Bin Laden’s Conflicted Legacy in the Arab World
The breaking news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination on Sunday night ignited a rebirth of national unity and safety concerns across the United States. Reactions in the Middle East have been all over the map, from surprise, to disbelief, to anger, to vowing revenge, to celebration, to caution. His death dominated regional news, but people weren’t partying in the streets over it.
And now, as his body rests on the bottom of the sea, we’re left to wonder what legacy bin Laden will leave with the Arab world he sought to define.
If the mission were carried out four months ago, bin Laden’s legacy may be a different story. But Tunisia happened, then Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya. “The Arab world is busy with its own big events,” Diaa Rashwan, a deputy director for the Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The New York Times. Where there’s not major upheaval, there are protests, all of which pushed bin Laden from dominating the face of the Arab world to settling as its footnote.
Bin Laden was Orientalism personified and subverted, dividing the East and West by playing on the already existent notion that Americans are strong and Arabs are weak. “After the Cold War was over and America was the only power, he was the only one counter-balancing America,” said Muslim Brotherhood leader Islam Lofty.
He emerged as the underdog hero against the Goliath United States, then triumphed by preying on reactionism, distorting Islam, and pitting Muslims against the rest of the world by giving them a bad name. He was a politician, not a religious leader. Many were worried that he would define outside perceptions of Arabs for future generations. He killed more Muslims than any other person in history, and he justified it by mutilating Islam to support his many mass murders. “This is the fate that evil killers deserve,” declared outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harini.
Two wars later, people realized the inefficiency of violence, younger generations who were children during 9/11 got educated, and the internet connected them with the rest of the so-called “evil” world. If Egypt proved anything, it’s that democratic revolutions produce far more change than any terrorist attack. Now these youths, still under 30, make up three-fifths of the Arab world. “I have a vague recollection [of 9/11],” said 20-year-old Farah Murad, “but it was so long ago.”
In the last months of his life, Bin Laden went from leading man to cameo boy at best, and his name became a threat both Mubarak and Gaddafi used to justify their strongholds amid social unrest in Egypt and Libya.
In Libya, rebels were glad to see him go because Gaddafi’s comments made them suddenly have to prove that they were not members of Al Qaeda. “To hell with him,” one said. Another said that he hoped this might mean a redistribution of American military forces so that there is more reinforcement for the opposition in Libya.
“The most important issue is that this terrorist has been eliminated,” Council on American Islamic Relations executive director Nihad Awad said in a press conference. “And Muslims do not care about the details of how he was buried.”
If bin Laden’s death brings up any doubts amongst moderates in the Middle East, it’s in their skepticism over U.S. support and involvement with Arab dictators and Israel. “Osama bin Laden is a popular charismatic figure for many people,” Islamist activist Marwan Shehadeh said. “They consider Osama bin Laden a model for fighting American hegemony.” But he also believes that bin Laden’s death may mark a shift in how the Arab world deals with foreign and political engagement, from violence to peaceful discourse.
Radicals can pontificate all they want about how God hates the United States, and they can threaten mass attacks, but when solutions aren’t happening at home and as younger generations realize that they’re more educated than these self interest-directed ideologues, the effect of radical Islam starts to wan. Especially when protests achieve far more progress than a suicide mission.
Radical Islam will probably never go away, but like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, it will shrink and its existence will be one of societal shame rather than pride. Someone may rise in power, but al-Qaeda is not as cohesive as it was ten years ago. And while it is loud, it is a marginalized minority in the Arab world, and its inability to compromise with regional changes is gradually crippling its influence.
Middle Easterners don’t want to hate America; they want to take care of themselves and their families. And so bin Laden’s death is not an end, but rather a new chapter.
Arabs still don’t fully trust the West, but “the problem now is not how you can destroy something, how you can resist something, it’s how you can build something new,” said Islamic studies professor Radwan Sayyid. “A new state, a new authority, a new relationship between the public and leadership, a new civil society.”
Photo courtesy of Adam Jones, Ph.D.