History’s jury on Osama Bin Laden is still out


The court of public opinion and the media have rendered their verdict on Osama Bin Laden: a terrorist responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people and a failed, marginalized leader whom history shoved to the sidelines.

History has yet to pronounce its verdict on the lasting legacy of the Al Qaeda leader, who was killed by US Navy Seals in a raid on his hideout in a Pakistani town on May 1.

The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington parachuted Bin Laden to the dubious position of being the world’s most wanted man with a $25 million bounty on his head. They constitute history’s most deadly terrorist attacks and the first such incident on US soil.

No terrorist acts in post-World War II history reshaped international diplomatic and communal relations for more than a decade, as did the deadly crashing of passenger planes into public buildings on 9/11. History’s jury, however, on the degree to which that reshaping is irreversible is still out.

Bin Laden’s death has aggravated the disarray within the ranks of Al Qaeda; the mass anti- government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa represent a resounding repudiation of Bin Laden’s violence and vision of a puritan Islamic state that would replace the region’s authoritarian regimes.

Yet, 9/11, at least temporarily, rewrote the nature of relations between the West and the Muslim world, revived Christian-Muslim prejudices that date back to the siege of Vienna; it sparked a review of European immigration policies and Western attitudes toward minorities; and it allowed governments to strengthen security at the expense of personal freedom.

The lasting impact of this has yet to be established, and is likely to be influenced by the fate of the Al Qaeda leader’s jihadism. Bin Laden’s warped interpretation of jihad and his willingness to sacrifice the lives of thousands of innocent people is ideologically and organizationally on the defensive.

To be sure, Al Qaeda has vowed retaliation for his death and the group’s affiliates in various parts of the world, including the Gulf, North Africa, Somalia and the Indonesian archipelago maintain significant operational capability.

But the consequences of Al Qaeda operations on international diplomatic and communal relations remain in flux and have yet to settle down:

Western-Muslim relations: The 9/11 attacks sparked soul-searching among their victims in a way that no other terrorist attack prompted victims to wonder whether their governments’ policies might not have been partly responsible for the carnage. Within weeks of the attacks, then US President George W. Bush concluded that Al Qaeda was a product of US support for authoritarian Arab regimes in a bid to maintain stability in a key geo-strategic and volatile part of the world. In response, Mr. Bush launched an ill-conceived, half-hearted effort to persuade Arab leaders to politically and economically liberalize their societies.

The issue of liberalization in the Arab world has been thrown into renewed sharp relief by this year’s anti-government protests that have toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, thrown Libya, Syria and Yemen into crisis and produced simmering tensions in countries across a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf.

The West’s response to the protests has shown commitment to democracy in the region to be opportunistic, skin-deep. The response seems more motivated by a desire for stability and continuity than by an understanding that the emergence of states governed by law and order and the will of the people—even if that is one critical of Western policies—would produce a more healthy and stable web of diplomatic relations that ultimately would serve Western interests far better.

The United States and its allies backed by the United Nations have imposed a no-fly zone on Libya in a bid to level the battlefield between Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces and rebels seeking to oust him. But the US and Europe have backed away from demanding the resignation of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who is brutally cracking down on protesters. The Western powers fear Syria could destabilize into chaos that would affect neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. They are uncertain who might succeed the Syrian leader. Similarly, the West has remained silent about the crushing of the revolt in Bahrain and calls for change elsewhere in the Gulf.

In short, much and at the same time little, has changed as a result of Bin Laden’s violent campaign in relations between the West and Muslim states.

Christian-Muslim relations: Bin Laden’s puritan vision of Islam and concept of jihad sparked a global debate on Islam’s compatibility with pluralism and democracy. It revived deep-seated, theologically founded Christian prejudice, fuelled efforts to progress inter-faith dialogue and prompted soul-searching within Islam itself.

This year’s anti-government protests have begun to swing the pendulum of Christian-Muslim relations back to the center with their emphasis on non-violence and the fact that religion as a political force plays at best a minor role in the uprising. Recent anti-Christian violence in Egypt, post-revolution Egypt’s adoption of a more pro-Palestinian foreign policy and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a potent political force have done little to stop the pendulum from swinging back.

If anything, Christian-Muslim inter-faith relations, albeit slowly, are being molded on a healthier keel, anchored more in mutual respect rather than on Bin Laden’s Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders.

European immigration policy: The 9/11 attacks sounded an initial death knell for European concepts of multiculturalism designed to define the place in European society of millions of primarily Muslim immigrants, many of whom had been invited in the 1960s as guest workers.
Followed by attacks on the public transportation systems in London and Madrid and the killing in public in Amsterdam of a controversial intellectual, they raised the specter of Muslim minorities becoming a jihadist fifth wheel.

In its most extreme form, the attacks prompted governments in some European countries to attempt to force Muslim assimilation by banning what Europeans saw as Islam’s most offensive rejection of Western values: the wearing in public by women of a headdress that covered all but their eyes.

All in all, however, the attacks instead of pitting Muslims against Christians, spurred governments and communities to seek an accommodation that would empower Muslim minorities as full participants and members of Western society while retaining their religious and cultural identity.

Government, societies and minorities have yet to reach a mutually satisfactory understanding, but one thing is clear: the post-9/11 decade may be remembered by European Muslims as one of having been subjected to at times intrusive and unfair scrutiny—but it will not go down in history as one that positioned the community as Al Qaeda’s bridgehead in the West.

National security vs. personal freedom: For much of the past decade, Americans and Europeans and others across the globe accepted the encroachment of the state on their personal lives as the price to be paid for enhanced protection from terrorism.

One need only think of the reshaping of air travel and the ever more intrusive security checks, legislation like the Patriot Act in the United States that significantly broadened government’s powers at the expense of personal freedom and the de facto public acceptance of racial profiling.

Al Qaeda’s threat to avenge the death of its charismatic leader promises renewed acts of terrorism. Yet, those are likely to be the death throes of a movement and an ideology that increasingly finds itself publicly repudiated, internationally condemned and incapable of adjusting to the changing course of history.

To be sure, political violence is a fixture of human history. But as the threat of jihadism recedes with no emerging force of non-state violence capable of filling its shoes, the need for sacrificing personal freedoms is likely to be called into question.

History’s verdict on the lasting legacy of Bin Laden may still be out. It is, however, becoming increasingly clear that the Al Qaeda leader could well prove to be more of a footnote in history than a figure that truly changed its course. If so, that would be a fitting verdict.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])