Laden [are] extremely immoral,” Dr. Fadl told the Saudi daily Al-Hayat. “I have spoken about this in order to warn the youth against them, youth who are seduced by them, and don’t know them.” (Dr Fadl’s rebuke was so damaging to al Qaeda reputation that Zawahiri felt compelled to publish a 200-page rebuttal.)
Nevertheless, bin Laden remains a kind of pop icon among some Muslim youth. From London to Jakarta, kids continue to wear Osama bin Laden T-shirts as though he were a modern-day Che Guevara. They pin posters bearing his image to their walls as if he were some kind of soccer superstar. They listen to rap songs extolling his name alongside gangster rappers like Tupac and Biggie Smalls.
The reason bin Laden remains popular with these kids, despite his relative disappearance from the global stage, is that he is seen as untainted either by political power (of which he has none) or, more importantly, by religious authority (of which he has even less). This is an absolutely vital point to bear in mind when discussing bin Laden’s sustained popularity among Muslim youth. Osama bin Laden, it must be understood, is not an imam or a member of Islam’s clergy. He has absolutely no religious credentials whatsoever. He has never studied in any Islamic seminary and has only the most rudimentary knowledge of Islamic law and theology. And yet, he has managed to seize for himself the powers traditionally ascribed to Islam’s clergy by, for example, repeatedly issuing his own fatwas (formal religious rulings that, according to Islamic law, can be issued only by a qualified member of the clergy).
It is his conscious appropriation of religious authority that has made bin Laden so appealing to young Muslims who are themselves mostly ignorant of Islamic law and theology and whose sense of alienation from their own religious communities makes them yearn for alternative sources of spiritual leadership. In his speeches and writings, bin Laden warns these youths not to listen to their imams, whom he considers incapable of addressing their needs. “No official scholar’s juridical decrees have any value as far as I’m concerned,” he has declared. In fact, he routinely refers to the traditional Muslim clergy as “imams of infidelity,” “defeatist imams,” or “hypocrite imams.” He has even made the astonishing claim that following the leadership of Islam’s clergy is “tantamount to worshiping [them] rather than God.” All the while, he has taken upon himself the duty, traditionally reserved for Islam’s clergy, of “enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.” And therein lies the key to bin Laden’s success in reaching out to young Muslims: First, get them to stop obeying their own religious leaders; then assume for oneself those leaders’ religious authority.
Bin Laden’s subversive rejection of Islamic law and clerical authority in favor of a direct, unmediated experience of faith—in which every believer is an imam—is understandably attractive to Muslim youth. (And make no mistake, it is the youth that bin Laden seeks. “We find that the only age group capable of giving and waging jihad is the 15- to 25-age bracket,” he has stated. “I instruct the young people to exert every effort in jihad, for it is they upon whom this duty primarily devolves.”) The young Muslims who admire bin Laden tend to show little interest in the arcane and often painfully out-of-touch sermonizing of their imams. They find traditional, conservative interpretations of Islam unsatisfying. They are hungry for a more-intimate spirituality that cannot be contained by the walls of the mosque, and in fact they are looking to form their identities in direct opposition to the formal religious authorities of their community. These kids are not interested in Islam per se. For them, Islam is a kind of reactionary identity, a means of challenging the status quo, which is why they tend to be suspicious of those who do have proper religious credentials. That makes them the perfect audience for the kind of highly individualized, militantly anti-institutional version of Islam offered by bin Laden.
In my book, No god but God, I suggested that generations from now, historians may place bin Laden not alongside the fascist leaders of the 20th century like Mussolini or Hitler (an utterly laughable proposition), but rather among the Christian revolutionaries of the 16th century—men like Thomas Muntzer, Jacob Hutter, Hans Hut, or even Martin Luther—as one in a long and sometimes unsavory line of “reformation radicals” who pushed the principle of religious individualism to its terrifying limits. Yet, that may be looking too far ahead in the future. As it stands now, it looks like bin Laden may have plenty more uninterrupted birthdays left before it will be time to start talking about what legacy he will leave behind when he finally dies…or is captured. Whichever comes first.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War.