Monday, October 08, 2001

Bin Laden & the "tragedy of Andalus"

---------------------------------- (The Explainer)
October 8, 2001

What's Osama Talking About?
Chris Suellentrop
Posted Monday, Oct. 8, 2001, at 3:22 PM PT

In his videotape broadcast, Osama Bin Laden made two references to "80 years." The first: "What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted. Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more than 80 years, of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated." Later, Osama repeated the temporal reference, saying "the sword fell upon America after 80 years." What's he talking about? What happened around 80 years ago?

It's impossible to be certain from such an oblique reference, but here's a plausible (albeit speculative) theory: Bin Laden is referring to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between the British and the French after World War I. Osama's prime goal is said to be the restoration of the Islamic caliphate, and the Sykes-Picot agreement may signal, to Bin Laden, the collapse of Muslim political and military power. Historian Bernard Lewis observes that the end of World War I meant "the destruction of the old order which, for better or for worse, had prevailed for four centuries or more in the Middle East."

James S. Robbins, a professor of international relations at the National Defense University, put it this way in National Review Online, citing the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that followed the end of the war: The Ottomans had ruled the region for 600 years or so, and brought varying degrees of political harmony under the Sultanate and religious unity under the Caliphate. The 1920 treaty did away with the political order ... In bin Laden's universe, that was when everything started to go wrong. Viewed in that context, his plots against the Saudi and Jordanian monarchies make perfect sense. They are products of this original sin, the establishment of the political order of the Middle East by the Allied powers 80 years ago.

But why is it now America's fault? Julian Borger proffers a theory in the Guardian: "Since then, it is argued, the imperialist baton has been handed from Britain to the U.S., which now plays the leading role in orchestrating events in pro-western nations like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states." It would be nice if Bin Laden would note that the United States objected to the Sykes-Picot agreement as a betrayal of the principle of self-determination, but that's probably asking for too much.

What's it have to do with Spain? Virginia Postrel proposes a "Bin Laden Doctrine": "that no Muslim territory should ever become non-Muslim." Bin Laden opened his videotaped statement with this sentence: "Let the whole world know that we shall never accept that the tragedy of Andalusia would be repeated in Palestine. We cannot accept that Palestine will become Jewish." The "tragedy of Andalusia" refers to the conquering in 1492 of the Muslim Kingdom of Granada by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. It was a central moment in the Islamic empire's quest for political and military power: Muslim expansion was not just checked; it was reversed. If Bin Laden truly wants to restore the original geographic dimensions of the caliphate, he may eventually look toward Spain. Of course, it's possible that Bin Laden's goals are more modest (modest being a relative word).

Bin Laden's two-front war?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bin Laden dropped the Russians as "Public Enemy No. 1" and focused on the United States. Explainer doesn't want to make too much of this World War I theory, but it's possible that Bin Laden thinks he defeated the Soviet Union. If the end of World War I is the central historical moment to Bin Laden, it's important to note that more than Britain and France were involved. After World War I, the Soviet Union occupied Muslim countries in Central Asia that had once been part of the caliphate. Bin Laden may figure he's already halfway on his way to completing his God-ordained mission. Now that he's almost done with the eastern front, it's time to focus on the western one.

Explainer grants that he's speculating and that the World War I theory may be proven wrong. If you have a better idea, mail it to Explainer may revisit the issue in Friday's mailbag.

Explainer Update: Two hours after Explainer posted this item, Jim Phillips, Middle East analyst for the Heritage Foundation, called with more grist for the World War I theory. On September 11, 1922, the British mandate came into force over Palestine. ("Mandate" in this sense means a commission given to a nation to govern a territory.) The British mandate lasted until 1948, when the state of Israel was established.

Is that definitive proof? No. (After all, on September 11, 1940, Brian DePalma was born. Is Osama still angry about Mission to Mars?) But Explainer thinks it's pretty compelling.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong; The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years by Bernard Lewis; and Hillel Fradkin of the American Enterprise Institute.

Chris Suellentrop is Slate's deputy Washington bureau chief. You can e-mail him at

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