in the aftermath…#4

6 World Trade Center

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This, the final post in the series, speaks directly to how Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda came to undermine their own efforts in waging war against America. They like others who use their own people as pawns to acquire what they desire, at any expense, proverbially “shot themselves in the foot” and “cut off their noses to spite their faces.” How is it that many with power feel they can forever hold an axe to their victims’ necks, without realizing the possibility, however slim, that the axe will ricochet cutting off the head of the one wielding it? I think working at long-term compromise to satisfy everyone’s needs is truly better for everyone’s health, welfare… and survival. Easier said than done…but worth a try. Better than the alternative…don’t you think? 

The Slaughter That Muslims Could Not Ignore
by Reuel Marc Gerecht

Like all fundamentalists, Osama bin Laden was attuned to the past. When his speeches weren’t about the economic decline of America, they recalled Islam’s classical age, especially the rise of the Prophet Muhammad through the Rashidun (“rightly-guided”) period, which ended in 661.

Bin Laden saw himself as an Islamic Martin Luther: a protestant who was willing to go to war with the Muslim world‘s Westernized, U.S.-aided kings and presidents-for-life. He hoped to arouse, by the strength of his example, a global movement that would drive the U.S., the cutting edge of the West, out of the Muslim world. Showing American feebleness would bring the inevitable collapse of the unrighteous and the restoration of a more virtuous age.

He sustained himself for so long in the Middle East and Central Asia because lots of Muslims–especially in powerful places in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan–were sympathetic to his cause. For a time, he tapped into an angry, shameful intellectual current among Muslims, who after World War II were increasingly immiserated by their ever more lawless rulers. 

The Westernized police-states (Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) and the corrupt “Playboy” monarchies (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, Jordan and Morocco) all became breeding grounds for violent fundamentalism. And even among most Muslims, who did not drink deeply of this creed, the spiritual depression and conspiracy-mongering of these societies made bin Laden an admired celebrity, if not a hero, since he at least scared and hurt the all-powerful United States and openly belittled the detested autocrats.

Muhammad: The Last Prophet

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Historically, Islamic societies have had a fairly high tolerance for the use of violence for a just cause. Bin Laden knew well the line of thought that sees rebellion against unjust rulers as a moral obligation. This was a defining theme of early Islamic history, when Muslims as a community wrestled with what constituted legitimate authority after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Among the Arabs, Princeton’s Michael Cook has written, “political and military participation were very widely spread, far more so than in the mainstream of human societies–whether those of the steppe nomads, the later Islamic world, or the modern West. It was the fusion of this egalitarian and activist tribal ethos with the monotheist tradition that gave Islam its distinctive political character. In no other civilization was rebellion for conscience sake so widespread as it was in the early centuries of Islamic history; no other major religious tradition has lent itself to revival as a political ideology–and not just a political identity–in the modern world.”

Twin Towers, New York

Image by Guillaume Cattiaux via Flickr

Bin Laden, who believed that only the most virtuous had the right to rule over the community, was undone by his love of violence. He pushed it too far: Slaughtering innocent Africans in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 was tolerable since the targets were American embassies (and black Muslim Africans were too far from the Arab world to compel a scathing moral critique). Killing American sailors on the USS Cole in the port of Aden was praiseworthy since no modern Muslim power had ever so humbled an American man-of-war. And destroying the Twin Towers and punching a hole in the Pentagon was just astonishing.

But then came the slaughter that could not be ignored, as al Qaeda affiliates started killing in Muslim lands. The suicide bombers who hit Casablanca in 2003 and Amman in 2005 made an impact. But the war in Iraq was bin Laden’s great moral undoing.

Iraq was supposed to be where al Qaeda and other “good Muslims” broke the American back. Instead the carnage there, carried in all its gore by Arabic satellite channels, produced a backlash. There was a limit to the number of Shiite women and children that Sunni Arabs could see murdered. Blowing up hospitals, mosques and shrines–even Shiite ones–became too ghastly to sublimate into an acceptable war against the Americans.

Al Qaeda had helped to provoke one of the worst bloodlettings in contemporary Arab history. Voices within Islam began to rise against its ruthlessness. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s intellectual, knew that his kind had gone too far but there was little that he or bin Laden could do once the jihadist beast had been let loose.

In Iraq, al Qaeda effectively became a takfiri movement: Holy warriors “legitimately” slaughtered other Muslims because they deemed them no longer Muslim but kuffar, infidels, who may be killed in conflict. Bloody takfiri movements can outlast one inspirational leader, but they never win.

It’s entirely possible that if the Taliban win in Afghanistan, al Qaeda could get a new lease on life. The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban movements have absorbed much of the ideology that ignited al Qaeda in the early 1990s. The operational support–free passage and refuge–that Iran gave to al Qaeda before and after 9/11 is probably still there if al Qaeda can organize itself into an effective strike force, especially against Saudi Arabia. And Zawahiri has long been Tehran’s favorite Sunni holy warrior. He certainly has the ability and perhaps the means to maintain al Qaeda’s global networks.

Libyan community protest in Dublin (3)

Image by Tom Szustek via Flickr

But networks must be nourished. If this spring’s great Arab Revolt continues–if the brutalized societies of the Middle East can establish more lawful, representative governments, if their ethics can recover from the years of powerlessness, shame and conspiracy–then al Qaeda will surely lose its future among the Arabs.

It may raise its head now and then. If it could get its hands on the right type of weapons and the deranged young men to use them, it could still kill on an impressive scale. But the group will most likely wither, perhaps rapidly, as Sunni Arabs construct a moral universe in which militants cn no longer compellingly call upon Islamic history to justify rebellion. Bin Laden understandably loathed democracy: It’s the end of the political and ethical order where his world makes sense.

(Mr. Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is the author of “The Wave: Man, God and the Ballot Box in the Middle East”-Hoover, 2011.)

in the aftermath…#3

The following is from the perspective of an American Muslim, someone who straddles 2 worlds, seemingly able to opine both sides of the argument. It’s an opinion I’d not really come across before, and thought it worth sharing. The author imparts “insider” information which helped me to understand a little better how his countrymen think. I fear we Americans often fail to accept that citizens of other cultures might have differing world views which are as valid as our own. Then again I think most people tend to see things one way…their own. That’s human nature, unfortunately. This need not be carved in stone, however, if we keep an open mind.

Osama Bin Laden, Weak Horse
by Fouad Ajami

The trail had grown cold, but the case for justice had never gone away. Osama bin Laden had warred against the United States, he had called on every Muslim “by God’s will to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can.” He had erased the boundary in the laws of war between combatants and civilians, and he had set out the case that the age-old ailments of a deeply troubled Islamic civilization could be laid at America’s doorstep.

He and his top lieutenant and partner, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, had made sure that America would be caught in the crosshairs of a deadly civil war between their foot soldiers of terror and the Arab regimes in the saddle. The “near enemy” they dubbed the incumbents in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The “far enemy” was the name they gave the U.S. It was halal, it was permissible, to war against the far enemy, to exploit its freedoms, in a campaign of vengeance against these regimes and the Pax Americans said to sustain them.

There was plenty of victimhood and rage in Arab and Muslim life, and this man of checkered background–Saudi citizenship, Yemeni ancestry on his father’s side, a Syrian mother–found his themes as he went along. There was his mastery of lyrical Arabic, and it played to the gullible. There was the legend on offer of the man born to wealth but giving it all up in pursuit of a holy cause. In his run, his decade if you will, Arab political and cultural life was a scorched earth–terrible, plundering regimes, disaffected and sullen populations trapped in no-man’s land, the absence of any hope of economic and political improvement. Some 300 million or so Arabs seemed cut off from history’s progress.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri had little to offer that world, but what they presented, it must be conceded, had its appeals. There were media spectaculars, attacks against American embassies and battleships and military housing compounds. There was the sheer satisfaction of seeing the mighty get their comeuppance.

From perfectly educated and otherwise normal folks in Arab and Muslim cities could be heard echoes of bin Laden’s sentiments, sly insinuations that the man was an avenger for the slights suffered by Arabs and Muslims in modern life. For a perilous moment, when Osama bin Laden held spellbound the audience of the television channel Al Jazeera, there was a rancid wind at play in Islamic lands. Even with the terror of 9/11, when soot and ruin hit American soil, there could be seen that deadly mix of moral indifference and satisfaction in Arab Muslim places. Bin Laden had sold a cult of power. When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse, he had famously opined.

But American power held steady in the Islamic world. We did not cede that vast region to the jihadists and their enablers. We were not brilliant in every campaign. We did not fully know our enemies and their cunning. We were not always at home in the tricks of the dictators and the hustlers in that vast arc of trouble in the Greater Middle East, but we held the line when it truly mattered.

State of Al Qaeda in Iraq

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In Afghanistan and Iraq we fought back, we even put on the ground–in the face of all kind of obstacles–a reasonably successful democratic experiment in Iraq. Bin Laden and his ilk (not to mention some neighboring powers) had done their best to thwart the Iraqi project, but the experiment had survived. And al Qaeda was to be rebuffed in Iraq by the very Sunnis it had presumably come to rescue. Bin Laden’s bet had failed: There would be no hasty American retreats a la Beirut and Mogadishu. We had awakened to the connection between Arab pathologies and our own security here at home.

In the decade that separates us from 9/11, the bin Laden legend dimmed. The tapes he sent were “proof of life” and little else. Arabs began to reconsider their place in the world, and that grotesque disfiguring of a religious tradition, the cult of martyrdom, lost its luster. There was no way back to the Islamic caliphate.

It was bin Laden’s deserved fate to be struck down when an entirely different Arab world was struggling to be born. The Arab Spring is a repudiation of everything Osama bin Laden preached and stood for. If al Qaeda found an appropriate burial ground, the place must be Midan al-Tahrir, Liberation Square, in Cairo. Of all Arab lands, Egypt is the biggest, the most culturally evolved polity, the one with perhaps the most acute economic and demographic crisis. This was Zawahiri’s birthplace and a special target of the jihadists–claim this realm and you will have upended the entire balance in the region.

Yet no one in Liberation Square paid heed to bin Laden and Zawahiri, no one chanted “Death to America.” They had, in their own peaceful way, settled their account with the dictator and signaled their desire for a free, modern society. The drums of anti-Americanism, steady during the Mubarak years, came to a halt.

Men and women came together to bid for a New Egypt, to reclaim their country. No gaze was fixed on the Hindu Kush guessing as to the whereabouts of the remnants of al Qaeda fighters and their wives and children. To the extent that ideologies could be dead and over with, the ideological challenge of al Qaeda is a spent force. “Affiliates” of al Qaeda will survive in Yemen and North Africa, but they will be a nuisance, a matter for police and security services.

The Syrian Revolution 2011 الثورة السورية ضد ب...

Image by Kurdistan KURD كوردستان كردستان ا via Flickr

The Arab Spring has simply overwhelmed the world of the jihadists. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, younger people–hurled into politics by the economic and political failures all around them–are attempting to create a new political framework, to see if a way could be found out of the wreckage that the authoritarian states have bequeathed them. It is a risky thing to say, but Arabs appear to have wearied of violence. I hazard to guess bin Laden’s fate was of no interest to the people in the sorrowful town of Deraa enduring the cruelty of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his death squads.

al-qaeda territory

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When our remarkable soldiers gave him a choice, Osama bin Laden gave them a fight. Fittingly, he was not in a cave. He had grown up in the urban world of Jeddah, and he was struck down in a perfectly urban setting, a stone’s throw from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, in odd proximity to a military academy, in a visible and large compound. He had outlived his time and use, and doubtless Pakistani intelligence was now willing to cast him adrift.

A savvy American official once observed that Pakistani’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, must have an “office of hedging your bets.” A generation ago, South Asia made room for the Saudi plotter and financier. He had money, and the aura of the Arabian Peninsula, the land of Islamic revelation. Now all that was of the past.

(Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is co-chair of the Hoover Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. …Wall Street Journal, 5/3/11)