Death of Bin Laden Doesn’t Move Middle East: Isobel Coleman

In the U.S., Osama bin Laden’s killing by Navy Seals has brought celebrations and feelings of victory and justice. But the al-Qaeda leader’s demise likely holds more media impact than real-life significance. While he remains an important symbol to some, his global relevance diminished long before his death.

In the Middle East, news of bin Laden’s end came mostly with a whimper. The reaction has largely been ambivalence and even indifference. Yes, there are groups mourning and honoring him: Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniya, condemned the “assassination” and prayed bin Laden’s soul would rest in peace, and an ex-Hezbollah chief, Sheikh Sobhi al-Tufayli, was quoted as mourning the al-Qaeda leader’s demise. Others in the region, as elsewhere, have questioned whether his death is real.

Overall, an understated sense of good riddance prevails. Across the Middle East, students, shopkeepers and people on the streets have been dismissive of the news. Bin Laden’s narrative of grievance and victimization feels more remote than ever today as Arabs seek to grab hold of their future.

Bin Laden’s vision, if it can be called that, was for Muslims to achieve glory by restoring the Caliphate. He called for a return to some mythical 7th century golden era that in fact has very little appeal to the vast majority of Muslims. Yet the spectacular destruction wrought on 9/11, combined with his fiery anti-American hectoring, gave him a strong Q rating.

Image Versus Reality

He was great on television. The carefully cultivated images of his Spartan existence in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, leading a successful insurgency against the Soviets and then long defying the U.S., were seared into Arab and Muslim minds. For a time, he became a 21st century Islamic Che Guevara, with telegenic appeal trumping ideology.

Al-Qaeda’s mass killings of Muslims, however, exposed the organization as the murderous nihilists they are. The November 2005 bombing of a wedding party in Amman, the numerous attacks on Iraqis that left thousands dead, and indiscriminate al-Qaeda violence throughout Pakistan and other countries turned many against the movement.

The fact that bin Laden was found living in comfort rather than in some mountain hideout further undermines his ascetic image -- which peaked years ago, anyway. According to the Pew Arab polls, confidence in bin Laden among Muslims decreased in every country surveyed across the greater Middle East from 2003 to 2011. In several countries, majority approval in 2003 plunged to the teens or single digits by 2011.

Source of Jihadism

No country surveyed had a positive net change over those eight years. Even in the Palestinian territories, where approval was highest, the total change was from 72 percent confidence in 2003 to 34 percent in 2011.

Of course, it was the Middle East’s (particularly Saudi Arabia’s) many political and social discontents -- authoritarianism, lack of education, lack of job opportunities, lack of freedom -- that helped produce jihadism and al-Qaeda in the first place. Having rejected bin Laden’s message, young people in the Arab world are seeking a new way forward.

Rather than advocating violence and pledging allegiance to a medieval code of sharia, leaders of the Arab Spring have called for democracy based on greater freedom, pluralism and opportunity.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, women have been widely active in protest movements -- certainly a far cry from bin Laden’s vision of keeping them in silent purdah. In Egypt, Christians and Muslims joined together in opposition to dictatorship, flatly repudiating bin Laden’s Manichaean distinction between the righteous and the infidels.

Al-Qaeda can continue to pose a security threat, but it was never an alternative. Far from leading the Arab and Muslim worlds toward a clash of civilizations, bin Laden will become a footnote to the broader story of regional transformation.

(Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow and director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations.)

To contact the writer of this column: Isobel Coleman at icoleman@cfr.org

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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