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The length of Osama’s shadow

Mai Yamani (Debate) / 5 May 2011

Osama bin Laden’s death in his Pakistani hiding place is like the removal of a tumour from the Muslim world. But aggressive follow-up therapy will be required to prevent the remaining Al Qaeda cells from metastasising by acquiring more adherents who believe in violence to achieve the ‘purification’ and empowerment of Islam.

 Fortunately, Bin Laden’s death comes at the very moment when much of the Muslim world is being convulsed by the treatment that Bin Laden’s brand of fanaticism requires: the Arab Spring, with its demands for democratic empowerment (and the absence of demands, at least so far, for the type of Islamic rule that Al Qaeda sought to impose).

But can the nascent democracies being built in Egypt and Tunisia and sought in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, see off the threats posed by extremists? In particular, can it defeat the thought that has long nurtured Osama bin Laden and his ilk, and which remains the professed and protected ideology?

The fact is that before the US operation to kill Bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s symbolic head, the emerging democratic Arab revolutions had already, in just a few short months, done as much to marginalise and weaken his terrorist movement in the Muslim world as the war on terror had achieved in a decade. Those revolutions, whatever their ultimate outcome, have exposed the philosophy and behaviour of Bin Laden and his followers as not only illegitimate and inhumane, but actually inept at achieving better conditions for ordinary Muslims.

What millions of Arabs were saying as they stood united in peaceful protest was that their way of achieving Arab and Islamic dignity is far less costly in human terms. More importantly, their way will ultimately achieve the type of dignity that people really want, as opposed to the unending wars of terror to rebuild the caliphate that Bin Laden promised.

After all, the protesters of the Arab Spring did not need to use – and abuse – the religion to achieve their ends. They took the initiative by peacefully confronting their oppressors. The Arab revolutions mark the emergence of a pluralist banner for the faithful.

Now that the US has eradicated Bin Laden’s physical presence, it needs to stop delaying the rest of the therapeutic process. For the US has been selectively – and short-sightedly – irradiating only parts of the cancer that Al Qaeda represents, while leaving the malignant growth of the ideology untouched.

Bin Laden, born, raised, and educated in Saudi Arabia, is a product of a pervasive ideology. He was no religious innovator; he was a product of the ideology, and later was exported as a jihadist. So the real battle has not been with Bin Laden, but with the ideology factory. Bin Laden merely reflected the entrenched violence of the ideology.

Bin Laden’s eradication may strip some dictators, from Libya’s Muammar el-Gaddafi to Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Al Saleh, of the main justification they have used for their decades of repression.

But the US knows perfectly well that Al Qaeda is an enemy of convenience for Saleh and other American allies in the region, and that in many cases, terrorism has been used as a pretext to repress reform. Indeed, now the US is encouraging repression of the Arab Spring in Yemen and elsewhere, where official security forces routinely kill peaceful protesters calling for democracy and human rights.

Al Qaeda and democracy cannot coexist. Indeed, Bin Laden’s death should open the international community’s eyes to the source of his movement: repressive regimes and their extremist ideologies. Otherwise, his example will continue to haunt the world.

Mai Yamani’s most recent book is Cradle of Islam© Project Syndicate

 
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