Taking Prophets

Today’s big story: they’ve killed Bin Laden.  Let’s assume for clarity we can take today’s reports at face value.

Conclusion: no great loss to the world.  But perhaps not such good news as everyone seems to believe.  Does he have a following (or potential for one)?

If no, then how is he or his death relevant?   To be the bogeyman he’s set up to be implies he had followers.

If yes, then we have a more interesting and more disturbing scenario.  Because he has all the hallmarks of a true biblical prophet.  Most obviously the prophet Elijah, a similarly absolutist man of God who brought immeasurable suffering on a godless people, incurred the wrath of earthly powers-that-be, and fled into the wilderness.  Indeed, “9/11” looks pretty trivial compared to Elijah’s deeds.

We have a lesson from history there: a charismatic maniac of absolutist views and uncompromisingly extreme violence is the very stuff of which religion is made.  Elijah is an obvious prototype, but we can find many similarly terrible examples amongst biblical prophets and other heroes (the suicide bomber Samson is another fine role model for modern terrorism).

Now they kill him, and dump the body at sea so there’ll be no shrine.  Well, there’s a great biblical precedent for an ignominious death at the hands of one’s enemies.  The man who got crucified wasn’t one of the thoroughly evil prophets (though St Paul, who founded a church in his name, certainly was), but that terrible death just became part of a glorious myth.  Another lesson of history is that a humiliating death makes a powerful story.  And a visit to, for example, Rome’s catacombs, shows the lengths to which adherents of a story will go while they are the world’s repressed underdogs.

Bin Laden acted and looked the part of the true biblical prophet.  To follow him is madness, but at the same time no more irrational than to follow the bible.  If he had a real following, it’s just been handed what could possibly be the strongest stimulus to a single man since Christ’s crucifixion.

I don’t expect him to have a live cult a generation hence.  But I wouldn’t care to bet too much against it, especially after today.

Posted on May 2, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m not sure being in the Hebrew Bible counts as a “lesson from history”, but that is the point here, it matters only what people believe in terms the perception not what the facts are, where as eliminating him and taking disk drives and documents provides a practical means to address some of the harm he may be involved with.

    The burial within 24 hours is essential since anything else might be perceived by some Muslims as disrespectful of their beliefs.

    Personally I think the episode is disgusting but pragmatic, it would have been too much to hope that the Pakistan government might have been able to arrest and have him tried in court.

    I don’t think we’ll get anywhere much till we accept Voltaire was right, and realise religion is similar to gambling, those involved cover a spectrum and the only effective way to deal with those who have an extreme problem with their religion is to reduce the total number of people involved. Unfortunately we are still so deeply mired in our own cultures religious biases and misconceptions it is hard to see them for what they are and the damage they do.

  2. Fortunately, perhaps, Islam is very clear on this point: there are no new prophets. Mohammed was the last.

    I thought the “burial within 24 hours” was distinctly odd, myself. Why go to so much trouble to follow Islamic law in this specific case, when they pay it no attention whatsoever in so many others? Or to put it another way: why should America’s bitterest enemy be the only one who gets his religious feelings respected?

    I think, just as North Korea looked at the invasion of Iraq and thought “hey, we’d better step up that nuclear weapons programme”, so Muslims may be looking at the treatment of Osama’s body and thinking “so now we know how to make the Americans treat us decently.”

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