By Andrew M. Mwenda
Bin Laden argued that to end local tyranny, Muslims should fight American first; Cairo and Tunis proved him wrong
On Monday, I walked into the studios of Capital FM for my morning radio show only to see breaking news on television that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. I just wept with joy. Coincidentally, on Sunday evening I had been arguing with a friend that Osama was going to get killed or captured because the raison detre for his terrorism had been eliminated by the success of democratic revolutions in the Middle East.
That Bin Laden has been killed after the success of democratic revolutions in the Middle East is not a coincidence. I suspect the two are linked. These revolutions have exposed the hollowness of his vision to the Islamic world – that Muslims can rid themselves of local tyrants through civil protests without fighting America and killing and maiming innocent civilians. The success of civil protests to overcome tyranny undermined the religious and ideological appeal of Al Qaeda’s vision and rendered it inevitable and even necessary for some Muslims to betray him to the Americans.
As is always its wont, the American government took full credit for the killing of Bin Laden. Of course tactically, it was an American victory especially because the forces involved in the operation were American. However, looked at strategically, the killing of Bin Laden was largely (not entirely) possible because those educated youths who brought down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia and are threatening so many other despots in Syria, Yemen, etc had rendered Bin Laden’s message of fighting America as rearguard action against local tyranny irrelevant and misguided.
Many Arabs had always believed, and correctly so, that the success of entrenched autocrats in their countries was largely because of American patronage. Bin Laden tapped into this belief and used it as a justification for his war. He dressed it in the language of identity arguing it was a conspiracy of the Christian West to cripple Islam. But when American propped dictators began falling one by one, the air was sucked out of Bin Laden’s ideological balloon.
Bin Laden had argued that the existence of local tyranny in the Arab world was because of American support. That was of course true. He then argued that to local tyranny Arabs and Muslims needed to fight American first; and the mode of struggle was to be indiscriminate violence. That is where his vision became not only misleading but also disempowering.
As the events in Egypt, Tunisia and increasingly Yemen are demonstrating, local tyrants can be brought down in spite of American support for them. In fact, America had no idea that a widespread democratic revolution was in the making in the region. American “experts” had been writing books and academic papers on how Arab or even Islamic culture was inherently anti-democratic. Now we know they were wrong!
Bin Laden’s message was misdirecting the anger of Arab youth from the primary enemy (local tyranny) to a secondary one (the foreign patron). Secondly, his message was misleading Arab youths to fight an enemy they could not defeat instead of focusing on the one over whom they could prevail. Therefore, although subjectively an opponent of American propped despots in the Middle East, Bin Laden was objectively their ally. By focusing the mind of Arab youth on an enemy they could not defeat, he allowed local tyrants to consolidate their positions by exploiting US fears to get American money and support to crack down on dissent. When youth in Tunisia and Egypt brought America’s allies down, it was clear that Bin Laden’s vision had hit a dead end.
Therefore, the death of Bin Laden brings two important developments; it destroys the symbol of global terrorism thus sucking vital energy out of the movement. Of course Bin Laden had long been crippled organisationally. His role was primarily to be a source of inspiration. That is now gone. The most important development, however, has been the fact that the democratic movements in the Middle East are turning youths’ attention from the vision of Al Qaeda to one of civil protest in shaping their destiny.
There is the danger that Bin Laden’s death will invigorate Al Qaeda especially in its search for revenge. This can only work in the short term. The long term basis of Al Qaeda has cut down on the streets of Cairo and Tunis. It is not America that is the biggest threat to Al Qaeda and its cousin, political Islam; instead it is the success of democratic movements in the Middle East.
The frustrated youths who always sought inspiration in Al Qaeda can now get it from their own efforts on the streets. Cairo and Tunis demonstrated that terror is not the weapon of choice and Bin Laden is not the messiah of the Arab or Islamic world. Education, technology and the willingness to employ them civically is the way to go. Therefore, Bin Laden was politically dead before he was physically killed. It was therefore saddening that Obama did not say anything about this development in his speech.
Al Qaeda was surviving on a specific ideology, a specific set of domestic and global factors which have changed. Events in the Arab world have shown young people there that their destiny is in their hands and they can shape the political future of their countries without the support of America. People are feeling empowered and are now optimistic about the future.
Having been unable to predict, support or even stop the democratic movement in the Arab world, America, France and Britain have now jumped on the bandwagon to claim some victory – in Libya. As is their wont, they are pretending that the salvation of the people of that sorry country from the tyranny of Col. Muammar El Gaddafi will come from London, Paris and Washington. They are thus bombing Libyans to democracy.
American and Britain have been trying to impose democracy on Iraq with disastrous consequences – over 650,000 innocent civilians have died in this vain effort. Iraq remains a patchwork of sectarian warfare. Although less violence, it is certainly not democratic. The people of Egypt and Tunisia who decided to act for themselves are laying a better foundation for their countries. American has only accepted a faint accompli.