In the aftermath of the raid on the Pakistani compound that had housed Osama bin Laden, commentators and analysts (and, naturally, conspiracy theorists as well) have already begun working to get a fix on Bin Laden’s place in history - and his likely impact on future developments. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
In fact, from his perch as the key international figure in what George W Bush termed “the war on terrorism”, Bin Laden’s own presence had already begun to recede from its earlier outsized presence, even if he had continued to hold pride of place for many in the West as the main figure in some contemporary version of the Biblical “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.
Holed up in his luxurious compound in northwest Pakistan, rather than a cave in the mountains of Afghanistan, it now appears Bin Laden had long since ceded operational control of the movement he created. Around the world, terrorist or extremist groups had fashioned themselves in al Qaeda’s image, but without direct connections to it.
Even as Bin Laden had been the point-man for a particular view of a possible future for the Islamic world’s community – the ummat – as a religiously infused, violent movement bent on driving the West from any presence in the Middle East, purging the region of foreign social and cultural influences and re-establishing a universal caliphate, Bin Laden’s vision has not been the only ideal competing for influence in the region.
Following the decolonisation of North Africa and the Middle East in the 1940s and 1950s, the Baathist Party ideal of the unification of the Islamic lands of the Middle East into a strong international presence to confront the West (and Israel) – and remake Middle Eastern societies into a more modern, generally secularist world – took hold in countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Syria.
Concurrently, many Middle Eastern nations remained controlled by sheiks, emirs or kings, with these leaders determined to hold fast against the modernist approach exemplified by Baathist ideology – or the influence of a non-Arab though Middle Eastern state like Turkey or pre-revolutionary Iran. Generally, these governments sought support or a partnership with the US or Britain, formally or informally, and they were usually bound up in the exploration and exploitation of oil resources, as with Saudi Arabia or the states of the Persian Gulf.
But in the past several months, yet another, newer, rival worldview has become arguably the most potent influence in the Middle East, the so-called “Arab Spring”. In country after country, starting with Tunisia, then moving to Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Jordan, a new vision of what Arab societies can become is taking hold. As Roger Cohen, The New York Times’ columnist, writing from Benghazi, Libya, wrote in his latest column:
“Osama bin Laden is dead — and so is an old Middle East. That they died together is fortuitous and apt. Bin Laden lived to propel history backward to the re=establishment of a Muslim caliphate. He died a marginal figure to the transformation fast-forwarding the Arab world toward pluralism and self-expression.
“He came of age as the Arab world shifted from Nasserite nationalism to the discovery of identity in political Islamism. It was a potent form of anti-Western defiance. His death comes as post-Islamist revolutions from Tunis to Cairo topple despotism in the name of democratic values long denied Arabs, who, in their vast majority, now seek a reasonable balance between modernity and their faith. Arab pride has disentangled itself from the complex of the West.”
While some readers may accuse both Cohen and myself of holding a too-hopeful, rosy-eyed view of things, important corroboration comes in the data contained in the most recent cross-national opinion surveys of the Pew Research Centre.
“In the months leading up to Osama bin Laden’s death, a survey of Muslim publics around the world found little support for the al Qaeda leader. Among the six predominantly Muslim nations recently surveyed by the Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project, Bin Laden received his highest level of support among Muslims in the Palestinian territories – although even there only 34% said they had confidence in the terrorist leader to do the right thing in world affairs. Minorities of Muslims in Indonesia (26%), Egypt (22%) and Jordan (13%) expressed confidence in bin Laden, while he has almost no support among Turkish (3%) or Lebanese Muslims (1%),” the report states.
These declining levels of support stand in sharp contrast to those in previous years. It seems increasingly likely these changes in attitude flow, in part, from the contagion of success in a country like Tunisia. But, in addition, they stem from increasingly profound changes in these societies that come from the confluence of the impact of social media, satellite television broadcasts and a growing population of increasingly-well educated, youthful people impatient with things as they are. Cohen adds that Osama bin Laden died just,
“…as Arabs en masse move away from the politics of rage and revenge, directed mainly outward, toward a new politics of responsibility and representative government, directed mainly inward.”
It is not only the timing of his death that is apt, but also its location, far from a Middle East with which he had lost touch. He died in Pakistan. Or rather he died in the so-called “AfPak theatre” where a decade of war has fed jihadist ideology even as it has lost appeal for Web-savvy Arab youth in the region.
The Pew data quantifies this specifically, noting: “Over time, support for Bin Laden has dropped sharply among Muslim publics. Since 2003, the percentage of Muslims voicing confidence in him has declined by 38 points in the Palestinian territories and 33 points in Indonesia. The greatest decline has occurred in Jordan, where 56% of Muslims had confidence in Bin Laden in 2003, compared with just 13% in the current poll. Jordanian support for Bin Laden fell dramatically (to 24% from 61% the year before) in 2006, following suicide attacks in Amman by al Qaeda. In Pakistan, where 2011 data is still not available, confidence in Bin Laden fell from 52% in 2005 to just 18% in last year’s survey.”
In fact, as early as 2008, the tide had already begun to turn. Again, turning to the Pew transnational, multi-year research from that earlier year:
“First and foremost, support for terrorism has declined dramatically over the last few years in many Muslim countries. Fewer Muslims now consider suicide bombing justifiable, and confidence in Osama bin Laden has waned.”
In a world where, increasingly, virtually all borders are permeable, where people find ways to initiate new, informal channels for communication even as frightened governments attempt to shut them down, the most likely outcome is that new ideas about governing begin to take hold. In the past several months, we have come to understand that small groups of tech-savvy activists searched out cyber-handbooks for political action written by American activists like Gene Sharp that were to be found on Serbian social activist websites. Moreover, we’ve also discovered that the largely US government-funded, but administratively independent groups managed by America’s Republican and Democratic parties have conducted what were, effectively, training camps for activists operating in the “wired world” – and that these efforts made real contributions to the wave of political action across the Maghreb.
Many of these ideas are not new. They have antecedents that wind back through to the ideas of Saul Alinsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and on through to philosopher Henry David Thoreau – as well as the resistance and liberation movements in South Africa. But they are now strengthened both with the idea that it is not enough to protest, as well as with the new communication tools available to almost anyone with a camera, a cellphone or a computer. Cohen puts his finger on the new variable that may make this Arab Spring so different from the previous waves of political action in the Middle East, ever since the Arab uprising encouraged by T E Lawrence during World War I.
As Cohen summarises:
“There is hope in this passage from the suicidal Arab rage of 9/11 to the brave resistance of Libya’s 2/17 Benghazi revolution — and the other revolutions and uprisings sweeping the region. A long road is left to travel — al Qaeda is not dead — but the first step was the hardest: the breaking of the captive Arab mind, the triumph of engagement over passivity, the defeat of fear. Bin Laden’s rose-tinged caliphate was the solace of the disenfranchised, the disempowered and the desperate. A young guy with a job, a vote and prospects does not need virgins in paradise.”
He concludes by asking how best to make a corpse not only of Bin Laden, but also of his movement? Cohen’s answer is that the need is to oust Gaddafi and then help steer the tide of Arab revolutions with a consistency of political support and funding that has been so far only fitfully in evidence from the West. Or, as Cohen argues: “Arab democracy must also mean Arab opportunity.”
Along the way, this also means ending America’s adventure in Afghanistan as soon as some basic security arrangements are in place. But, perhaps most importantly, Cohen argues, America’s closest regional ally, Israel, must be brought to understand that this rapidly changing Middle East must not face an unchanging set of Israeli policies that were suited to the old political order. The Israelis, just like the Palestinians, now need to recognise and deal with the potential of a new post-Osama era of increasing responsibility and representation.
Something like the old saw about the French general, seated on a chair at a sidewalk café as a Parisian mob runs past him on the way to the barricades, then leaps up and turns to his friends to say, “There go my followers, I must go lead them”, the leadership of many nations now needs to make some far-reaching adjustments if they are to avoid that dustbin of history. DM
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama listens during one in a series of meetings discussing the mission against Osama bin Laden, in the Situation Room of the White House May 1, 2011. Picture taken May 1, 2011.
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall