Sun, Jan 02, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Who is feeding the bin-Laden Legend?

Demonization by the West and the inability to capture him have only lent a mythical quality to bin-Laden

By Liaqaut Ali Khan

Robin Hood and not Osama bin-Laden is the most celebrated outlaw in the English-speaking world. Part reality and part fantasy, Robin Hood has been written into children's stories and adult poems, portrayed on the stage and in movies, examined and reexamined in scholarly research. Even in the realm of law, Robin folk tales raise intriguing questions about law and lawlessness. Is Robin Hood a good lead to understanding Osama bin-Laden?

At first blush, any comparison between (Ro)bin Hood and bin-Laden seems odd, most certainly to the English-speaking world for whom Bin Hood is a romantic robber whereas bin-Laden is a despised terrorist. The comparison might also displease Muslim militants who see bin-Laden as a spiritual sheikh fighting the crusaders. In the realm of manufacturing legends, however, the similarities between the two outlaws are so real and so fantastic that very little brush work is needed to draw them together.

The most bewildering similarity between Robin and Osama is their hidden presence. To this day, scholars who expended their entire intellectual capital on tracing Robin's historical whereabouts are unsure whether he operated from Sherwood forest in Nottingham or from Barnsdale park in Yorkshire. This controversy muddles history but nonetheless furnishes texture to Robin's legend.

Now cometh Osama. Despite technology and resources available to experts and spies and despite a US$25 million bounty placed on his head, Osama's whereabouts remain a deep mystery. Is he in Pakistan or Afghanistan? The tough mountains interweaving the borders of these two countries, captured in TV shots, add awesome scenery (a la American Western) to his inscrutable absence.

And yet Osama is far from hidden. You can hear him on the internet and see him on Al-Jazeera broadcasts. The snippets from his old videos -- him riding a stout white horse or him ambling down a rocky hill with a cane in his hand -- are repeatedly shown on American television, adding fantasy to emerging tales of terror.

We know what makes Robin Hood a beloved outlaw and not a mere criminal. The romanticized distinction lies in the English folklore, generously expressed in ballads and poems written over the centuries, asserting that Robin's lawlessness had a redeeming value embodied in his egalitarian ethic of wealth redistribution. "Never poor man came for help/and went away denied."

This non-conservative compassion for the poor sprang from Robin's systemic critique that how the poor toiled without their share under the then corrupt clerical/feudal alliance. Robin and his Merry Men, however, were by no means bespectacled revolutionaries devoted to social justice. They were hurly burly ruffians, hiding in the forest, having good time, robbing bishops, killing the forbidden deer, and deceiving the Sheriff of Nottingham. Wanted by the Sheriff dead or alive, Robin is nonetheless a real hero in English folk tales for "not a soul in Locksley town/would speak him an ill word."

Wanted dead or alive by the Sheriff of the World, Osama too is an outlaw. But he is not a thief; he is a master terrorist who strikes embassies, ships, and towers without mercy. One can build a legend around Osama, even a bigger legend than that of Robin, since the stakes Osama raises are high, the conflict he espouses is monumental, and his story, going far beyond the confines of a Nottingham, cuts across cultures, religions, and civilizations.

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