Beyond Bin Laden
Understanding what motivates those who support men such as Osama Bin Laden will be vital in the fight against Islamist extremism going forwards
Second only perhaps to Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden was the very personification of evil to many in the West.
And yet for many others, Bin Laden was, and is, an icon of a very different kind: a hero, and now a martyr. Understanding what motivates this latter constituency is vital if Britain and its allies are to draw the right lessons from Bin Laden’s death.
Bin Laden was revered first and foremost by those militant Islamists whose ideology and interpretation of Islamic history have led them to oppose not just the West, but its values of democracy and freedom of expression, as antithetical to the progress of Islam.
Amongst this group are numbered individuals like Egypt’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, the real brains behind the al-Qaeda outfit and likely successor to Bin Laden who spoke of his late leader as a “lion of Islam”, or Britain’s own Anjem Choudary, who lamented “Sheikh Usama’s” passing on his website on Monday by declaring, “Muslims will no doubt feel a sense of sadness that a symbol of the struggle of truth against falsehood has gone”.
For these individuals and others like them, the struggle against both the West and indeed other Muslims who oppose their worldview can only be properly understood as part of a broad political and religious narrative stretching back to the time of Mohammed in the 7th century.
According to their interpretation of events, the Muslim world’s comparative geopolitical weakness relative to the West is not the consequence of its failure to modernise, innovate and adapt to the challenges of today’s world, and nor even does the historical exploitation of Western colonialists and their subsequent propping-up of Middle Eastern autocrats tell the whole story. Rather these latter ills have been visited upon Muslims as divine punishment for their deviation from the true way of Islam, as they perceive it. According to this narrative, belated efforts by Muslim leaders to modernise and adopt various Western ideas and innovations from the end of the 19th century were never going to stem the Muslim world’s decline, but rather would directly contribute to it.
Their rationale is that just as Mohammed was rewarded by God with extraordinary geopolitical gains for his spiritual uprightness and his refusal to compromise on his principles, so today the only way to revive the Muslim community (the Ummah)’s faltering fortunes is through the absolute rejection of any idea or innovation not in keeping with their interpretation of Quranic precepts, and the adoption of their retrograde interpretation of Islamic law.
It was Bin Laden’s success in striking the United States in such a terrible and destructive manner that made him an icon amongst these believers. Nonetheless, this was not an end in and of itself, rather it was a calculated act designed to further al-Qaeda’s objectives in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.
Bin Laden’s calculation was that the greatest obstacle to the establishment of his desired Islamic Caliphate was the presence of the ordinarily secular regimes holding sway across the region, and that it was the support that these regimes received from the United States and its allies that was the main factor behind the maintenance of their grip on power. Strike the pusillanimous Americans hard-enough, Bin Laden reasoned, and they would flee from the Muslim world, putting courage into the hearts of ‘true’ Muslims, and the whole satanic edifice would come crashing down.
This is not a group of people with whom Britain can or should try to reason, still less to compromise. If they had their way, the dictatorships of the Middle East would not be replaced with governments more respectful of democracy, freedom of expression, or the basic human rights of their people, but with backward and barbaric regimes that view murder as a legitimate cleansing tool, and oppression and brutalisation as God’s will on earth. The closest any country has come to the realisation of this ideal was Afghanistan under the Taliban during the 1990s, and it is no coincidence that it was here that al-Qaeda found sanctuary.
However, this ‘ideological hardcore’ are not the only group of people who found in the message of Islamist extremism a narrative with which they could sympathise. Much more troubling from the perspective of British policymakers should be those ordinary Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere whose experiences of poverty, oppression, and lack of opportunity under governments either unable or unwilling to address these grievances have led them to support an ideology which, misleadingly, promises an end to such suffering.
The deeply misguided policy of so many Western governments over the past few decades, to prop up dictatorships in the Muslim world in the belief that this was the most effective way to keep a lid on extremism, safeguard energy supplies and maintain their other interests, has contributed immeasurably to the strength of the Islamists’ anti-Western narrative. The fact that most Middle Eastern governments are ‘Western’ only in the technological means of their oppression, and care nothing for the social and political freedoms that are so indispensible to Western identity is beside the point. Al-Qaeda has been able to portray these autocrats as nefarious stooges of the West, and this has contributed to their popularity amongst many of those ordinary Muslims unfortunate enough to live under them.
In order to eliminate the ill-gotten credibility that Islamist extremists garner from playing on these grievances, Britain and its allies must be uncompromising in promoting abroad the rights and freedoms we take for granted at home. The pro-democracy uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’ have demonstrated fairly comprehensively that support for Islamism is not the default position of the vast majority of ordinary Muslims, but that they aspire to exactly the same kind of rights and opportunities as the rest of us. The uprisings have also demonstrated that these dictatorships are nothing like as good at safeguarding Western ‘interests’ as some liked to think they were.
For both of these reasons, the best way to combat al-Qaeda and their fellow travellers will be to prevail on the battleground of ideas. Britain was right to support the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia at the start of this year, though we should be under no illusions that any transition to democracy will be far from straightforward, and past Western support for both Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ali have left a bitter taste in the mouth in both of these places.
Likewise, the decision of Britain, France and the United States to intervene in Libya was vital in terms of sending a clear message across the Muslim world that Western countries will not invariably stand by whilst men like Gaddafi use murderous force to put down the democratic aspirations of their people. Those who argue that it is nothing but hypocrisy that has stayed the hand of our governments whilst the leaders of Syria and Bahrain continue to use violence to suppress dissent need to recognise that it is as impossible as it is unwise to be everywhere all of the time. That being said, Western governments have a number of other options still open to them, including economic and political sanctions, and they should be uncompromising in their condemnation of such behaviour.
Finally, we cannot ignore Afghanistan, where Bin Laden’s death has already prompted calls for withdrawal and misguided assertions that the war is now won. This could not be further from the truth. What NATO and the Afghan Government are fighting in Afghanistan is not and never was Osama Bin Laden, but the Islamist aspiration to impose a government based on 7th century interpretations of Islamic law that would, in turn, provide a safe-haven for terrorists. Not until we have succeeded in establishing a government in Afghanistan, as we are now starting to do, that is capable of resisting this onslaught should the campaign there be considered a success.
The bottom line, however, is that with Bin Laden dead, the fight against what he stood for must invariably go on. Ultimately this is a battle between competing narratives, and in order to win it is imperative that Western governments practice what they preach, and erode away what little credibility al-Qaeda and its allies still have left.
George Grant is Director for Global Security & Terrorism at The Henry Jackson Society in London. He has authored a number of papers on the subject of Islamist extremism, including “Al-Qaeda and Radical Islam: Economic Realities and Socio-Political Solutions”and “Succeeding in Afghanistan”, a major report on the war in Afghanistan released in Parliament in September 2010.
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