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  The Squalor and Sadism that Shaped Osama’s Sons

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Posted on May 15 2011 7:03 pm
Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York. For extended biography visit The Phyllis Chesler Organization.

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This popular post was originally published May 11.

Western journalists seem shocked—shocked!—by the apparently shabby day-to-day living conditions of master villain Osama bin Laden. After all, the multimillionaire occupied a villa in an elite region where Pakistan’s military elite lived. Had he grown long in the tooth, had Bin Laden “lost it”? How surprising that he lived shabbily, in one room, with an ancient television set.

If the journalists had done their homework, they would not have been surprised at all. Bin Laden chose to live in relatively primitive, ramshackle, sparsely furnished settings for a long time. While he still lived in Saudi Arabia, before he had to flee to Sudan and thereafter to Afghanistan, he condemned his wives and children to lives of physical, medical, and psychological hardship.

Yes, he himself had fast cars, fast planes, the most expensive horses—weaponry too. In his childhood and early married life, he had lived in magnificent and luxurious dwellings. Thereafter, he insisted on an increasingly spartan existence as a matter of ideology and mental health as well.

Just as the Arab and Muslim despot lives far above his lowliest subjects, so too, do many father-despots, each in his own home, live far more comfortably than they allow their own children and wives to live. In fact, a father-despot’s children, both sons and daughters, are taught to literally fear and serve their fathers–but they also desperately want his approval and love. Their father is their only protector.  Even if he torments his sons, they will stand by his side.

Thus, on the one hand, earlier today, Omar bin Laden, Osama’s fourth son, condemned “those forces [that] carried out their criminal mission and obliterated an entire defenseless family.” Omar, suddenly the dutiful and loving son, now finds that his father’s burial at sea was “unacceptable humanely and religiously.” He is also threatening to “follow that crime through the American and international justice (systems) in order to determine the true fate of our vanished father.”

This sounds like a loving son who had a loving father. That is not the case. Here is what Omar bin Laden has written about his life with his father Osama:

There were other absurd rules regarding our conduct. We were allowed to speak in his presence, but our voices must be kept low and our words carefully measured. In other words, we should not ‘over-talk.’ We were told that we must not become excited at any situation. We should be serious about everything. We were not allowed to tell jokes. We were ordered not to express joy over anything. He did say that he would allow us to smile so long as we did not laugh. If we were to lose control of our emotions and bark a laugh, we must be careful not to expose our eyeteeth. I have been in situations where my father actually counted the exposed teeth, reprimanding his sons on the number their merriment had revealed.

According to Omar, his father was not “warm”; in fact, he “caned” him and his brothers “for the slightest infraction.” Osama was very, very cruel and deprived his sons of their much needed asthma medication—even as he force marched them without water for hours and in the desert. In addition, he allowed his sons to be brutalized by sadistic teachers. He refused to give his sons “pocket money” for “school snacks.” He told them, Omar writes:

‘No. You need to suffer. Hunger pangs will not hurt you.’ Improbably, our father was different from so many fathers who wanted nothing but the best for their children. Our father appeared to relish seeing us suffer, reminding us that it was good for us to know what it felt like to be hungry or thirsty, to do without while others had plenty. Why? He said that we would end up being the stronger. Those with plenty would grow up weak men, unable to defend themselves.

And yet, Omar has now come forward as his father’s injured heir, his rightful son. He is now identifying with or standing for the very father who abused and endangered him.

This, too, is not unusual.

First, growing up, Omar and his brothers all learned that they would have to endure paternal cruelty and humiliation and that their tender and sympathetic mothers would not and could not intercede on their behalf. Osama bin Laden’s wives, especially Najwa, Omar’s mother, are portrayed as joyfully submissive, uncomplaining, very religious, quite passive. Najwa gave up her desire to decorate her home, which was, essentially, her prison. She never wore expensive clothing or jewelry. She never uttered a single complaint—not even when she was deprived of most conveniences and normal amenities. Omar writes:

Although we lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is one of the hottest and most humid cities in a country that is known for its hot climate, my father would not allow my mother to turn on the air-conditioning that the contractor had built into the apartment building. Neither would he allow her to use the refrigerator that was standing in the kitchen. My father announced, ‘Islamic beliefs are corrupted by modernization.’

Thus: Cruel and tyrannical father + absolutely helpless mother=shamed filial identification with the very fathers who abused them. In addition, the sons of rich men do not wish to expose how they, too, were humiliated; therefore, they deny the harsh reality which both shames and exposes them. They minimize the abuse. They even remember a fleeting “good” moment or two. They want to be loved by the fathers who do not love them. They want the sons of poor men to look up to them as the sons of rich men.

Women do not even count.

Osama bin Laden’s father had 57 children and saw Osama rarely. He was not kind to him. In turn, Osama was even less kind, even more cruel to his many sons.

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