Arabs Have
Nobody to Blame
But Themselves

Bin Laden heads a frustrated and failed generation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2001 12:01 a.m. EDT

We should be under no illusions about our struggle against Osama bin Laden and the cultists and terrorists arrayed around him. Although we control the sea lanes and skies of that Arab-Muslim world, he appears to hold sway over the streets of a thwarted civilization, one that sees him as an avenger for the sad, cruel lot that has been its fate in recent years.

A terrible war was fought between rulers and Islamists; the regimes in Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt won, but the insurgents took to the road, and vowed to return as triumphant conquerors after the dynasties and the despots were sacked.Rich, famous, free and young, bin Laden taunts the rulers of a silent, frightened Arab world seething with resentments of every kind. He and his lieutenants cannot overthrow the Arab ruling order, so they have turned their resentments on us.

Consider the three men who taunted us in the video that came our way on Oct. 7, courtesy of the Qatari satellite channel, Al-Jazeera. In it, bin Laden is flanked by two lieutenants. The older one, a man of 50 years, is an Egyptian physician, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a sworn enemy of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Twenty years ago, he had been picked up in the dragnet that followed the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He was tortured, and imprisoned for three years. He drifted to Pakistan, then made his way to the Sudan and Afghanistan, and took to the life of terror.

The younger man, spokesman for bin Laden, is a Kuwaiti theocratic activist by the name of Sleiman Abu Gheith, who hails from a quaint, stable principality, with generous welfare subsidies and an American trip-wire to protect it against a predatory Saddam. Abu Gheith had been an employee of the Kuwaiti state, an imam of a government-sponsored mosque, and a teacher of Islamic studies. Those who know him tell of a man who had become fanatical in his view of Islam's role in political and social life.


A foul wind had been blowing in Arab lands. The rulers had snuffed out endless rebellions and the populace had succumbed to a malignant, sullen silence. It prayed and waited for the rulers' demise. It dreamt of an avenger and a band of merciless followers who would do for it what it could not do for itself.

It is no mystery that reporters from Arab shores tell us of affluent men and women, some with years of education in American universities behind them, celebrating the cruel deed of Mohamed Atta and his hijackers. The cult of the bandit taunting the powerful has always been seductive in broken societies. Bin Laden and Zawahiri and Abu Gheith and Atta did not descend from the sky: They are the angry sons of a failed Arab generation. They are direct heirs of two generations of Arabs that have seen all the high dreams of Asr al Nahda (the era of enlightenment and secular nationalism) issue in sterility, dictatorship and misery. The secular fathers begot this strange breed of holy warriors.

A suffocating hate separates the ruler from the ruled in Arab lands. The former own those lands, they have closed up the universe, and their dominion stretches as far as the eye can see. Their scions stand at the ready to claim the good things of the earth. Imagine the way Arabs read the ascendancy of the sons of the dictators of Syria, Egypt and Iraq in public life; a trick has been played on them. Under their eyes, the republics have metamorphosed into monarchies in all but name. Alone, in God's broad lands, it seems to them, they are to be excluded from a share of today's democratic inheritance. The rulers can't deliver to us these sullen, resentful populations and--shrewd men--the rulers know it. They have ducked for cover as America blew in asking them to choose between the terrorists' world and ours.

We were "walk-ons" in this political and generational struggle playing out in Araby. America and Americans have a hard time coming to terms with those unfathomable furies of a distant, impenetrable world. In truth, Atta struck at us because he could not take down Mr. Mubarak's world, because in the burdened, crowded land of the Egyptian dictator there is very little offered younger Egyptians save for the steady narcotic of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. The attack on the North Tower of the World Trade Center was Atta's "rite of passage."

In the same vein, bin Laden and Abu Gheith can't sack the dynastic order of the Gulf. (Were they to do so, they would replace it with a cruel reign of terror that would make the yuppies of Jeddah who have been whispering sweet things in the ears of foreign reporters about bin Laden yearn for the days of Al Saud). So the avengers come our way. Our shadow, faint and mediated through hated rulers and middlemen, has fallen across their world. They struck at the shadow, but it is the order that reigns in their lands that fuels their righteousness. And it is the sense of approval they see in the eyes of ordinary men and women in their societies that tells them to press on.


The military campaign against bin Laden is prosecuted, and will surely be won, by the U.S. But the redemption of the Arab political condition, and the weaning of that world away from its ruinous habits and temptations, are matters for the Arabs themselves.

A darkness, a long winter, has descended on the Arabs. Nothing grows in the middle between an authoritarian political order and populations given to perennial flings with dictators, abandoned to their most malignant hatreds. Something is amiss in an Arab world that besieges American embassies for visas and at the same time celebrates America's calamities. Something has gone terribly wrong in a world where young men strap themselves with explosives, only to be hailed as "martyrs" and avengers. No military campaign by a foreign power can give modern-day Arabs a way out of the cruel, blind alley of their own history.

Mr. Ajami, author of "The Dream Palace of the Arabs" (Vintage, 1999), teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.