Last Sunday, President Obama announced that a small team of American Special Forces had killed Osama bin Laden and taken his body into custody. Apparently Bin Laden was living in a palatial home not far from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. The news came as a relief and as a satisfaction to Americans who have waited for a decade for justice. Within minutes thousands of Americans were marking the moment by congregating at the White House, at Times Square and ground-zero in New York and other central locations across the nation to celebrate.
Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda were responsible for one of the most heinous crimes in history, a deliberate mass murder of three thousand unarmed civilians. His attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 was a despicable and dastardly act that violated all norms and laws of warfare. The Quran – which teaches that the killing of one innocent person is like killing entire humanity itself (Quran 5:32) — condemned such actions in no uncertain terms. A vast majority of Muslims Scholars and leaders too condemned the act.
A symbolic victory
The killing of Bin Laden in my opinion has tremendous symbolic significance for the United States, but very little substantive value in terms of the struggle against extremism in some parts of the Muslim World.
For many Americans, Obama is easily the most hated man in recent times and his killing, as we approach the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11 comes as a great moral boost. For sometime now, the news from the various battlefields that Americans are engaged in Afghanistan, against extremism, on economy and national debt, and on unemployment has been bad. This news is shot in the arm and will go a long way in restoring the confidence of a nation whose power and whose ability to impact global events is being questioned more often and by more and more people.
Bin Laden’s death at the hands of Americans is a victory, but it is only symbolic since what Bin Laden represents – a violent and vicious effort by some Muslims to seek justice and change for the Muslim World – has already been defeated. Increasingly extremism and terrorism as instruments for change have been rejected overwhelming by Muslims. In Tunisia, Muslims brought change and democracy through a peaceful uprising. The same is true of Muslims who for weeks campaigned peacefully but resolutely for justice, for dignity and for democracy in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
As dictators perish and democracies take birth across the Muslim World, terrorism, extremism, Al Qaeda and Bin Laden have clearly looked more and more irrelevant to the present and the future of the Muslim World. Neither Bin Laden nor Al Qaeda, neither their goals nor their methods have any appeal anymore for the Muslim masses. Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the last frontier of extremism where suicide bombing and opposition to democracy and democracies still prevail.
The Tunisian and Egyptian examples
Because Bin Laden does not inspire Muslims anymore, anywhere, his organization and his ideology are irrelevant and therefore his death is merely a symbolic success but substantively irrelevant.
Terrorism and extremism in the Muslim World is not a consequence of inspirational leadership from Bin Laden. It is because of the enduring reality of unacceptable conditions, poverty, corruption, dictatorships, indignity, and in the case of Palestinians, occupation. Indeed President Bush’s ill advised war in Iraq did more to radicalize Muslims and engender anti-American terrorism than anything Bin Laden did or said. Israel’s policies towards Palestinians still anger Muslims and Bin Laden’s words would have no potency for his would be followers if there were no enduring injustices against Muslims. Bin Laden showed a way to seek change and oppose Western domination and some followed him, because they found the conditions of their societies unacceptable and saw no other way to bring change.
Now with the example of Tunisia and Egypt, whose spectacular success stands in sharp contrast to the horrors that Bin Laden’s way brought to both non-Muslims and Muslims alike; Muslims seeking change will emulate Tunisians and Egyptians. We see this happening in Bahrain, in Yemen, and in Syria already. Bin Laden’s way was murderous and brought shame to Muslims and Islam. The Tunisian and Egyptian way is glorious and brings dignity and pride back to Muslims.
Triumph for Obama
The killing of Bin Laden will certainly improve President Obama’s fortunes at home. This is a triumph for his policy and a reflection of his courage. The decision to send a helicopter with Americans on board into an urban setting in Pakistan, at a time when relations with that nation and its government, specially its military and its intelligence agency are very difficult, was truly gutsy. It would have been a disaster if things had gone wrong.
In future when Republicans accuse him of being soft on national security, or a foreigner who is a threat to American nation, they better remember that Obama achieved in two years what President Bush could not in seven years, bring justice to Bin Laden. Bush was more interested in waging unnecessary wars rather than focusing on the real threat that Al Qaeda and bin Laden presented at that time.
This triumph sends the message that President Obama is a commander-in-chief, who never takes his eyes of the ball.
There might be a limited backlash in Pakistan and Afghanistan as Bin Laden’s supporters seek revenge. They probably cannot strike against Americans and so will strike against whomever they can and wherever they can – meaning Pakistani civilians. The fact that Bin Laden has been living within 60 miles of Islamabad will further complicate US relations with Pakistan, but none of this is new.
We will deal with all that later, for now congratulations to the Special Forces that made this happen, to President Obama for his courageous leadership, and to all American who waited for justice all these years.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His website is www.ijtihad.org.