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The Greening of Al Qaeda?

The world, or the Western media to be precise, is all in a tizzy, obsessed over stark warnings issued by the United States and Britain concerning the increased terrorist threat posed by Al-Qaeda and its leader the Saudi national Osama Bin Laden. The claim, substantiated by omniscient Western intelligence — spooks who we know never err — is that Bin Laden recently exhorted Islamist militants to launch attacks on targets in Europe.

But what did Bin Laden exhort in his latest missive? “If governments spent on relief only one per cent of what is spent on war, they would change the face of the world of poor people,” Bin Laden said in a poignant message to the Muslims of the world. “What governments spend on relief work is secondary to what they spend on war.”

Sounds eerily like the Dalai Lama. “People with hearts should move quickly to stave off disaster,” he pontificated papally with Christlike compassion.

In sharp contrast with the Western media blackout, Bin Laden’s speech has attracted both attention and admiration in the Muslim world. Bin-Laden’s main thrust in his latest offering is that transparency is needed above all in the international politics of climate change. Up to a point, Bin Laden has a far more subtle intelligence than that of his detractors, many of his critics in the Arab world grudgingly concede.

“This is not the first time that Bin Laden lectures about non-political matters. Indeed, he has spoken on several occasions previously on economic and environmental issues. He speaks regularly about social justice, poverty eradication and he has commented on the Kyoto Protocol,” Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist movements at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Rashwan notes, however, that the fact that Bin Laden is now increasingly contemplating non-combative concerns indicates that he is not the wild-eyed ogre the West makes him out to be. “Neither is Bin Laden a fugitive since he seems to be speaking from comfortable surroundings rather than from the battlefront cave he is usually depicted in.”

“Bin Laden seems intent on giving the impression that he is an intellectual and Islamist ideologue rather than a warlord. He is addressing the West in the first place in addition to his Muslim faithful,” concludes Rashwan.

Ayman El-Zawahri, Bin Laden’s right-hand man, spoke of the “failure” of the Pakistani government to deal with the catastrophic floods. An Egyptian national and a physician by profession, El-Zawahri decried the unjust international order and the plight of the sick, weak and poor.

It iscritical at this historical juncture to keep a sense of perspective of cataclysmic climatic catastrophes amid the gruesome headlines of the ongoing wars in the name of democracy and freedom. Retired Major- General Adel Suleiman, director of the Centre for Futuristic Studies, told the Weekly that the US Fifth Fleet is based in an Arab state, Bahrain, and that the Arab governments are “engaged in an arms race and dramatically increasing their military spending at a time when unemployment rates are rising and inflation is getting out of control.”

On such unjust inequalities and discrepancies the wheel of history turns. Suleiman notes that Arab states are among the most socially stratified with unacceptable income differentials and that is why what Bin Laden says makes much sense to the disfranchised underdogs and the unemployed youth. “The marginalised members of society are fed up with bad government.”

Pakistan has been in a form of cryogenic suspension since the devastating deluge. Bin Laden made that crystal clear. But Pakistan’s catastrophe could easily occur elsewhere in the Muslim world with equally disastrous consequences because the Arab governments are on the whole not much better at staving off the worst effects of natural disasters than the Pakistani government.

In any case, there is nothing more likely to stoke demands for radical solutions than more calamitous disasters, a point the West refuses to acknowledge but which was implicit in Bin Laden’s diatribe.

Natural disasters have certainly garnered plenty of headlines this summer. Pakistan is the barometer. The Pakistani reaction is just the litmus test. The sheer scale of the disaster has reverberated, while the fires in Russia and floods and landslides in China drew attention to the calamities caused by the phenomenon known as climate change.

The spectre of the Pakistani tragedy continues to rattle the international community. Worse, wishing won’t fix the mess. People’s trust in governments to handle natural disasters has taken a bad hit from the series of climate-induced catastrophes around the world. What is more, governments seem to be stressing the wrong things: they try to throw the lifeline to the victims of the climate catastrophes in a haphazard and indiscriminate fashion. The crisis of confidence is intensifying and governments appear to be incapable of dealing with disasters.

Governments have failed to come to grips with the tragic consequences of global climate change. Tremendous opportunities abound, and yet politicians all over the world try to suppress the painful realities. Political calculations take precedence. The full extent of its adverse scenario is still not quite clear. The West has yet to come clean over its policy of neglect of natural calamities in developing countries. Instead, the US drops more bombs from spiffy new drones as Pakistanis drown, lending credence to Bin Laden’s outcries.

GAMAL NKRUMAH writes for Al-Ahram Weekly.