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 Photo: Serder Yagci
 Photo: Serder Yagci

Middle East: A Conversation With Osman
By Colin Mulligan

On the first anniversary of 9/11, the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem wrote an open letter to Americans expressing regret for the fact that one of his countrymen had assisted in bringing down the World Trade Center.  Salem’s eloquent, thoughtful piece, entitled “An Apology from an Arab,” appeared in Time Magazine’s One Year Later issue alongside essays by John McCain, Andrew Sullivan and Rudy Giuliani.  In spite of its title, Salem’s treatise is more explanation than apology, and much of it is dedicated to lamenting the state of society in his native Egypt: “A long time before New York City’s Twin Towers were destroyed,” he wrote, “many towers in my country were brought down by this same brand of perpetrator…Art, education and the economy have all been leveled to a ground zero.  I am convinced, though, that the problem we face is not religious, but political.”  Salem’s central thesis is that, despite most terrorists’ self-righteous justifications, the forces that drive them to violence are, in fact, much more personal.  “Beneath their claims is a sadder truth: these extremists are pathologically jealous.  They feel like dwarves, which is why they search for towers and all those who tower mightily.”

I first read “An Apology from an Arab” almost a year after it was published, and it made me uneasy, not only because Salem’s reasoning raised serious questions about the prosecution of America’s War on Terror but also because it came close to supporting the simplistic rationalization that “They hate us because they’re jealous of our freedoms.”  To my mind, attitudes such as this were in large part responsible for the United States’ hasty, unfocused response to the attacks and the reason why so many Americans seemed to care more for revenge than justice.  Living amidst this climate of fear and indignant rage, I began to crave a deeper understanding of the events of 9/11, one that could only be found by hearing from people who viewed the attacks in a different light.  And so, not long after completing graduate school, I put my house up for rent and set out into the world, searching for some real answers. 

It was during the course of these travels that I met Osman, a Turkish Kurd (or Kurdish Turk, depending upon who you ask), in Copenhagen.  I was sitting on a park bench, writing in my travel diary, and discreetly sipping a bottle of beer when he walked over and asked if he could sit down.  Like many of the Muslims I met in Western Europe, it piqued his interest that I was American, and his conversation grew even more eager when I told him that I had been to Turkey, enjoyed it, and had done a lot of reading about US relations with the Muslim world.  We began to chat in earnest.  The thing that I will always remember about Osman is that he wanted me to know he wasn’t stupid.  During our thirty minute conversation, he spoke boldly about world affairs and offered to ‘prove’ the veracity of his statements at a nearby Internet café no less than fifteen times.  For the most part this was to convince me of his theories that Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed had been murdered because the British government was afraid they would marry or that 5,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Center were warned to stay home the night before 9/11.  Osman was also very keen on talking about his favorite book, “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History,” by Michael H. Hart.  Apparently, the Prophet Mohammed is at the top of this list, two places higher than Jesus, and this was an obvious source of pride for my new friend. 

I wasn’t immediately interested in Osman, but there was an intensity about him that I found impossible to ignore.  He began to open up to me as if he hadn’t been able to speak his mind in ages.  He talked with passion and fire in his eyes about great men like Kemal Ataturk and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (who led the campaign to create Pakistan as an independent homeland for British India’s Muslims), only he didn’t call them great men.  He called them “Big Men.”  After just a few minutes with him, I could see that Osman was frustrated with his lot in life.  I sensed that he longed to be powerful and important, like the men he spoke of, and to do great things for his people and his religion.  He told me that he had had almost no formal education, but he was clearly a voracious reader.  Most of his information came from the Internet, and the fact that these outrageous things had been published online was enough to make them infallible truth to him.  I was curious to know what he thought of the United States’ conduct since 9/11.  He said that he despised the way America’s government was brutalizing, either directly or “through the Israelis,” so much of the Muslim world, but that he could not bring himself to hate George W. Bush.  “In spite of all that he has done,” Osman sighed, “he freed the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein.  For this, we Kurds are grateful.”

As we discussed Iraqi politics, including the cruelty of the Ba’athist regime, the plight of the Kurds, and the prospects for peace and stability in the future, our conversation inevitably turned to the ongoing guerilla campaign against the Western occupying forces.  For the first time since I’d met him, Osman paused. 

“I want to say something to you,” he said after a minute, “but I am afraid it will make you angry.”  I asked him to speak freely, so he leaned in towards me and whispered excitedly: “The US will never win in Iraq because the men they fight are doing God’s work!”  Osman had just sermonized at length about history’s most influential Muslims, and he now proceeded to explain what about Islam made it worth dying and killing for.  First, he spoke of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim world’s largest and most influential imperial force of the modern age, which reached the height of its power during the 16th and 17th Centuries.  He launched into a gentle tirade about how the Ottoman Empire was greater than that of the Romans, citing the former’s longevity, scientific achievements and tolerance of other religions as proof.  Under Islamic Law, I was informed, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religions in peace, leading to fruitful relations among the three faiths—“The best in history,” he said.

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