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What Does Osama bin Ladin’s Death Mean?

May 3, 2011

This cartoon from a 2002 issue of the magazine Caricature portrays the US entering a labyrinth as we seek to find Osama bin Ladin

“Who cares?”

“It’s about time.”

“So now the US can get out of Afghanistan?”

Those are some of the responses I received when I queried Egyptian friends about what they thought of Osama bin Ladin’s death.

I did not plan on blogging about this but I am getting requests from students to share my thoughts, so here goes.

For most of those living in the Middle East, Osama bin Ladin’s death means little or nothing. Osama bin Ladin was never popular with most Egyptians, and whatever popularity he may have had has been extinguished by the blood of tens of thousands of Muslims who have died as a result of Al-Qaida actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Muslim Brotherhood denounced the killing of bin Ladin not because they laud the Al-Qaida leader–who had long condemned their renunciation of violence–but because they said he should have been captured and given a fair trial (to be fair, according the the Pentagon that was the mission, but he put up such a strong resistance they were forced to shoot him).

The problems that Osama bin Ladin denounced–US military bases in the Middle East, secular dictators supported by Western money and arms, Israeli attacks on Palestinians, Western economic dominance–are problems that continue to bother most people in the Middle East. But bin Ladin’s narrative of why these problems plague the Middle East and how to overcome them has mostly been consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Al-Qaida narrative described the purity of an Islamic Caliphate in which justice and holiness could take root and thrive defiled and usurped by the West, first through Colonialism, whose last gasp was the creation of the Israeli state, and then by the rise of Western modernist ideologies, Liberal western versus Soviet, whose irrelevant battles against one another played out on the canvas of the Islamic world, leading to oppression, loss of agency and autonomy, economic dislocation, and rising immorality. Efforts to overthrow the dictatorships of the Middle East were doomed because they were backed by powerful states in Western Europe and North America, most importantly the United States.

All this had been said before by other Middle Eastern militants. What the Al-Qaida ideologues offered was the notion that the US and its allies were vulnerable, and that it was not unjust to attack them in their own territory. My student Mourad, who was in 2002 an Osama bin Ladin sympathizer, explained it to me thus: While most interpretations of shari’ah would accept defensive war against military and political targets, but condemn the killings of civilians, Al-Qaida argued that because the US is a democracy, all citizens are by definition, political targets. As voters, we bear responsibility for the actions of our government in ways citizens of autocracies do not.

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and to a lesser extent those elsewhere in the region, are a denial of this doctrine. They are demonstrations that collective action in the Middle East by citizens who are willing to put their lives on the line for freedom, can overcome the apparently overwhelming force of the dictatorships.

There are others for whom this death has more significant meaning.

In the United States, it is a culmination of ten years of war in Afghanistan, a final retribution for the man credited with planning and ordering the 9/11 attacks. That it happened a few months before the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers gives it a special poignance. But it will certainly become a politically controversial sign, as the Obama administration takes credit for leadership, while the opposition seeks to undermine that claim. And much will depend on whether, and how, bin Ladin’s

Supporters of Osama bin Ladin, in Al-Qaida and other organizations, have lost a significant symbol. While bin Ladin is probably not very important any more to Al-Qaida operations, his ability to continuously elude the most powerful country on earth was a powerful symbol. Bin Ladin was, without doubt, the face of global terrorism.

The death also signals a loss of an important unifying symbol. While Ayman al-Zawahiri (who is Egyptian) will almost certainly take over, and there are plenty of potential leaders in the  Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, and other local branches, no one has the charisma and biography Osama had.

Before he ever created Al-Qaida, some people saw Osama bin Laden as a kind of folk hero.  As they saw him, he was a millionaire from a family of millionaires, who’d risked – and lost – his wealth in a struggle for independence and democracy against a despotic Saudi monarchy.  Fleeing to the Sudan, he’d rebuilt his fortune by helping build this ravaged country, only to suffer further persecution at the hands of the Saudis and their American allies.  Instead of retiring to some quiet place to live off his wealth, he’d used that money to help one of the world’s poorest Muslim countries fight for freedom from atheistic Russian invaders.  This bin Laden is the kind of man many upper class Egyptians wish they had the courage to be.  Even Ronald Reagan had called the mujahideen led by bin Laden heroes. Nobody in the movement has that kind of back story.

“They are all just criminals,” Mourad said

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