Thursday, December 11, 2008

REFLECTION: Usama bin Reagan

It was 1982. I had just entered high school and had completed my first 2 years at an evangelical Anglican Cathedral School in the heart of Sydney's central business district. It was my first English class, and my army-officer-cum-English-teacher (who would remain my English teacher for the next four years) taught me one of life's important lessons.

English is all about writing. And the best way to learn how to write is to read. So make sure you do not start your first lesson in the morning without reading the Sydney Morning Herald.
Huh? Us adolescents reading a serious broadsheet read by men in suits on the train? Millard lectured us:

I have told you what I expect. And I know your parents all buy the Herald so you have no excuses.
He was right. My father has been buying the Herald since 1970. I doubt he has missed a single issue. And when he saw his son, the same kid who usually spent morning hours filling his ears with the musical lead of AC/DC, struggling through the local and international news stories, all my dad could say was Shabash! (Well done!)

Those were the days before the Oslo accords. So like most others, I read the Herald and believed that all Palestinians were a bunch of terrorists who hijack planes and kill Jews. And what made them worse is that they were aligned with the Soviets, those evil communists who invaded those poor people in Afghanistan.

Communists were bad in those days. But Mujahideen were good. Reagan was not just the president of the United States. He was also the Grand Ghazi, the Head Shaykh, the Murshid Effendi and the Master Mufti of the jihad against the Soviets.

Certainly that was the impression I got from reading the Herald, from watching 60 Minutes and from other news and current affairs sources.

Reagan and his advisers knew that they could not rely on the rabble of competing Afghan factions to fight the world's other superpower. He needed outside help. The Saudis and other Arab states were willing. Newspapers in Arab countries were advertising for volunteers to do Allah's (and the CIA's) work in Afghanistan. All the scholars and writers that Daniel Pipes loves to malign were used by Reagan and his murids in the Pentagon and various intelligence agencies for this cause.

I used to go to the mosque and hear khutbas about the great mujahideen. Some imams even said prayers for President Reagan. But Reagan had a secret weapon to unleash on the Soviets. It was the brains, the organizational ability and conservative fanaticism that Reagan probably wished he had in his own campaign team.

Reagan needed someone to coordinate the training, indoctrination and organization of the Arab volunteers. And who better than one of the favorite sons of a Saudi business family with close links to Reagan's own vice-president, George Bush. The Bin Ladins were huge fans of the old-style anti-Communist conservatives. Their errant son, Usama, had too much time and money on his hands. Better he be fighting a sacred cause in the desert than chasing skirts in the nightclubs of London and New York.

And so Usama bin Ladin became Usama bin Reagan. His job was to unleash as many 9/11's on the Soviets as possible. And all with the blessing of the Pentagon and the White House. Bin Ladin used his engineering skills and the ferocious devotion of his trainees to wreak havoc on Soviet forces.

Today of course, the Bush family is not exactly fond of Usama bin Reagan. They say they want him dead or alive. They said the same about Saddam Hussein. But for all we know, Saddam might be sitting in some 5-star hotel sipping champagne with the dude who runs Abu Ghraib prison, giving him tips on how many dogs it will take to rip the genitals off an Iraqi civilian. It takes a lot for the US government to mistreat their former employees.

What seriously pisses me off is how the neocons claim to hate Usama so much. Yet the way they are behaving benefits Usama's cause. What the hell am I talking about now?

Usama sits in his cave and babbles on about how the West is against all Muslims and how Western regimes are waging a war on Muslims. Of course, we all know that Muslims are doing a pretty good job at stuffing themselves up. They need no help from the West. Their own insistence on staying illiterate, broke, uncivilized, poor, uneducated, dictatorial and paranoid tends to place them on the civilizational backfoot. And when most of their so-called Islamic scholars and movements excel in these areas, it does not help.

Muslim minorities in the US, Australia, and other Western countries don�t help either. In the Australian state with the greatest concentration of Muslims (New South Wales, home of Sydney), we have an Islamic Council of NSW, a Supreme Islamic Council of NSW and a Muslim Council of NSW. All claim to legitimately represent Muslims here. In the US, you have some dude who wants to run a Supreme Islamic Council who labels 80% of Muslims as terrorists and extremists and wahhabists. With so-called leadership like that, is it any wonder we are in a mess?

However bad the condition of Muslims might be, I can say with great confidence that if Usama appeared in a Mosque in Sydney and tried to claim that the Australian government is out to target Islam and Muslims, he would be laughed out of the place.

By and large, Muslims just do not buy Usama's conspiratorial muck. Muslims know better. It is easy for Usama to make these bombastic claims. But he has not lived in a democratic, mature, liberal and free society. He has not lived in countries where (at least in terms of freedom and the rule of law), Islam is followed more than in most so-called Muslim countries. Try stopping an Aussie Muslim schoolgirl from wearing a hijab and be prepared to spend thousands in legal fees while she drags you through a range of courts and tribunals.

Muslims know Usama and his like are full of crap. For the time being. But there is a problem. The neocons seem to want Western Muslim communities to believe Usama.


Conservative governments are handing Usama victory on a platter. Conservative governments, including the Howard Government in Australia, are helping to make Usama more believable. Let me give you a few examples.

The government claims to have implemented a tough immigration system. If you break or flout immigration laws, you can be detained and deported. So if you are an Afghan Hazara fleeing Hamid Karzai's drug lords, expect to spend at least 12 months in a detention center in the desert. And if you are an English backpacker who overstays, expect to ... well ... um ... expect to keep working and getting pissed at the pub!

We have anti-terror laws which are being beefed up. And we have a list of organizations regarded as terror groups. In the US, Dubya made a point of declaring certain Latin American and Northern Ireland groups to be terrorist groups. Not the Howard Government. It seems you cannot be a terrorist group unless you have some link to Islam.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the people who are being arrested and charged are people whose acts occurred years ago and (in at least one case) who actively cooperated with security officials and provided information that led to the arrest of the big guns overseas. The nature of the charges includes placing information online and training with certain groups. And I am offering no prizes for guessing which religious faith they all seem to belong to.

But the classic is the way Guantanamo detainees are being treated. Hey, at least John Walker Lindh was treated like a citizen. At least the English jumped up and down for their detainees. The way Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer are behaving, you'd think Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks (the two Australian detainees) are as guilty as sin and should be shot at dawn.

An Australian citizen who finds himself detained overseas can and should expect all manner of assistance from the Australian embassy in that country. We expect the Department of Foreign Affairs to place all diplomatic pressure on the detaining country, and try to come to some kind of arrangement which can ensure punishment which fits our standards of justice. The fact that the person has been detained for pedophilia or smuggling heroine or terrorism or for having the wrong colored socks is irrelevant.

But the Howard Government has effectively told David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib and their families to shove off. The fact that Hicks and Habib are Australian citizens is irrelevant.

Now I would like someone to point out where the Buddhist section is at the Guantanamo prison. I don't know of any army rabbis working at the complex to service the spiritual needs of inmates. And I did not hear of any sweets being distributed during Deevali. What I am trying to say is that membership of a particular religious denomination and detention at Guantanamo Bay tend to go hand-in-hand.

Our Foreign Minister makes sure that Australians convicted of molesting little boys in Indonesia are given all consular and other assistance and that Australians caught with white powder in the suitcases are not locked up for too long. But it appears that if you happen to be of the wrong religion and find yourself in a spot of bother in Cuba, don't expect Messrs. Howard and Downer to do anything to help you.

Seriously, I would love to think that all of this is just paranoid hogwash. But my Prime Minister and Foreign Minister are just not giving me reason to believe otherwise.

First published in MWU on June 13 2004.