General Gorden was also known as Chinese Gordon for his succesful exploits in China, a legacy for which he was considered a war hero in Britain. He was also considered expendable. Refusing to surrender Kharthoum to the troops of Al Mahdi, Gordon died in Egypt, killed by the invading forces, against the will of Al Mahdi, who had ordered that his life was to be spared in accordance with ancient rules of warfare and Islamic notions of noble conduct.
Al Mahdi was a Muslim rebel leader from Sudan who had in 1881 proclaimed himself Al Mahdi, a prophesied liberator, directly descending from Muhammed.
Death in Khartoum
He swept across Northern Africa with his forces, creating a vast Islāmic state extending from the Red Sea to Central Africa. Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abd al-Mahdi founded a movement that remained influential in Sudan a century later.
As a youth Al Mahdi moved from orthodox religious study to a mystical interpretation of Islām. He saw it as his divine mission to purify Islām and the governments that defiled it.
There had been others before him, less notable, less deserving of the byname that has stuck with him. Al Mahdi was, by all appearances, a polymath of the kind ever so often spawned by the Arab race: At once a visionary, a merchant, a politician and a strategist - a man with scholarly inclinations, great religiousity and an ability to make people trust him.
He was charismatic and bold, yet with a humble appearance. His life and his extensive military campaign culminated in the capture of Khartoum on Jan. 26, 1885, depicted in the long forgotten Hollywood epic Khartoum (1966), where Charlton Heston plays the energetic British general Gorden and Laurence Olivier freezes the screen with his intense portrayal of Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abd Allah.
The movie depicts their confrontation as a stand-off of wills, a battle between great personalities, each devoted to the defense of their view of truth and justice, and both willing to die as much as to kill to see it come to fruition.
The Great Oriental Warlord
The Sudanese Al Mahdi died of mysterious reasons in Khartoum. It has been speculated that he was poisoned, in the sammer manner that Eastern Rome attempted to stop Attilah the Hun - and succeeded.
There is no proof for this. Neither is there any factuality to the Hollywood legend in which Al Mahdi dies in a state of despair, as he realizes the gambit played by Gordon who, heroically, walks out of his abode into the raging mob, into death in the streets of Khartoum.
What is agreed upon is that the movement around Al Mahdi died almost instantly, when it lost its charismatic leader. If it was assassination, it worked. Perhaps fate was with the West, the Christian power attempting to govern and influence Africa, or perhaps Al Mahdi had fulfilled his purpose.
More likely, there is no purpose. The world just keep churning out great leaders; in the Muslim world the ascetic genius, austere in faith and unrivaled at stratetic calculus, is almost a cliché.
From time to time the legend is revived, either as an ambiguous portrayal of the great Oriental warlord, as in Ridley Scott's almost loyal portrayal of the Kurdish Saladin (1137-1193), in Kurdish Selahaddîn Eyûbî and in Arabia known as Salah ad-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, founder of the Ayyubide dynasty in Egypt and Syria.
The Legend of Saladin
In Kingdom of Heaven the Kurdish Muslim warlord is, in line with the universal admiration held for Saladin by both Eastern and Western historians, portrayed as a noble character except for one character flaw: He is willing to commit genocide on the population of Jerusalem, a thought he expresses shortly before the climactic battle.
The fictitious protagonist Balian is, in the Hollywood version, the one who not only negotiates the terms of surrender, but subtly instructs Saladin in the virtues of chivalry.
Anyone with the slightest historical knowledge about the era will know that it was the European crusaders who learned chivalry from the Arabs, and that it was the crusaders who carried out a heinous genocide on the indigenous Arab population when they captured Jerusalem, and that Saladin by his own volition refrained from avenging their brutality by the same means, when he recaptured Jerusalem.
This was what earned him the unequivocal respect from even Western historians and has made the name of Saladin synonymous with nobility of spirit, and this Kurdish warlord perhaps the only warlord in history, Eastern or Western, to be universally admired.
Through the Lens of Orientalism
Ridley Scott's attitude towards the Orientals has always been ambiguous at best: In Black Rain he depicts a vindictive Japanese nationalism, the corruption and greed and utter ruthlessness of the Yakuza, against an equally corrupted but ultimate self-sacrificing and heroic American police officer.
In a twist to the one-sided Orientialism or, as it should more accurately be called, anti-Orientalism, an honest but somewhat rigid and unimaginative Japanese cop offers the American a chance for redemption by correcting him in a very Confucian manner.
In Blade Runner, Scott's much celebrated vision of an utterly nihilistic future America, there is an ominous anti-Asian undercurrent in the settings and the subtle manner in which the Asian neighbourhoods become synoymous with decay. The redeaming quality is that Westerners are also all found in a state of moral decomposition.
As Edward Said pointed out the West always views the East through the objective of Orientalism: As a study of puzzling people, removed from all the soothing aspects of normality characterizing even the most tainted of Westerners.
It was considered a bold artistic move when the Russian director, Sergei Bodrov, in his 2007 masterpiece Mongol depicted Dhenghis Khan as not only a man with almost supernatural resilience, but also a devoted and forgiving lover, as a humble family man, and as a playful father.
Osama vs. Obama
Westerners, when dealing with cultures of the East, always feel as if they have fallen through a rabbit hole or walked through the surface of a mirror, into a world of unfamiliar sounds and sights. They are faced with an unintelligible culture, a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and with all the primordial impulses they think they are, themselves, without, or at least in control of.
On May 2, 2011, President Barack Hussein Obama of the United States of America - a man who has been subjected to Orientalism, to unreasonable criticism and to racism every single day from the moment he decided to run for office - announced the death of America's arch enemy, Osama bin Laden.
There was only one letter between their first names, a point that has been made by enemies of the Democrat president nearly as often as the way they mention his middle name Hussein in a derisive manner, as if it was itself an accusation of treachery, or with crude allegations of being less than American, less than trustworthy, or even less than human.
Aside from their second letter, their first names were the same. It was always Obama versus Osama, because there was no other way the first African-American president could ever convince the nation he was one of their own. It was like a script, a story written by clever screen writers employed by the Office of Fate.
What Makes Fate?
If there were intellectuals left in USA, if there was cultural criticism or any level of reflection, they would ponder this curious synchronicity. They would ask themselves what it meant. They would, even the strong atheists and the most ardent rationalists, see some sort of irony in the name similarity, and in the different fates:
Like in Coppola's Godfather trilogy, particularly in Godfather II, one is a mirror of the other. It is hinted ever so often in this American gangster epic - by similarities like the fact that Michael Corleone is a celebrated Second World War hero, son of a strong, self-made industrialist, a college kid and an idealist, and even at one point pegged as someone who "could have" become the president of USA - that Michael is an Italian version of John F. Kennedy.
He is JFK, only never in a positon to become president, due to the age he is living in and his ethnic heritage. Instead his father remains a mafia boss, however respected. And he becomes one, however much he wants to be someone else, someone without the stain of criminality, without the necessity to commit or order violence, and without the burden on his conscience that finally becomes the death of him.
History, as well as art - at some point in life you get to the point where these two are also almost indistinguishable - is a dark glass, like Saul of Tarsus wrote in the ancient past, or a Scanner Darkly, as Philip K. Dick wrote from some lonely spot in the future to where he had been displaced by, perhaps, a mild form of mental illness indistinguishable from religious madness.
Nobody's Above "It"
When the world learned of the death of Osama bin Laden two responses were remarkable: The West cheered, but there were also concerns about the spontaneous celebrations. Christian Science Monitor lamented the celebration of the death of even a terrorist leader like bin Laden in an opinion piece titled "Celebrating Osama bin Laden's death is anti-American ... and not very biblical".
Apparently the article resonated with many Americans, and it received many "likes" on Facebook, and it harvested a great number of comments, of which some defended the right to celebrate, explaining how it is natural, while others stuck to the point that America should be above this.
It may sound nobler, but it is not. It is just another form of Orientalism, a way to distance yourself to what is the exact same impulse driving both sides of what seems to remain a frontline.
"The war goes on..." "..but the war goes on..." "The war on terrorism goes on."
The right wing pundits, the neocon strategists, the archao-conservative isolationists, the liberal hawks, all mixed in the same message in their congratulations to the country and to its triumphant commander in chief.
There is only a slight difference between their vigilance and their warnings and their resolute steps towards even deeper commitment in a blurry and, ultimately, primitive tribal conflict, and the other side of the aile, the "we should be better than this crowd."
Yea well, you are not.
We Are Primitive Beings
And that is why the war will go on. It may not be The War of a Thousand Cuts like Osama bin Laden announced. As in the case of charismatic Islamic warlords of the past, the death of Osama is likely to dampen the spirits of the raggedy forces we know as members of the shadowy organization called Al Qaeda.
We are still living in the ancient past. We are still archaic warriors, tribal ahead of anything, and incapable of abstracting from even the most arbitrary physical appearances fostered by a concept of race that is scientifically invalid.
As we form our cultures and our identities around these superficial traits, our entire existence becomes racialized, and our socities become vehicles for it, masking the primitive nature of it with rituals, ideals, customs, habits, preferences and ideological concepts.
We say it is one system against another, a conflict of views, of opinions, and of beliefs. But it is not. It is primitive. Not admitting to it, or thinking yourself above it, because you go to galla dinners in New York wearing designer clothes, or because you have read Camus, or because you vote every fourth year, is just conceit.
And that is why the war will go on. And sometime in the future some aggravated visionary will arise, perhaps another of those Arab geniuses combining mathematical, linguistic, commercial and strategic skill with the kind of asceticism that arouses unwavering loyalty from adepts.
The Usefulness of a Mirage
In the case of Al Mahdi, he is pretty much forgotten. He remains a curiosity in the margins of history, encompassed by the giant parenthesis of European and American colonialism. At one point in time, as the Brits thoguht it necessary to move in and crush his insurrection, he was portrayed as a monster.
The war correspondents generally reported him as an ogre, cruel when he was not lascivious, and they dubbed him the False Prophet. This caricature of al-Mahdī was reflected in a bulky literature by European authors that distorted al-Mahdī’s image for an entire generation.Only a decade later his legacy was revived by historians, who depicted him as a noble ascet in the tradition of Saladin.
During the War on Terrorism, a small and overlooked and generally reviled school of Western geopolitical strategists and counter-terrorism experts argued in favor of a "mahdist" view of terrorism. They presented the simple thesis that killing the charismatic leader, Osama bin Laden, would defuse the entire structure around him.
It was ignored for ten years, perhaps because the decision makers did not believe it, but more likely because they knew it was true.
In 2001 a CIA squadron had Osama bin Laden in his sights, but they refrained from "taking him out", because they were given a stand down order from the higher echelons of power. It is not a conspiracy theory. The anonymous CIA officer testified to it on 60 Minutes in 2008.
War is More Important than Winning
Another CIA agent wrote a book about how the Bush administration were intent on not capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. The title is "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror." Michael Scheuer argues the same: The US government was unwilling to take the necessary action to strike a decisive blow against the Wahabi terrorist organization:
In a letter to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees earlier this year, Scheuer says his agents provided the U.S. government with about ten opportunities to capture bin Laden before Sept. 11, and that all of them were rejected.The US military doctrine is one that has, since the Clinton administration, been called "Grand Area doctrine". It has been practiced before, ever since the lessons and the armament and the German spoil of the Second World War that made USA into a superpower.
It is a military doctrine where anything goes, and where every spot on Earth is a target, if it contains ressources or tactical mobility advantages (location), that furthers rapid momentum. Troops, equipment, arms, provisions, medicines and, most of all, aircrafts, need to be moved around, and thus USA aims to establish strike distance to every square of land on the planet.
The death of Osama bin Laden would have been inconvenient to the neocon plans, and it most likely still is. USA, with the death of their arch enemy, lost an important asset: Pretext.
It is not that the agenda has changed significantly, but when comes to the Arab world, Washington must now deem they have sufficient pretext for their agenda in the socalled Arab Spring. Never has uniformity been aquired around a decision for "humanitarian intervention" as soon as in the recent case of Libya.
Osama bin Laden was no longer relevant, except as a confidence boost to the West, and thus he died, shot through the head by a sniper.
Until the Next Time
Osama bin Laden was not The Mahdi, neither did he claim to be - in fact he refuted attempts to impose the role on him. In spite of his obvious genius he did not amount to the kind of noble warlord associated with Saladin, or even to the soldierly virtues of the Sudanese Al Mahdi.
Osama bin Laden executed a spectacular act of terrorism on American soil, killing 3000 civilians in one fateful day.
He may be a villain, whether by Western or Eastern standards, but he was never a mystery. There is no mystery to the hate, to the desire to strike fear into the hearts of an overpowering, ruthless and nefariously scheming enemy.
There are those who will say that USA, Europe and the West, is nothing like that. One can only shrug at such ignorance. History will not only say it - history already says it. Even the history of the Middle East is the story of a hundred violations, ranging back to long before 9-11, long before the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Before the US embassy kidnapping in 1979 USA overthrew the first democratically elected government of Iran and installed the Shah, in an attempt to break OPEC. Mossadeqh, another of the chairmen and founders of OPEC, was assasinated for the same reason - CIA armed and installed the Baath Party in Iraq, setting up Saddam Hussein as a buffer to Iran.
USA fuelled the devastating war between the two countries, like the have overthrown or attempted to overthrow hundreds of legitimate countries all over the world, for less than the noble reason of furthering democracy.
The war on terror will go on. But the war on imperialism will continue too. There will be new warlords rising out of the desert sand, new mirages to chase or not to chase, to assassinate or not to assassinate, depending on what is considered expedient or convenient at any given time.
The best one can hope for is that the next one will be less like Osama bin Laden and more like Salah ad-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub. If that should happen, even Westerners might begin to question their own moral superiority and actually learn something, actually become civilized... again.