Saturday, 6 February 2010

Osama's greenspeak

Bin Laden's apparent support for environmentalism is rooted in an apocalyptic vision of the future
Nazry Bahrawi, Friday 5 February 2010 10.00 GMT
When the leader of al-Qaida sought to fashion himself a spokesperson for the climate change cause in a tape sent to the Al-Jazeera network last week, he was not speaking out of character. Osama bin Laden was merely being true to his radical self.
As The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenerg perceptively highlighted, the Saudi ideologue is no greenhorn when it comes to speaking up against environmental degradation. In 2002, he had chastised America for destroying nature "more than any other nation in history".
But Osama's motivation for acknowledging the truth of global warming is far less noble than Al Gore's. It is likely that bin Laden did so to validate a central al-Qaida tenet – a belief in the coming messiah.
In Islam, this doctrine draws on ideas inherent in both the Sunni and Shia traditions which imagine that the world will witness a clash between the forces of good and evil that will usher in the apocalypse. Culled from hadith (a collection of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) rather than the Qu'ran, these traditions envisage the coming of a messianic figure known as the Mahdi, who will triumphantly eradicate evil and injustice from this world.
However, Mahdist narratives have been contested by some Islamic scholars, the most famous being the 12th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun who rejected it because of these hadiths' questionable authenticity.
Given Osama's track record of manipulating Islamic teachings for his own political ends, it should come as little surprise that he would actively invoke the Mahdist narrative. Coming just two months after the disappointing Copenhagen summit, Osama's audiotape message is designed to reiterate the rich-poor schism that was played out so dramatically there.
In this light, Osama's latest rant looks like a recruitment strategy that capitalises on the frustrations of hapless Muslims from developing nations searching for a saviour to address their plights. It could even be seen an initiative to fashion Osama as the Mahdi.
Even if intelligence agencies were to find this latest Osama recording inauthentic, they would do well not to discount its apocalyptic rhetoric. For there is a real possibility that eco-jihadism could come to dominate the discourse of extremist groups beyond al-Qaida.
In his 2007 book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, English philosopher John Gray writes: "[A]s climate change runs its course we can expect a rash of cults in which it is interpreted as a human narrative of catastrophe and redemption."
If al-Qaida could qualify as one such cult, then its Indonesian counterpart Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) – the extremist network responsible for the deadly Bali bombings – could be another.
Already, the group's spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, has begun toying with greenspeak. In 2007, the radical cleric warned that Indonesia could face "a big disaster" if authorities executed the three convicted Bali bombers. Later, he again invoked the apocalyptic myth when he portrayed the landslides and floods that had hit Indonesia then as a form of divine punishment caused by "immoral acts".
And with public anger at the government swelling in the past year over issues like shoddy building standards, an erratic tsunami early-warning system and alleged corruption, the JI could easily find a receptive audience among the disenfranchised in disaster-prone Indonesia.
Yet what is more disconcerting than the Osama or Ba'asyir's greenspeak is the lack of a viable non-confrontational Islamic eco-theology that could stymie it. Such a discourse has been pursued by far too few Muslim theologians.