WASHINGTON — More than two weeks have passed since Osama bin Laden called on “the entire Muslim nation” to kill Kuwaiti reformist Ahmad Al-Baghdadi and three other Arab liberals — but the news has yet to reach many corners of the Persian Gulf.
“He did?” Al-Baghdadi said when informed by the Forward of bin Laden’s threat. “That’s the first time I heard about that,” he continued, in a phone interview from his home in Kuwait City this week. “Nobody mentioned anything about this here.”
Unlike British author Salman Rushdie, who spent several years underground after Iran called for his assassination in 1988, Baghdadi has led a normal life after receiving numerous death threats in the past — by phone, in letters and, mainly, via e-mail. “I just delete them from my laptop,” he said. “That’s it.”
But this is a threat coming from bin Laden, the number-one enemy of the Western world.
“I don’t care about it,” Baghdadi replied.
Baghdadi’s initial ignorance of the threat against him, and his nonchalant response on hearing the news, reflects what experts describe as the growing irrelevance of America’s most wanted villain in the Muslim world. For many Arabs and Muslims, bin Laden is just not as intriguing, fascinating, inspiring or influential as he was in the first months after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Al Qaeda “is pretty much old news,” said Muslim reformist Muqtedar Khan, a political science professor at the University of Delaware who previously found himself on bin Laden’s death list for apostasy.
There is a hard core of “very dangerous people” who still take verbose statements from bin Laden as “instructions as to how to lead their lives” said Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. “But it’s not a mass movement,” Cole said, and its popular support in the Arab world is shrinking.
First and foremost, experts say, interest in bin Laden has dropped because he is losing his echo chamber. Arab satellite channels, which in the past used to air all of his audio and video recordings, now show only snippets. Al-Jazeera carried only a few seconds of the April 23 audiotape, in which bin Laden called for the murders of Baghdadi, his friend Shamlan Al-’Issa of Kuwait University, Saudi Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Qusaibi and Saudi columnist Turki Al-Hamad. The actual portion of the tape calling for the murder of the four “free-thinkers,” as bin Laden called them, was not broadcast. With Arab newspapers and radio stations already failing to provide a prominent podium to bin Laden, one needed to search Islamist Web sites to find the full recording or a transcript.
Besides, for much of his potential following, bin Laden has lost his glamour. “Increasingly he seems to people as someone who has retired,” said Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief of the international Arab daily Al-Hayat. On the other hand, he added, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi, “is showing himself on video in action in Iraq, saying: ‘I am the one in the field,’ while bin Laden is hiding in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan, scared for his life.” By offering a truce to the United States and to Europe three times in recent months, “bin Laden has lost a lot of his prestige,” Nematt said. “He can no longer establish a link between actions taken on the ground and his leadership, while someone like Zarqawi can.”
Although bin Laden did enjoy high approval ratings in the Arab world in the past, support for him always has been superficial, some observers said. “One shouldn’t forget that he is not a cleric but a civil engineer,” Cole said. “To any extent that he’s glorified by anybody, it is really as a symbol of anti-imperialism. It’s vague. It doesn’t have much content.” Therefore, Cole said, “the number of people who really listen to these tapes is very tiny.”
Bin Laden has become “boring news” in Arab public opinion, said Khan, the Delaware University professor, because “more exciting news has taken over” — America’s continuing failure to defeat the Iraqi insurgency, and Iran’s nuclear defiance in the face of Western pressure. “This, in people’s minds, is what is going on,” he said. “Bin Laden is getting more exposure here in America than he does in the Arab world. It says it all that you are targeted by someone and nobody bothers to call and tell you.”
According to Khan, developments in recent years show that “it is not what bin Laden says or does that affects the radicalization of Muslims; what impacts them more is what Bush says or does.” Islamists, he said, are much more resentful of American policies than they are supportive of bin Laden’s deeds and rhetoric.
The call for killing the four reformers is telling in several other ways. The two Kuwaitis and two Saudis are known in their respective countries, but are not as well known in the greater Arab world. There are much more prominent Arab reformists and secularists, whom bin Laden could have picked for scorn and contempt. What the four seem to have in common is that they all strongly attacked bin Laden in writing. “They are critics of bin Laden, Al Qaeda and their extremist ideology and terrorism,” said John Esposito a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in militant Islam.
Another thing bin Laden’s stated targets have in common is that they are all from the Gulf region, indicating that bin Laden is still operating within that regional context. “He’s not going after Egyptians or Moroccans, and there are people there who are much more prominent on these kinds of issues,” said Nathan Brown, senior scholar at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
All four reformers, despite their conflict with Islamists and with political-religious authorities in their societies, operate overtly, within the mainstream. Al-Hamad, a Saudi author who wrote a thinly veiled novel sketching the lives of four September 11 suicide bombers, told The New York Times that his objective was to startle Saudi youth. His novels are banned from publication in the kingdom, but many are smuggled in and read by admiring young Saudis. Al-Qusaibi, a poet and author, has had his book on the future of Saudi Arabia banned by the government in Riyadh. However, he has served in several Saudi Cabinets, including the current one, and was his country’s ambassador in London.
“He’s a prominent figure in Saudi Arabia and very much liked,” said Thomas Lippman, adjunct scholar at Washington’s Middle East Institute, who specializes on Saudi Arabia.
Baghdadi and Issa, his fellow Kuwaiti, are prominent scholars who advocate the separation of religion from government in their country. Although they are sharply criticized by Islamists, they have not been personally harmed. “Islamists often invite me for public debates,” Baghdadi said.
Liberal ideas are resonating in Kuwaiti society, according to Baghdadi.
“Most Kuwaitis don’t want to live in an Islamic state,” he said. “They want a liberal one, although they want to live as Muslims.” As a result, he added, most people don’t pay attention to the occasional death threats, whether they are made by militant Islamist clerics or by terrorists such as bin Laden. Such threats have become “something usual in our lives,” he said, referring to his fellow Arab reformers. “Believe me, nobody cares about it anymore.”