How Do You Explain Osama bin Laden?

Osama Bin Laden is not nearly as mysterious a person as many would have us believe. And his background does provide several lessons that reveal an intellectual and spiritual development which can be reasonably analyzed. To do so removes the idea that he is just an “evil” monster, thus somehow a non-human who is not like the rest of us in a fundamental way.

A recently published book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf), written by journalist Lawrence Wright, tells the real bin Laden story with a graet deal of interesting detail. Wright informs us that Osama grew up in a large polygamist home, the 17th son of his father, Mohammed (who had 22 wives). Born in 1959 he was to be one of 54 children born to his father. His father Mohammed, who ran his home like a corporation, died in a plane crash in 1967. Mohammed had the habit of marrying off his ex-wives to employees within his business. This meant that Osama’s mother was later re-married to an employee of Mohammed bin Laden. This new husband, and Osama’s step-father, was himself an actual descendant of the prophet Mohammed. Wright says that during his teen years Osama really began to let down his guard with his mother. He enjoyed television as a teen, especially American Westerns like Bonanza and Fury. After morning prayers he would play soccer, though he was only an average athlete. After his father died the bin Laden sons were all sent to Lebanon for an education, except for Osama who remained in Saudi Arabia. Wright describes him as the “most provincial of the Bin Laden boys.” He was a normal student who dressed like all the other students in Western clothes but, according to his teachers, always stood out as a gangly shy boy who was “fearful of making mistakes.”

It was in his fourteenth year that he experienced a religious and political awakening. Some ascribe this change to a charismatic Syrian gym-teacher at his school who was a member of the Muslim Brothers. Osama stopped watching his cowboy shows and refused to wear Western clothes any longer. It has been said that he would often sit in front of the television and weep as he watched news from Palestine. His mother says he “was more concerned, sad, and frustrated about the satiation in Palestine in particular.” He believed Muslim youth were too busy playing games and Muslims in general were not devout enough. He began to fast two days a week, in emulation of the Prophet Mohammed, and went to bed right after the evening prayer. He also set his alarm for 1:00 a.m. to pray alone every night. He became rigid with himself in his religious practice and stern with his younger half-brothers. He faithfully stressed praying at the mosque each day.

Osama not only became a deeply religious teen but he seems to never have compromised himself sexually before marriage. Osama’s mother was alarmed about this religious development but when she saw that he would not budge she said, “God protect him.”

Wright notes that “His intransigent piety was unusual in his elevated social circle, but many young Saudis found refuge in intense expressions of religiosity. Exposed to so few alternative ways of thinking, even about Islam, they were trapped in a two-dimensional spiritual world; they could only become more extreme or less so.” When he attended King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah in 1976 Osama studied economics but in reality he was more involved in campus religious affairs than anything else.

What all of this means, I can only assume, is that bin Laden, as a young convert to religious practice in his fourteenth year, became a dedicated and true Muslim. He became the epitome of what we would rightly call, in this case, fundamentalist thinking. This thinking and devotion would ultimately change not only his life but the world he later attacked in the name of his god. I think a religious faith that involves these particular elements of devotion expressed by an impressionable teen, through the influence of a deeply energized and charismatic human leader, followed by stern anti-social behavior, ever produces great good. Far too many secularists will compare bin Laden’s development to that seen in American Christian fundamentalism. The comparisons are not that obvious, if one knows most American fundamentalism, but one has to admit that some elements of what we can rightly call “fundamentalism” are in fact present in various religious expressions beyond the Muslim world.

This much we know, Osama bin Laden was deeply impacted at age fourteen by an influential and very ideological teacher. What you teach teens and how they hear you and model themselves after you does make a real difference. Kids need mentors. Boys need men they can respect and look up to. What are you doing to help such teens become true Christ-followers, not warped hate-mongers?

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