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!