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Bin Ladin: Death and Opportunity

By Hassan I. Mneimneh

He lived by the fire, and died by the fire. Almost ten years after the millennial terrorist act that made him the arch-villain for most, but still a hero for some, Usamah Bin Ladin is dead. While its circumstances will undoubtedly remain obscure, his death carries considerable symbolic value, and ought to serve as an impetus to move forward in global relations. However, a concerted effort is needed not to let the extreme expressions of jubilation and frustration to be used to widen a rift between cultures and societies.

As a result of persistent pressure by the US intelligence and military services, Bin Ladin and the historical leadership of al-Qa‘idah have had to abandon all operational functions and have been confined, for the last few years, to the role of figureheads of their movement. Furthermore, the movement itself, united by ideology and methodology, but lacking sustainable organizational structures, had morphed from the centralized global action model that it had originally adopted to a loose network of regional and local affiliates, each with limited capacity and questionable approaches. By the end of last year, security forces and social actors had reduced or marginalized virtually all of these affiliates. Only through spectacular (but thankfully rarely successful) terrorist plots, were some of these satellite organizations able to maintain some presence in the media space, insuring a continued viability, albeit at a minimum level, for the al-Qa‘idah franchise. The transformations sweeping the Arab world since the beginning of the year had, as a by-product, relegated the al-Qa‘idah movement to its true status as inconsequential to the historical thrust of the region. The death of Bin Ladin may paradoxically re-endow its cause with some visibility. The potential to re-tailor some of the elements of the al-Qa‘idah core message to the current situation does exist. In light of its thoroughly tainted record of murder and mayhem, however, al-Qa‘idah is unlikely to gain prominence or permanence again.

It is impossible to dissociate the image of Bin Ladin from that of the September 11th, 2001 attacks that left nearly three thousand people dead, triggering multiple conflicts with countess further victims, plunging the world into a new era of distrust and enmity, and depleting precious resources that could have been used to address shared issues over concerns of security and safety. It is hard to imagine a future objective reading of history that would show sympathy to Bin Ladin and his movement.

Still, stripping it of its theological coating and rampant discursive incoherence, the Bin Ladin message contained two basic elements that commanded some appeal amongst its target audience: (1) that the West ought to leave the lands of Islam alone, ending decades if not centuries of meddling and exploitation; and (2) that the West is hypocritical in its practice of the values of human rights that it preaches, engaging—sometimes with subsequent useless apologies and mea culpas, often with none—in actions that cause the suffering and death for the multitude, while proclaiming its indignation and right for a “morally” justified counter-action when suitable to its interests. Bin Ladin and his supporters thus viewed the homicidal endeavors of al-Qa‘idah as retribution in kind that does not adhere to any false moral claim. “As long as you make us suffer, we will make you suffer” was a proposition that seemed for many to carry innate legitimacy, even when the actual terrorism of al-Qa‘idah was denounced.

The fallacies upon which these two elements are based can be expounded at length. In brief, the proposed dichotomy between the West and Islam is an arbitrary postulation, obfuscating respective internal differences and cross-domain affinities, and reducing complex histories into linear agencies. The dismissal of the delicate interplay between values and interests in the formulation and implementation of the policies of Western players is evidently selective, and furthermore constitutes an actual license for al-Qa‘idah to kill with no restrictions, under the guise of a “non-hypocritical” approach.

Any critical assessment notwithstanding, the attractiveness of these two elements is heightened by the occasional seemingly callous disregard on the part of Western media and government of the human dimensions of actions against valid enemies. The recent death of Qaddafi's son—a participant in the Libyan tragedy—was accompanied by a widely unacknowledged killing of children. Similarly, Usamah Bin Ladin did not die alone. Many members of his family, including women and children, were also reportedly killed in the operation.

The pronouncements of President Obama, asserting that the war is not one with Islam, may be able to frame the conflict, on the record, for the US narrative. Many across the Muslim world are more attentive to the spontaneous and vocal reactions in US society and culture. It is hoped and expected that the United States will indeed live up, as it had done before, to its proclaimed ideals. Freedom of speech dictates that the public space accommodates even the most inconsiderate of statements. Putative critics of the United States are invited to consider the whole range of reactions, including those that qualify and object to such statements. The death of Bin Ladin is a momentous event. Reactions to events of this magnitude are bound to spread across the spectrum of rationality and even civility.

For the United States, the Muslim world, and the global community as a whole, the death of Bin Ladin presents an opportunity. Now that the confessed main culprit is no longer of this world, shall we all be able to turn the page of the September 11th attacks? Bin Ladin has been irrelevant in the Muslim world many times over. Still, he was able to set much of the international agenda by forcing reactions and expenditures. A sober and careful engagement with the statements and positions in the aftermath will spare us all the unneeded resurgence, however ephemeral, of retributive impulses.

Hassan I. Mneimneh is the Director of the Center for Global Engagement at the Institute for American Values.

May 2, 2011