The death of Bin Laden, hailed as a victory by the United States and the western world, rued and regretted in some parts of the Muslim world ends a chapter in world politics - a chapter that roughly coincided with the end of the Cold War and tumult and confusion in the Islamic world. This tumult and confusion which could counter-intuitively best be described as an incubation period for democracy in the Muslim world also gave rise to the birth of Bin Ladenism - an ideology roughly corresponding to the tenets of Salafism and elevating and incorporating armed or offensive jihad against the ‘alleged enemies of Islam’ into the main tenets of Islam.
Essentially, a reactive ideology and posture, Bin Ladenism reflected the reaction or anger against Islam’s encounter with modernity, articulated through the idiom of colonialism and then the perception of a ‘neo colonial’ enterprise that the west had allegedly embarked upon against the ‘dar el Islam’ (world of Islam) through, first the creation of the nation state system, thus dividing the ummah, and then the alliance system, often buttressing vicious authoritarian regimes, maintained by the west. The ‘distant crusader’, by according both tacit and overt support to these odious regimes, became the ‘immediate and real enemy’ and the wrath of the Al Qaeda network which had incubated during the tether end of the Cold war (but has a history predating this) was visited on the west. The result, as we all know was 9/11.
The support accorded to Al Qaeda by state actors such as Afghanistan and implicitly Pakistan reflected, in the case of the former an ideological predilection on the part of the Taliban, and in the case of the latter, an instrument of statecraft. In the process, the region became a play ground for Jihad Inc or Jihad International: that is, a hotbed and magnet attracting a motley bunch of mostly young people - the disaffected and the discontented, the idealistic and the adventurous and, as these kinds of movements always attract, carpetbaggers and rat bags. Bin Laden was an iconic figure in the eyes of many: a Che Guevaraesque figure who had the spine to stand up against the ‘hostile and usurping west’ as opposed to the grovelling and spineless regimes and states who had abdicated Islam in favour of regime maintenance and power. This is why Bin Ladenism attained popularity and Bin Laden became a folk hero in much of the Islamic world. Here was someone who had allegedly given up worldly comforts in pursuit of an ascetic and peripatetic life, staked all and finally poked the eye of those that many in the Muslim world held responsible for the ‘humiliation’ and ‘subjugation’ of Islam. Or in prosaic terms, a classic case of projection took place: the disaffected, powerless, frustrated and denuded mass of people across the Muslim world felt suddenly and momentarily empowered. The schoolyard bully, so to speak, had been given a bloody nose. The violence was felt to be, in the Fanonian schema and formulation, cathartic.
In the meantime, the fallout in much of the western world was that Islam came to be increasingly associated with violence and terrorism. Brand Osama tarnished brand Islam. This transient feeling of illusory empowerment gave way to 'life as usual'. The sober and sobering realities of life in the world of Islam - bad governance, poor economic conditions and an overall sense of torpor and anomie – reasserted themselves. This resignation was given a jolt again by the Arab spring and the world of Islam again made headlines, this time by popular and spontaneous uprisings articulated in an idiom of democracy and rights.
The question now is what can be culled from the popularity of Bin Ladenism, his demise and the movements gripping the Arab Muslim world. Amongst the dispossessed and disempowered there are always those who will have recourse to violence against those held to be responsible for their condition. It is only democracy and the concomitant set of rights accruing from it that can empower people to lead fulfilling lives - allowing them to flourish. It follows that wholesome lives, undergirded by democracy and rights are more likely than not to make people disavow and eschew violence. Contrary to the ‘truth’ dished out by ‘experts’, democracy and the quest for rights is a universal theme and the ‘expert opinion’ that holds that democracy is a matter of culture and thus incompatible with Islam is patently false. Cumulatively, this suggests that a renewed idiom of engagement that discards past paradigms must be cultivated by the west toward the Islamic world. This could take the form of encouraging the forces of democracy and according time for some kind of reform to take place within Islam. But the attempt to reconcile and integrate reason with revelation has to come from within the Islamic world. This reform has to be mainstreamed, unlike past movements in Islamic history, like the Mutazilites, whose attempts at reform were marginalized.
It is now clear that the recourse to ‘hard power’ to bring about ‘regime change’ and thus democracy in the Arab Muslim world is fraught with peril and may have perverse consequences. Project democratization through hard power has become associated with neo-colonial adventurism and as such can only breed and beget a jaundiced view of democracy.
If, in the final analysis, it falls upon the United States to review its posture and approach to bring this about, what would a “new chapter in American diplomacy” have to look like? It would require a decisive shift from a focus on ‘security’ to that of democracy, and a vigorous engagement in a more open world in which the political economy of states of the Middle East can cultivate extensive links to the global economy. Overlaying this should be a clearcut signal to the authoritarian and autocratic regimes of that region that the status quo is not acceptable and that reform will be the key to this kind of engagement.
Only then can the ‘third way of democracy’ morph into the fourth and engulf the Arab Muslim world, leading in the process to a more peaceful world. Only then should the world hail the death of Bin Ladenism.