|Volume 5 Issue 07 | July 2011|
From the Failure of bin Laden's Ideology, a New Way Forward
Muslims have rejected reactionary politics in the last decade, argues SAMIER MANSUR.
It was early 2002 when I received an email from my high-school friend, Kristen. She was excited to have returned to Islamabad to finish her senior year with her classmates after having been evacuated with her family following the attacks of September 11. She ended the email joking, “don't worry, Osama bin Laden wasn't sitting on my couch when I got back.” An ominous foreshadowing -- for just a few dozen kilometres away, nestled in the picturesque mountain town of Abbottabad, in the shadow of Pakistan's prestigious Kakul Military Academy, that's exactly where he was found and killed, nine years later.
So what does the death of Osama bin Laden mean for the world? Counterterrorism experts have differed on the significance of this development. Some have argued that his role was largely symbolic with an increasing inability to communicate and effectively lead his al-Qaeda organisation. Others noted that even from hiding he was the glue that held together, both ideologically and operationally, the organisation's deadly capabilities. Though the extent of his leadership remains debatable, what is of consensus is that bin Laden as the figurehead, spokesperson and face of al-Qaeda is irreplaceable. Furthermore, it is my contention that his departure from the world-stage is a palpable sign, amongst others, that the beginning of the gradual end to the destructive and reactionary world-view and phase embodied by bin Laden and his followers has finally arrived.
Osama bin Laden was a universal icon. He was the embodiment of a movement, a brand in and of himself, an image that we all helped to create, projecting upon it our very own feelings of anxiety, fear, hatred -- and for some, pride.
To many he was the incarnation of evil itself; the very representation of global instability and chaos; to others he was the man who single-handedly hijacked the perception of a great world religion, plunging its adherents by mere association into a tangled mess of insecurity, infighting and soul-searching; and to his loyal followers he was heralded as the Prince, the Director and the Lion Sheikh for his self-appointed leadership of the world-wide Muslim community as he declared war against the US and its civilians, the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” and all their “collaborators,” including the regimes of Muslim nations who strayed from “the divine Shariah law”-- in short, anyone and everyone who differed from his ultra-puritanical and reactionary world-view.
The reason bin Laden achieved such unprecedented success was due to his profound ability to tap into and exploit the emotional consciousness of one group, pitting it against the collective consciousness of the “other”. With the Muslim world, he played on the lingering painful memories of the colonial experience, drawing a link to the present-day sufferings of Muslims around the world -- in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, and Kosovo -- and rooting it in the historical animosity associated with the Crusades to paint a picture of a vast and enduring conspiracy concocted by the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” since time memoriam to undermine and subjugate Muslims the world over. It was a selective and misguided narrative, but it was one that captivated and inspired. That's all that mattered.
And his modus operandi was armed conflict. Since peaceful attempts at reform had always come to bloody ends at the hands of colonial regimes or oppressive dictatorships propped up by the West, the only way to achieve Islamic solidarity and sovereignty would be through violent revolution -- a militant ideology born from the writings of the 20th century Egyptian theologian, revolutionary and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb -- also known as “the man who inspired bin Laden”.
With the West, bin Laden sought visible, high-profile landmarks such as hotels (Aden, 1992), Airlines (Bojinka, 1994); embassies (Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, 1998); U.S. Naval forces (Aden, 2000); and international financial centres (New York, 1993 and 2001) -- all symbolic targets meant to instil fear and provoke retaliation by the US. In fact, it was his stated policy to provoke the US through a spectacular series of attacks into entering a prolonged conflict with al-Qaeda in Muslim nations. This would, according to this blueprint, unite the Muslim world, strain the US economy, cause US and allied public opinion to clamour for a withdrawal of their troops and rescind support for despotic Arab regimes and change foreign policy towards the Muslim world.
It was a tactic that had worked on the Soviet forces. In 1988, nine years after first rolling their tanks across the Central Asian border, the Red Army was forced to pull-out, followed almost immediately by the collapse of the Soviet economy and dissolution of the Soviet Union itself -- leaving Osama bin Laden and his Mujahideen fighters to take full credit for the defeat of a global superpower. This was exactly what bin Laden had in mind for the US as well. In the words of Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, “superpowers are so allergic to losing that they will bankrupt themselves trying to conquer a mass of rocks and sand”.
And for a while the strategy appeared to be working. The US entered the war in Afghanistan, broadening the conflict to Iraq and parts of Pakistan; the Bush administration's lack of clear strategy articulation, and use of the terms such as “Islamo-fascists”, “Islamists”, “Islamic Jihad”, “Evil”, and…the C-word, “Crusade” to describe the enemy and the conflict, played into the grand-conspiracy-against-Islam-scenario depicted by bin Laden. As a result the al-Qeada ideology spread like wildfire through the Internet with its newfound brand-name recognition and bin Laden was elevated to a new mythical status. To most he was the dreaded scourge of civilisation and humanity, but to his loyal followers he was the iron-horse who dared to stand up to the military oppression and exploitative economic machine of the West.
Around the world, local franchises of al-Qaeda-inspired ideologues made it known that their distant leader's mission was alive and well. Bombs and rouge attacks were coordinated from London to Little Rock, Mumbai to Madrid, Istanbul to Islamabad, Bali to Baghdad and dozens of cities in between. Scores of plots were foiled across North America and Europe, and throughout Asia, Africa and Australia. Governments around the world launched internal investigations to determine the nature of the home-grown terrorist threat and infiltration of al-Qaeda ideology in their homelands. It seemed very possible that there could be a bin Laden on every street corner.
In the West, public approval against the “War on Terror” reached all time lows with polls showing a majority of the US and UK public -- the largest contingents of the Coalition Forces -- disapproving of the handling of the war. In Spain, public sentiment against the war reached a crescendo, leading the new government to pull its troops from the Coalition following the 2004 Madrid train bombings that claimed the lives of 191, 911 days after 9/11.
Then came the Global Financial Crisis beginning in 2007, triggered by a liquidity shortfall in the US banking system. It was a contagion that soon crippled financial institutions worldwide, with leading economists describing it as “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression” of the 1930's.
From his mansion in Abbottabad, the puppet-master would have been pleased.
That is, until one major variable of his calculation backfired. Rather than find sympathies with bin Laden's cause, the majority of the Muslim world population was repelled, abhorring the tactics bin Laden and his followers employed in their so called “Jihad” against the injustices of the West and “un-Islamic” regimes of Muslim-majority nations.
Each deafening bomb-blast heard around the world was followed by images of unarmed men, women and children being pulled from a fiery scene of carnage. It was marketplaces and mosques, not military bases that were burning. It was civilians that endured majority of the attacks, with over 90% of global terrorism causalities being Muslims themselves. It was narrow-minded ideologues and zealous fanatics, mentally challenged women and children and brainwashed adolescents trafficked into the life of militancy who were recruited into the ranks of suicide bombers and al-Qaeda inspired militant groups. These were hardly the “protectors of unity and guardians of Faith” that bin Laden had boasted would drive the deathblow to the US and her allies.
Shocked by the misrepresentation of Islam, progressive Muslims around the world began to re-engage the Islamic sources to promote an Islam that was more resonant with their own peaceable, inclusive and pluralist belief system. If Muslims did not want bin Laden to speak for them, they would have to learn to speak up for themselves.
And speak they did. Across the world, Islamic scholars, clerics, and civic organisations united by the hundreds of thousands to condemn the scourge of terrorism. In 2004, Jordan delivered the historic Amman Message denouncing extremism and advancing an interpretation of Islam that promoted tolerance and honoured all of humanity, irrespective of faith; in 2005, 200 of the world's leading Islamic scholars representing 50 nations unanimously upheld the Amman Message, a document which would be endorsed by an additional 500 eminent Islamic scholars world-wide; that same year, the 18-member Fiqh Council of North America issued a fatwa denouncing terrorist acts and all those that support it, adding that it is the “civic and religious duty of Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement authorities”; in 2008, 6,000 Islamic scholars came together in what would come to be known as the Hyderabad Declaration to endorse a fatwa declaring all forms of terrorism to be “against the spirit of Islam”; and in 2010, one of Pakistan's leading religious scholars, Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri, issued from London a 600-page refutation of the al-Qaeda ideology in the form of a fatwa, stating firmly that in terrorism “there is no place for martyrdom”.
It was the categorical rejection of bin Laden's ultra-puritanical and reactionary world-view by the overwhelming majority of Muslims that led to his demise. Muslims could, to some extent, sympathise with the grievances outlined by the freedom fighter of Afghanistan turned global terrorist-mastermind, but when it came to his preoccupation with violence, lack of pragmatic solutions to address socio-economic grievances, targeting of civilians, and worse, the use of Islam to sanctify his philosophy and actions, he was shunned into a dark, isolated corner, surrounded only by his most zealous and loyal of followers -- the same manner in which he would ultimately meet his end.
It should be no surprise then that at the moment of bin Laden's fall the “Arab Spring” had just begun across North Africa and the Middle East. It was peaceful demonstrators comprised of citizens of every age and demographic, not armed revolutionaries under the banner of religion that brought an end to the 23-year rule of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the 29-year reign of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It was the people's desire for greater political freedoms and human rights, not Shariah law that led to widespread marches against the monarchies of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and Oman, and the authoritarian regimes of Yemen and Libya. And these governments have taken notice: Either they reform to meet the rising political and economic aspirations of their citizenry, or they crumble under the weight of their growing discontent.
Although the outcome of this historic wave of protest is too early to forecast, what is clear is that what al-Qaeda failed to achieve with two decades of terrorism, is being accomplished through the effectiveness of civic organisation and the inspired drive of people power.
The last decade has shown that Muslims have overwhelmingly rejected reactionary politics, and have chosen a new way forward. It is a path that is moving beyond the template of rigid religious interpretation that has confined the Muslim world to centuries of social and economic stagnation; it is the acceptance of a global reality that is based on inclusivity, plurality and integration; and it is a movement toward institutions that support greater freedoms, accountability and human rights that defines this new paradigm.
Kristen never made it to see these changes take shape. Less than one month after receiving her email, she was attending a Sunday sermon in Islamabad when two armed terrorists forced their way in and lobbed six grenades into the congregation. Two of them exploded, killing her and her mother instantly. Osama bin Laden would outlive her gentle soul by nine years, but if his death bears any lesson, then let it be one that comes to us from Mahatma Gandhi when he wrote, “Our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means…As the means, so the end.” With bin Laden's cause and circumstances surrounding his death, no statement could ring truer.
Samier Mansur is an international policy consultant and analyst with the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI).
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