America and Islam After bin Laden
For the families of those lost to the senseless slaughter Osama bin Laden inspired, his passing may bring some relief. Yet it remains to be seen if bin Laden's demise marks a turning point in the struggle against violent extremism. Since the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda's pathological program has cast a long shadow over the relationship between one and a half billion Muslims and the world's only superpower. We must contend with bin Laden's toxic bequest if we are not to be haunted by his ghost.
Bin Laden hoped to spark a worldwide conflagration between America and Islam. A master propagandist, he posed the following question: if the United States was oppressing Muslims by colonizing their lands and working hand in glove with corrupt and brutal local elites, then why wasn't violent 'resistance' acceptable? And if Jihad against the West meant that civilians were targets, then that was acceptable because 'they' were killing 'our' innocents, too.
The good news is that bin Laden's plan failed. If many Muslims nodded their heads at bin Laden's criticism of U.S. policies, almost none accepted his gory remedy. Whatever their beliefs, most people are not roving mass murderers, eager to uproot themselves from kith and kin in order to join a medieval Jihad.
Of course, Western cities have witnessed al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism after September 11. But only a handful of extremists have participated in these plots. Even Pakistan, an al-Qaeda stronghold, boasts no more than a few hundred fighters.
Yet if bin Laden failed as a political entrepreneur, he was supremely successful as an ideological provocateur. He convinced many people that Islam and the West were destined to clash.
The spectacular savagery wreaked by bin Laden's acolytes on September 11 has inevitably defined Islam in the American imagination. Words like 'Jihad' and 'Sharia,' ripped out of their original contexts and defiled by their association with terrorism, have become synonymous with barbarity. Terrorist plots in the years after September 11 have only reinforced negative perceptions, while suspicion of Islam has been exploited by some right-wing political activists. Bin Laden and his disciples have reduced the complex lives of one and a half billion people to a threatening metaphysical abstraction.
At the same time, anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world has increased. Longstanding policies - such as Washington's support for Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians - have always been grist to the anti-American mill. But a new generation views the United States through the prism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq, in particular - waged against a regime which posed no threat to the United States (even if it was ruled by a brutal tyrant) - fueled Muslim cynicism about American designs in the Middle East. Finally, the gruesome pictures at Abu Ghraib played into the worst anti-American stereotypes.
In the midst of this ferment, the fact that the United States was threatened by violent extremists was mostly ignored in the Middle East. Instead, widely accepted conspiracy theories denied the very existence of such a threat.
Interrupting the vicious cycle set in place by bin Laden will take work. In the United States, bin Laden's death has created a unique opportunity to reevaluate the war on terror. If a small team of counter-terrorism operatives can dispose of the world's most prominent terrorist, then the utility of landing massive numbers of troops in Muslim countries needs to be reconsidered. It is important to deny safe haven to extremists, but the United States cannot prop up failing states everywhere - especially when prolonged occupation reinforces pernicious anti-Western narratives.
On the other hand, salvaging Islam from bin Laden's defamation requires a generational effort from Muslims. They must proactively wrest their faith from the poisoned claws of Osama's successors. Narratives that pivot on conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism are self defeating; Muslim societies must accept responsibility for their destiny if they are to progress.
This is already starting to happen. In recent months, non-violent movements have toppled or severely weakened autocratic regimes across large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. Arab youth have effectively stolen al-Qaeda's revolutionary thunder - best of all, they have done so without spouting obscure religious rhetoric or anti-Americanism. The future of Islam depends on whether these gains can be expanded across the wider Muslim world. If America uses its diplomatic and economic power astutely over the next decade, it can help Muslims drive the final nail in al-Qaeda's coffin.