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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
The cult of Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden
Some view Bin Laden as a Saladin of our times
By BBC Middle East Correspondent Frank Gardner

As the world's attention focuses on Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect in this month's attacks on America, something strange is happening in his home country of Saudi Arabia.

He is becoming a popular hero.

Osama Bin Laden is fast achieving the status of a cult hero in parts of the Arab world

Despite being stripped of his Saudi nationality, Bin Laden is being hailed by many ordinary Saudis as a champion of Islam and Arab causes.

As the net closes in on his Afghan hideout, he is being idolised by many in the Middle East as the man who dared to strike a blow at the world's only superpower.

Each day brings a new epithet for the Saudi-born dissident.

Arabs and Western observers described him variously as: the Robin Hood of Arabia, the Che Guevara of our times, and a modern-day Saladin.

As Osama Bin Laden is vilified in the West, he is fast achieving the status of a cult hero in parts of the Arab world.

Television personality

Millions of Arabs watched last Thursday as a satellite television station aired a three-year-old interview with him.

Even moderate Arabs said afterwards they could identify with his criticism of America's support for Israel which still occupies Palestinian land.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Saud Al Faisal
Saudi Arabia's leaders condemned the attacks
But they say the West is partly to blame for building up Osama Bin Laden in the media to be a larger-than-life figure.

The Saudi Government and religious scholars have publicly condemned the attacks on America.

But in the teeming streets of Jeddah, where Bin Laden was born, many ordinary Saudis can identify with his causes.

They too, would like US and British forces to leave Saudi Arabia.

Many Saudi Islamists, who have little direct contact with the West, see these troops as colonial invaders, as latter-day crusaders come to defile the birthplace of Islam.

And virtually all Saudis are against the idea of their country being used as a springboard to attack another Muslim state, such as Afghanistan.

Shop talk

In tiny, back street corner shops, mild-mannered men voice their opinions.

Bin Laden is right, they say, to accuse the West of persecuting Muslims.

As well as the plight of the Palestinians, they point to Iraq, a once-proud nation pummelled by air-raids and reduced to poverty by western-backed sanctions.

Bin Laden grievances
US and British forces in Arabia
US support for Israel
Western attacks and sanctions against Iraq
'Un-Islamic' Arab regimes
Unspoken in public is the third and most controversial plank in Bin Laden's quarrel with the West - its support for Arab regimes he deems un-Islamic.

To him and his followers, that includes the Saudi ruling family and the Presidents of Egypt and Yemen.

Their heavy-handed crushing of militant Muslims has driven many of their members into exile.

Some of Bin Laden's closest aides are Egyptians, bent on turning their country into a fundamentalist Islamic republic.

Such ideas are less popular with the thinking Arab public, who fear the violence and economic ruin such an upheaval would probably bring.

But as America prepares to strike Bin Laden and his protectors, many Saudis and other Arabs see the coming retaliation as a blow not so much against terrorism, but as against Islam.

See also:

23 Sep 01 | Middle East
Gulf states back US
22 Sep 01 | South Asia
Aid shortage adds to Afghan woes
22 Sep 01 | Middle East
UAE cuts ties with Taleban
16 Sep 01 | Americas
US prepares for war
23 Sep 01 | Americas
Clinton ordered Bin Laden killing
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