2011 has been a momentous year. The ripple of Arab revolutions across the Mediterranean, the tsunami that hit Japan and the resultant nuclear problems, and now the death of Osama bin Laden. It may also be time for us to begin to properly understand the Middle East and Arab culture.

A number of us watched on TV in the staff room at work as it became clear that Hosni Mubarak was about to fall as Egyptian dictator. One colleague commented that we should be less cheerful about this because what would happen is that “the Muslim Brotherhood will take over and impose Sharia law.” Contained in this statement was a crude understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Sharia law. Obviously the Muslim Brotherhood haven’t taken over, but my colleague’s statement gives a good idea of what many people think the inevitable Arab political trajectory is – towards violent fundamentalism (even if that’s not actually what the Muslim Brotherhood or Sharia law would mean).

The horrific brilliance of Osama bin Laden was that he understood perfectly this characterisation of Arabs and was highly adept at harnessing it. By understanding how we think about Arabs better than we do ourselves he was able to fill the role of bogey man. Mirror-like he reflected back to us many of our crude assumptions about Arabs and Islam. Born to a rich family, he turned his back on wealth to devote himself to cruelty and violence – initially American supported cruelty and violence against the Soviet-supported Afghan government and later against American bases in the Middle East.

For that reason he was awarded the role of leader of anti-American violence first by the US intelligence service, and then by the media.  Film maker Adam Curtis brilliantly describes the rise of bin Laden in his series “The Power of Nightmares.”

As surely as bin Laden understood the totemic symbolism of destroying the World Trade Centre (remember he tried to destroy it in 1993 too) he understood his role as the personification of all that we fear about Arab culture. He saw our nightmares and made himself into a creature that resembled almost perfectly the object of our psychological terror.

This fed on and perpetuated another aspect of our interaction with the Middle East. For too long the countries that won the Cold War have supported tyranny in the Middle East because of a profoundly mistaken understanding of “Arab culture.” I use scare quotes because this concept of “Arab culture” is at the heart of the problem. By characterising a region as diverse as Europe as having one culture we create huge potential for misunderstanding – the very idea of culture is problematic unless its complexity is understood in a sympathetic way. All too often these misunderstandings are one dimensional and unsympathetic – very much like that of my work colleague.

The brilliant Palestinian academic Edward Said set out how this understanding of Arab culture developed and became widely accepted in Europe in his book “Orientalism.” David Lean’s film “Lawrence of Arabia” about the Arab Revolt gives a good characterisation of what we understand much Middle Eastern culture to be. The scene in which T.E. Lawrence meets Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish, played by Omar Sharif portrays the Arab as romantic, mysterious and most of all unknowable:

And it’s the last of those characteristics that is fundamental to our current understanding of the Middle East and Arab culture. The unknowable can turn out as Sherif Ali. But it is also frightening. It is something that must be controlled. And the best way to control this unknowability is through dictatorships with formidable secret police. Osama bin Laden fed this fear. That’s why the UK has supported tyrannical regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Tunisia. It’s why Tony Blair was willing to sell arms to Muammar Gaddafi, a dictator who could be best described as mad, bad and extremely dangerous. We support these regimes because of fear. The fear that if we unleash the unknowable spirit of these Arab peoples we believe the inevitable course of their political development is towards terrifying totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism.

The only way we can save these countries from tyranny is to support their tyrannical regimes.

But the reality is different. This fear is largely of our own creation. The protestors in Tahrir Square weren’t seeking the imposition of an Islamic state. Not even the Muslim Brotherhood sought that. They were seeking, instead, to throw off yoke of Mubarak’s Western-supported tyranny. That’s why Christians protected Muslims at prayer on Fridays, while Muslims protected Christians at prayer on Sundays. The shaking off of Musharrif was not to be replaced with Islamic fundamentalism. It was instead to create a culture more sympathetic to minorities than some European leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy have proven to be.

The death of  bin Laden removes this spectre of terror. We must use it as an opportunity to rethink how we understand Arab culture. We must not allow the worst nightmares about Arab culture to determine our outlook, we must shake off the psychological tyranny of Orientalism and we must support the Arab revolutions to create tolerant, democratic and open societies.

Osama bin Laden was always our creation, and now we have freed ourselves of the physical manifestation of our nightmares, we must remove the psychological and emotional cause of those nightmares themselves. That means developing a new understanding of Arab cultures, free from centuries of Orientalist fear.