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The End of Osama bin Laden as Witnessed from Jordan May 20, 2011

Posted by Sharief El-Gabri in Fulbright, Jordan, Uncategorized.
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I woke up on Monday, May 2, to news of the successful Navy SEALs operation that killed Osama bin Laden. President Obama had given his historic speech some two hours prior. Just like all Americans I was taken aback by the news. My surprise, partly due to my still drowsy disposition, soon transitioned into elation.

It is not my intention here to judge the reactions of Americans who celebrated the announcement. I do not intend to speculate on whether or not this behavior is detrimental to our security and antithetical to our moral code. However, I must say that I am a strong believer in expressing emotion, as those close to me are well aware. Frankly, I wish I had been in the States. I did not interact with another American for the next 16 hours. Rather, I was left to contemplate the horrors of September 11, the consequences of being an Arab-Muslim-American, and how my life and the world have changed throughout the decade. I would be remiss to not retell my experience here in the Middle East following the news.

I need to stress that my experiences with the Jordanian population, particularly regarding this information, is only a sampling of the community and should absolutely not be construed as representing the country, the region, or the Muslim community at large. This realization is, in truth, the crux of the Fulbright experience.

Although I arrived to work in a chipper mood, I tried to suppress my obvious American sentiment. Most teachers and students had not heard the news due to the timing of the announcement. I briefly apologized to my boss for not shaving for I was consumed by the recent revelation. (We had assessments from the university.) She accepted my apology and took in the information of bin Laden’s death as if it were old news.

I found that as the days and weeks passed, most people did not discuss the news. This should not be surprising because Jordanians, like Americans, generally share the same aversion toward discussing politics in social contexts. Although, Jordanians have more political freedom than many of their fellow Arab citizens, debating politics is somewhat of a faux pas and may bring about unnecessary attention to the concerned parties.

Regardless of the social tendencies, however, the reaction from many following this international news was something I was naively unprepared for. I immediately became a representative of U.S. foreign policy over the past 10 years. The killing of Osama bin Laden reopened the floodgates of anti-American sentiment. Most of these conversations (all of which where in Arabic) criticized the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, drone attacks, and rubber stamp support for Israel (keep in mind that at least 60 percent of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin). I was surprised by most of these conversations because they usually started with our reactions to bin Laden and his death. Most of the time, when the conversation moved into a lambasting session of the United States, I would try to redirect the discussion toward this single event. I would express my agreement with some of their critiques but try to emphasize what bin Laden’s death meant to the West and to me.

As more information was presented to the public, criticism and speculation were added to my open dialogues. Much of this information and analysis really impressed me. Although I did not agree with certain people’s rationale, I find that embracing a culture of critical thinking is essential for social development. My discussions included matters such as scrutiny of bin Laden’s burial at sea and whether or not this was in line with Sharia Law, a contentious issue among the local and global Muslim communities.

I had the fortune of talking to a range of individuals on the matter, including teachers, students, Gaza refugees, and Jordanian friends of course. Throughout these numerous conversations, I would try to stress what bin Laden meant to me. I believe I have a unique status within the community. I identify here, as I do in the States, as a person of mixed origin. My ability to speak to people in Arabic and connect with others on the same religious and cultural level, have given me privileges that not all Fulbrighters may have. I can relate to both facets of my identity while still retaining my legitimacy and without committing any sort of cultural apostasy.

While having these conversations I tried to connect on a personal level. Osama bin Laden’s death was cathartic. Like many other Americans, September 11, 2001 changed my world completely. I was required, whether I liked it or not, to assess who I was and where I came from. This transition was very rough for me because my Arab genetics were immediately of significance to others, no doubt. I was in middle school at the time. I think that part of the abrupt chain of events following September 11 was an eventual and necessary realization of my personal identity. The other part was the obvious new role the United States had with the Middle East and how Muslims were perceived. I expressed to my Jordanian counterparts that bin Laden and al-Qaeda served as the catalyst for this global and personal transformation and as an unfortunate consequence, bin Laden became the poster child of Islam for many Westerners. I explained that I abhor bin Laden for his attempt to destroy America, attack innocent civilians throughout the world, and hijack a peaceful religion.

When I connected with people on this emotional level and humanized my rationale, most of the time I received sympathy and praise. Many of the people I talked to agreed with me and were opposed to the terrorist on moral and ethical grounds. This is particularly true in Amman, Jordan. Al-Qaeda is ideologically opposed to the development of this relatively modern kingdom and to the 2010 U.S. aid package of $810 million. Jordanians were shocked by their own 9/11 (the 9th of November) in 2005 when al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attacked three hotels in Amman killing 57 people. Among the victims were the fathers of both the bride and groom of a wedding celebration, as well as Moustapha Akkad, the Syrian-American filmmaker best known for producing the “Halloween” series. These attacks served as a pivotal moment influencing sentiments toward al-Qaeda. According to a Pew Research Center poll on Jordan, “56% of Muslims had confidence in bin Laden in 2003, compared with just 13%” in a 2011 poll. These unfortunate events reinforced the menace of bin Laden and al-Qaeda within the domestic and global arenas.

This entire ordeal has been fascinating because it has forced me to gather my thoughts and contextualize them in order to chat with a populace that does not have the same background nor necessarily hold the same general beliefs that I hold—all while practicing Arabic. These dialogues have been humbling. I have been able to talk to a wide spectrum of people. Some agreed with me completely and sought to present a fair image of Islam and Arabs to the world. Others saw bin Laden as something more than just a symbol of resistance toward “anti-imperialism.”

This exchange of ideas has been an unforgettable experience and is exactly what I was hoping for when I first stepped off the plane in August. Embracing critical thinking has been frustrating at times. I have challenged others and myself, but the value of building mutual respect and bridging differences has been priceless.

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