Bin Ladenís Legacy of Failure
Op-Ed, Agence Global
May 2, 2011
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
BEIRUT -- The death of Osama bin Laden coincides and contrasts with several other historic developments throughout the Middle East that collectively highlight the overriding issue that has preoccupied local citizens for the past generation: How does a dehumanized person regain his or her humanity? How do disaffected, angry, subjugated, vulnerable and humiliated men and women go about dealing with their condition, and fixing the problems or relieving the pressures that can ultimately crush them?
Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda movement are one extreme -- and the very smallest and least popular -- of a range of options that people throughout the Middle East adopt to deal with their many grievances, which include lack of political rights in security states, economic and environmental stresses, invading foreign armies, Israeli aggression and colonization, corruption, abuse of power, joblessness, etc. Many individuals suffer from the deadly combination of material discomforts -- jobs, income, fresh water, adequate education, housing and health care -- and intangible degradations related to their sense of being helpless and voiceless in the face of power that local and foreign powers exercised over them.
Given that hundreds of millions of Arabs, Iranians and Turks, in different ways, face the common question of how they should respond to the unsatisfactory conditions that define their lives, this is a good moment to assess how the option that Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda movement offered fit into the wider array of options that citizens choose from.
A look back at the last 25 years or so indicates that four major waves of activism dominated the choices of citizens who were dissatisfied with their rights and sought a greater say in how their societies and governments functioned Ė and bin Ladenism was not among them. The four that seemed to dominate the scene are: 1) mainstream Islamist politics and/or resistance, represented by phenomena such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbullah, the Turkish Justice and Development Party and its several antecedents -- the 1979 Iranian revolution and others of the same ilk; 2) participation in national civil society organizations and political elections that were usually heavily controlled by the ruling regimes and elites, regardless of whether such activities actually changed conditions on the ground; 3) local activism through tribal and family associations, neighborhood volunteerism and community-level Islamist charitable and religious/social education; and, 4) street activism for democratic transformations and the application of full human rights, culminating in the current wave of national citizen revolts that are most often referred to as the Arab Spring.
The overwhelming majority of Arabs, Iranians and Turks have chosen these options to express their grievances and worries, and to do what they could to bring about better conditions for themselves and their families. A few have chosen other options, like joining militant movements such as Al-Qaeda and its many affiliates, migrating abroad legally or illegally in search of a better life, joining criminal gangs dealing in drugs, smuggling and other criminal activity, or joining the ruling elite as a means of satisfying their material needs without expecting to change society.
Each of the four main activism options that captured the imagination of citizens throughout the Middle East provide some sense of achievement and satisfaction, and some have registered real accomplishments Ė i.e., the Turkish slow transition to democracy, Hizbullah and other Lebanese driving the Israeli occupiers out of the south of the country, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the popular rebellion in Lebanon that drove Syria out of the country in 2005. In most cases, though, with the notable exception of the Turkish democratic transition, the activism of individuals brought them a sense of satisfaction, but most societies have failed to address the structural ailments (lack of democratic accountability, prevalence of corruption, dominance of security agencies) that have kept most of the region in states of conflict and recurring violence. Al-Qaeda-style militancy has been the biggest failure, because its terroristic methods are repulsive to the vast majority of people in this region, and it has achieved no measurable positive accomplishments that respond to fundamental citizen grievances.
The current mass demonstrations to reform or change Arab regimes represent the most powerful expression ever of mass political sentiment in the Arab world, because they express both the grievances that people suffer and the political ethics and institutions that they aspire to implement in real life. They clarify beyond any doubt the core values, aspirations and political aims of hundreds of millions of citizens who have experimented with other forms of political and social activism for change and found them mostly ineffective and unsatisfactory, or limited in their positive impact.
Bin Laden-like criminals will continue to pester the world. Hundreds of millions of Arabs, Turks and Iranians who clamor for democratic dignity can change their world for the better, and this is where foreign powers and local activists alike should focus their energy in the years ahead.
For more information about this publication please contact the The Dubai Initiative at 617-496-3694.
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