This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 03/05/2011
Osama bin Laden is dead, and many will rightly rejoice that a killer has been killed and justice has been done. However, bin Ladenism persists, because the conditions that created it remain prevalent in much of the Arab-Asian region.
The United States and allies will justifiably enjoy a sense of political vindication, and intelligence and operational success. Tens of thousands of families around the world that have suffered the pain of Al-Qaeda’s criminal attacks will feel a small but vital sense of relief. We should rejoice at their satisfaction.
The celebrations, though, should not cause us to repeat the same mistake on bin Laden’s death that many around the world made during his life: to exaggerate the individual and the institution of Al-Qaeda, thus downplaying the two much more important operational dynamics that have consistently defined his world and ours. When the celebratory moment dissipates and we grapple again with the challenge of how to address the terrorism phenomenon that Al-Qaeda crafted into a global monster, we should keep in mind two key facts.
First, Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and many smaller copycat organizations it spawned in the past two decades are small, clandestine, cult-like movements that have gained little or no traction among the masses of citizens in the Arab-Asian region that is the heartland of Islamic societies. The masses of Arabs, Asians and other Muslims have regularly repudiated bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri’s repeated attempts to rally public opinion to their cause.
Bin Ladenism and associated terrorist groups must be fought with the police tools used to fight cults and gangsters, not the global ideological and military weapons that waged the battle against communism or fascism. The death of the charismatic leader will clearly diminish Al-Qaeda even further, given that it never connected widely with its preferred Arab-Islamic audiences and has been hit hard by coordinated counterterrorism actions around the world.
Second, bin Laden’s death should force us to remember the reasons for Al-Qaeda’s birth. This movement crystallized and expanded in the decade from 1991 to 2001 primarily as a reactionary response to policies by three parties principally – Arab autocrats, Israel and the United States – that angered bin Laden’s followers to the point of feeling that they felt that Islam itself was under assault and needed to be protected through a defensive military holy war, or jihad.
The vast majority of Muslims thought the bin Laden response was nonsense. But, much more importantly, clearly documented majorities of Arabs (Muslims and Christians alike), like many other Muslims around the world, shared the basic grievances that bin Laden articulated. These were mainly about three inter-connected issues that Al-Qaeda defined as predatory policies of America and the West to dominate the Islamic world with their armies, economies and culture; Israel’s assault on the rights of Palestinians, Lebanese and other Arabs, with full Western backing; and the abusive, un-Islamic conduct of dictatorial Arab police states that were structurally supported by the United States and other Western powers.
The politically important aspect of all this is not about Osama bin Laden’s complaints. It is the fact that these same grievances have been and remain very widely shared across the entire Arab-Islamic world, which keeps open the door for other bin Ladens to materialize.
In the post-bin Laden world, therefore, moving toward a safer, more stable world requires focusing on the legitimacy of these important and pervasive grievances, and then working sensibly to resolve them. It is worth recalling that foreign armies in Islamic societies were the two principal catalysts for Al-Qaeda’s initial birth and expansion – the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Americans in Saudi Arabia. So, removing American, British and other foreign armies from wars they wage in Islamic-majority societies would seem to be pivotal for the defeat and disintegration of Al-Qaeda and its clones.
Bin Laden has left behind a legacy of many small cult-like movements that allow discontented, disoriented and disenfranchised young men to find empowerment and meaning in life through terror campaigns justified through wildly distorted readings of Islamic texts and traditions. These dead-end fringe cults will be defeated mainly by their own societies, as evidenced by the fact that such groups today can only operate in remote desert, mountain or other lawless areas. An overwhelming majority of Arabs, on the other hand, are demonstrating these days that they wish to address their grievances through populist transitions to democracy, citizenship rights and human dignity.
As the Islamic and Western world ponders next steps toward a more secure world after the death of Osama bin Laden, we should focus more on policies than personalities, especially on why mass discontent prevails in so many Arab-Islamic-Asian countries. This requires acknowledging who has a hand in causing this condition, and how we can all work together more effectively to redress the ideological distortions, corruption and abuse of power, and aggressive state policies that fertilize the fields of discontent that remain so widespread and vibrant.