By lex, on May 3rd, 2011
The reaction to Osama bin Leaded’s death in the Arab world has been mostly muted; the man whose vision of leading a global caliphate was, at the end of his days, mostly irrelevant to the coreligionists who were to serve as his foot soldiers:
The words were not uncommon in angry Arab capitals a decade ago. Osama bin Laden was hero, sheik, even leader to some. After his death Monday, a man who once vowed to liberate the Arab world was reduced to a footnote in the revolutions and uprisings remaking a region that he and his men had struggled to understand.
Predictably, the reactions ran the gamut Monday — from anger in the most conservative locales of Lebanon to jubilation among Shiite Muslims in Iraq, thousands of whom fell victim to carnage committed in the name of his organization. Some vowed revenge; others expressed disbelief that the man killed was in fact Bin Laden.
But most remarkable perhaps was the sense in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere that Bin Laden was an echo of a bygone time of ossifying divides between West and East, American omnipotence and Arab weakness, dictatorship and powerlessness. In an Arab world where tumult this year has begun to refigure that political arithmetic, it often seemed that the only people in the region citing Bin Laden’s name lately were the mouthpieces of strongmen like the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, evoking his threat as a way to justify clinging to power.
For a man who bore some responsibility for two wars and deepening American involvement from North Africa to Yemen and Iraq, some say his death served as an epitaph for another era. Many in the Arab world, where three-fifths of the population is under 30, recall the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as a childhood memory, if that.
“The Arab world is busy with its own big events, revolutions everywhere,” said Diaa Rashwan, deputy director of the Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Cairo. “Maybe before Tunisia his death might have been a big deal, but not anymore.”
Bin Laden was a dreamer, albeit one whose dreams had a nightmare quality: He would reunite the ummah, humiliate the West, retake al Andalus, unite the world under his green flag. His was only the most extreme vision among those in the Arab Middle East trying to come to grips with modernity, and their own place in it.
Following the colonial period, some Arab nations turned to socialism as an ideology, the Ba’ath of Iraq and Syria principally. The Jordanians and Saudis, among others, allowed themselves to be ruled under the divine right of kings. But in the modern era, neither socialism nor monarchy can form the basis for a well-ordered society, nor satisfy the longings of the masses, and anger at the failings of dictators of one flavor or another had to be directed outward against an external foe: If Israel did not exist, the tyrants would have had to invent her.
Al Qaeda, having thrown one superpower out of Afghanistan with the assistance of another, offered for a time an alternative path to greatness: Jihad.
But the slaughter of Iraqi Shiites by al Qaeda in Iraq – what the NYT, in the heady days of 2007 defeatism, used to call a “mostly homegrown resistance movement which the Pentagon says is led by foreigners” – showed the Arab world where bin Laden’s vision led: To the global caliphate, perhaps – but not without a great deal of certain inter-sectarian bloodshed first, followed by an even more radically tyrannical government after. No thanks, said the rising generation in Tunisia and Egypt.
It is still too soon to know where the Arab Spring will lead, and the Middle East is still a place where optimism goes to die. But it is at least a chance for real change, a chance for one billion people to throw off the dual yokes of oppression and backwardness. The path to that opportunity did not begin in a grocery market south of Tunis. It began in the streets of Falluja, Baghdad and Ramadi, where Osama bin Laden’s dream fought belt to buckle with US soldiers and Marines before bleeding out and perishing, leaving the man himself an anachronistic shadow, hiding in a Pakistani compound, too afraid to take out the trash.
We’ve spent billions in treasure and invaluable quantities of irreplaceable blood to show bin Laden’s followers and sympathizers the hollowness of his vision. It is probably too much to ask for their gratitude, but we can at least hope that this chance too, will not be squandered.