The death of Osama bin Laden rightly brings to Americans a sense of justice, even revenge. But the death of the world’s most wanted man is more than payback for the past.
It instead suggests that ideology may be changing in the Arab world. Bin Laden’s ideology of death ― for Americans, Europeans, Arabs and others ― was a reaction to the misery to which many Arabs were consigned in the modern world. But other ideologies have taken root in the Arab world before and now ― perhaps ― yet another will move in to supplant al-Qaida’s culture of death.
First, it needs to be said: Nobody deserved being killed as richly as bin Laden. Well before the nightmare of 9/11, bin Laden had killed innocents in Africa, not to mention Americans in embassies and aboard the USS Cole. After 9/11 he and al-Qaida killed Britons in London, Spaniards in Madrid, Australians and Indonesians in Bali, Filipinos ― and fellow Arabs.
Al-Qaida was a perversion of Islam, built upon projecting blame for misery ― largely upon the West and namely upon America, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright ably describes in his book “The Looming Tower.” It deftly averted its gaze from the corruption of local ruling elites and proposed just one solution: mass murder. Bin Laden’s ideology was practically nihilistic of the world and one that preferred death, dressed up as heaven, to life.
Al-Qaida’s track record perfectly reflects this Grim Reaper worldview. Certainly, 3,000 Americans perished on 9/11; an unspeakable tragedy that unfolded out of a clear, late summer sky on the East Coast. The reason, as Wright described in his book and to me personally a few years ago, was that bin Laden wanted to draw America into a war in the Middle East, so that more people would continue to die. The ill-conceived invasion of Iraq was precisely the war and the carnage that he wanted.
But as the years wore on, Arabs increasingly were the people killed ― not just by Americans but by al-Qaida. A West Point study found that non-Westerners were 38 times more likely to be killed by al-Qaida than were Westerners. Between 2004 and 2008, for instance, al-Qaida attacks killed 3,013 people; only about 12 percent were Westerners. The study’s authors wrote: “Since al-Qaida has limited capability to strike against its Western enemies, the group maintains its relevance by attacking countries with Muslim majorities.”
But bin Laden’s ideology was powerful because it was a mad vision built upon a single kernel of truth. The globalized world that emerged from the Cold and Gulf Wars meant that the vast majority of Arabs were indeed doomed to earthly lives of privation and misery both by the globalized world, and by their local rulers whether dictators, kings or presidents. And of course, local rulers were all too glad to see scapegoats made from Westerners, as opposed to themselves.
Now the vision of the Arab street is fixed upon them, though resentment of the West lingers, of course. This is the inflection point at which history now finds itself. The local rulers in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya now find themselves the focus of the rage and the reason is simple. Many of them attempted to engage with globalization by reforming their economies, essentially restructuring them so they had banking systems that allowed them to steal more. And that collided with the imbalance of global fuel and food supplies, setting off the Arab revolution.
Terrorism will remain a threat, certainly. But ideology is changing in the Arab world. Liberalism discredited itself through its cozy relationship with colonialism. Pan Arab nationalism was defeated in the wars with Israel. Extremist, violent Islamicism has now played itself out over 20 years. It may, in fact, finally be briefly spent not merely by bin Laden’s death but by its seeming irrelevance in the Arab revolution.
The hope ― which is never a strategy ― is that there is now a brief opening for a truly indigenous Arab liberalism to grow. That is much easier said than realized. In addition to Syria and Libya, there are two giant blank spots on the new map that is being unrolled: Saudi Arabia and Iran. No regime in the region better represents the very thing that is most reviled than the one in Riyadh. Whether the fundamentalism at the core of the Iranian Revolution has run its course is an open question, too.
Of course, ideologies in the Middle East have only given way to each other hand-in-hand with death. It may, for instance, be necessary for NATO to kill Moammar Gadhafi, as it apparently tried to do, just as it was vital for the United States to kill bin Laden. But better a handful of violent killers than the thousands or millions they would conspire to kill.
By Richard Parker
Richard Parker is a former defense correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, the former associate publisher of The New Republic and has twice been the visiting professional in journalism at the University of Texas in Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ― Ed.
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)