Archive for May 3rd, 2011

The End of the Osama Bin Laden Era?

In my Comparative Politics class Tuesday we had assigned readings covering terrorism and Islamic extremism as a revolutionary force.  I joked to the class that when I made the syllabus last December I purposefully put these readings for our first class meeting after Bin Laden’s killing.   The chapter about Islam as a revolutionary force (Sheri Berman, Islamism, Revolution and Civil Society) focuses on countries like Egypt, still stable when the article was written.  The chapter on terrorism (Martha Crenshaw, The Causes of Terrorism) nicely set up a discussion of Bin Laden’s death and what it means.   That made for a lively class discussion!

I think that Osama Bin Laden’s death symbolizes an end of an era.   For a decade Bin Laden has been the public face of Islam for many Americans, arousing fear, anger and antipathy.   Visions of Islam defeating the West or sharia law spreading to places like Oklahoma created almost surreal bouts of fear and distrust.   That is starting to fade away.

Since 9-11 al qaeda has had a meager record.  Unable to score any spectacular attacks in recent years, their message no longer resonates in the Arab world.   The youth today are less prone to be swayed by the rhetoric Bin Laden used in the 90s.   They are more in tune with the rest of the world as the information revolution and globalization make it harder to maintain isolation.

In the 90s this was part of the problem.  The encroachment of Western ideas into traditional Muslim communities was a threat, raising fears about losing identity and traditions to a godless, souless West, addicted to oil and willing to arm corrupt tyrannies.    It was this first phase of globalization that both Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) and Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) sounded alarms about.   This phase emboldened Bin Laden as it was easy to stir up fear of the West and especially the US.

But now in 2011 we’re seeing generational change, as the youth are more immersed in modern culture and thus less enamored with the puritanical teachings of al qaeda or the Taliban.   Few want to go back to 622 AD.   Even those who dislike western foreign policy don’t believe it’s feasible or desirable to fight a war with the West.  The focus now is overturning tyrannies and taking care of their own political destinies.

It’s true that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a history of extremist rhetoric and a diverse membership, could be in a position to dominate new governments once the dictators leave.    But there is little reason to expect them to fundamentally threaten the West.    If they are too reactionary, they’ll likely face a backlash from their own people — a people who now understand that they can pressure governments and force change.    Most of them also reject al qaeda’s agenda or an all out war with the West.   To be sure, this will pressure Israel, but Wikileaks documents have revealed that even Hamas is more willing to work with the Jewish state than their public bravado indicates.

With Bin Laden’s death he no longer symbolizes the Arab or Muslim worlds.  In the US the perception of Muslims has already improved thanks to the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.    In the Arab world the so-called “Arab Spring” has displaced anger at America as the most visible political force.   NATO is bombing Libya, another Muslim country, though this time it is in support of a home grown revolution.

Given all of this, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the death of Osama Bin Laden is also the symbolic death of the danger and threat of Islamic extremism.   Not that there is no more terror threat — terrorism is possible any time a hand full of angry people can pull off some kind of deadly violent act.    Extremist elements in the Muslim world will remain active for some time.   But unless we over-react, the threat is dwindling.  Islam will still be a force in politics, but not a violent force bent on confronting the West.

Now the Taliban will be under more pressure to moderate their positions, break with al qaeda completely, and be part of a solution in Afghanistan.   Bin Laden’s death helps those elements in the Taliban willing to compromise and share power.  In other countries political Islam will look inward and focus on reforming their societies, perhaps more fully exploring the meaning of Islam in a modern world.   We may not like the path it takes sometimes, and progress may be excruciatingly slow, but it need not be something to fear.

It is the end of the Bin Laden era.   Fear of Islam will diminish in the West, and we will avert the clash of civilization that Bin Laden so hoped to spark.   This isn’t because the US killed Bin Laden — al qaeda’s been losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Arab world for years, and fear of Islam has been on the wane in the US — but his death is symbolically important.   It’s been a rough ten years; time to move on to something better!

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The Digital Generation?

President Obama had a good week.   He grabbed the headlines by having the state of Hawaii take the extraordinary step of releasing the state “long form” version of his birth certificate, making the ‘birthers’ look petty.   At the Correspondent’s dinner he and Seth Meyers skewered Donald Trump who made things worse for himself by showing no humor, sitting stone faced, apparently stewing over all the ridicule.   Besides revealing a dark side of Trump’s personality (people who can’t laugh at themselves are almost never good people), he demonstrated that for all his bravado, he knew he’d been, well, trumped.   Then on Sunday night the real news of the week came:  The United States had killed Osama bin Laden.

I will post more on my thoughts and reactions to this, and what it means to the Mideast.   I need some time to mull that over and read more about the operation and the world reaction.    Today I’ll just describe what I did in class and reflect on student reactions.

In World Politics we were going to cover the International Court of Justice, ICC, and the sources of international law.  I had a power point ready and five minutes before class I was going over notes.   I then checked the news and found more detail on Bin Laden’s death.   As I got up for class I impulsively left my computer in my office and instead grabbed an old VHS tape from 9-11-01.

I taped this from my television back on that September day.  I had just gotten done watching a history channel show about Apollo 13 and was going to start working.  I was on a research sabbatical that semester, so I didn’t have class.   I flipped to CNN to check the Dow futures and saw that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings.   “Holy shit,” I exclaimed, and as quickly as possible put a tape in the VCR.   I subsequently captured the second plane hitting, the collapse of the buildings, and much of the rest of the day’s action.    I saw initial reports on the Pentagon being hit and the towers collapse as I was doing a step machine work out (I think that 70 minute work out is still my longest on my step machine!)   At that point I was getting local New York television on Dishnet, so I was able to follow how they covered the story — it was far more personal than the “national” coverage.

I showed sections of that tape to my students today.   The initial reports, the confusion (false stories like a fire on the mall, a car bomb at the state department, a helicopter circling the Pentagon right before the explosion), and the emotion of the commentators was something they’d not experienced.   Most students had been only about eight or nine when it happened.   Watching it brought me back to that day: Peter Jennings in shocked disbelief when the first tower fell.   New York commentators groping for words through emotion after the second fell.   When one said “If there are any young children watching this, I…I…I don’t know what to advise you” the class broke up laughing.

The students did not seem all that upset watching it; it’s an historical fact they’ve grown up with, after all.  Their reactions to Bin Laden’s death were also lacking passion.   They debated whether or not it was legal, a few said they couldn’t celebrate a death, and others said their first reaction was “well, Obama’s got 2012 wrapped up.”

On blogs and facebook friends have expressed thrill and being over joyed by the news.    A few others throw out a bitter “so what, is this worth ten years of destruction?”   Most students remain dispassionate, discussing policy implications and more vocally questioning the importance of the action.   They correctly note that al qaeda is a lot more than “one man.”   Many thought celebrating this paralleled celebrations in some parts of the Arab world on 9-11.

I had been a bit surprised by the lack of passion in my class — was this just because it was something they just grew up accepting as part of history?   People had quietly chuckled at the “I don’t know what to advise you” comment those rare times I’ve shown this video before, never has there been a loud outburst!

The generation of students now in college are the first to grow up completely in the digital age.   The internet and e-mail were commonplace when they were three years old, CDs were becoming obsolete by the time they hit middle school — and many of them already had cell phones by that time.   Could it be that information-age children are becoming more dispassionate yet nonetheless thoughtful adults?

There are other explanations.   Mainers tend to be relatively even keeled, and students are a unique demographic.   We have a good mix of “conservatives” and “liberals,” and the two groups get along well together (that’s also not atypical for Maine).    And, of course, there are a lot of people who diss the new generation — they don’t focus on things for long periods of time, or don’t appreciate literature, preferring tweets and factoids instead.   Yet having seen how student “personalities” shift slowly over time (there isn’t really a cut off point between ‘generations’) I find myself rather optimistic about the new generation.

It’s not so much that they are dispassionate, but that they are savvy about how to handle information.   I see this on facebook debates (one reason I’m one of those faculty who accept student facebook friends is that it’s a window to how this generation thinks).   They seem less likely to give in to emotional reaction/over-reaction, and more likely to look at various perspectives of an issue.   They tend to be more relativistic in their world view than I would be, but that also translates to more tolerance.   I feel they can handle really intense emotional issues without giving in to the anger and passion that often exemplifies my generation.   Even issues like abortion seem a bit easier for them to deal with.

It’ll be fascinating to watch how the true digital generation — people who have been on line essentially from birth — turns out.  I am optimistic.

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