Islamic militancy preceded Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, it will probably outlast him, too.
May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Will Osama bin Laden’s demise advance the evanescence of jihadism in the Islamic world? Probably, but not by much. Islamic extremism was intellectually in full bloom long before bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan to aid the mujahedeen against the Red Army.
Bin Ladenism—its leitmotif is a preference for attacking the “far enemy,” the United States, to weaken the “near enemy,” the despised Westernized autocrats of the Middle East—is essentially the same religious doctrine of rebellion propagated by the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) and the Iranian revolutionary Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989). Although bin Laden took suicide bombing to new heights, death-wish holy warriors have a long history in Islam, among Shiites and Sunnis. What really made bin Laden special was his success in striking the continental United States. The Iranian-backed Shiite bombers in Lebanon who took out the U.S. embassy, French paratroopers, and American Marines in 1983 never launched a bombing run in America; the Palestine Liberation Organization, the mothership of media-savvy Islamic terrorism, eagerly killed Americans abroad, but they never dared to bomb Washington and New York City.
Bin Laden gained eminence among holy warriors because he dared to do what others only dreamed of. The Egyptian blind sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, who spearheaded the attempt to fell the World Trade Center in 1993, and who became a spiritual mentor to bin Laden, didn’t obtain the same jihadist status as the Saudi because he failed. Even more than the Palestinian suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, bin Laden made suicide attacks sexy among Sunni Muslims.
Intellectually, however, the Saudi contributed nothing to the jihadist cause; for a “nonstate” actor—a designation that was always more myth than fact, given the assistance bin Laden and his jihadists received from the high and mighty in Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iran—he organized well. His lyrical Arabic, his good looks (he was once a holy-warrior celebrity in Saudi women’s magazines), his rejection of an easy life in favor of a religious calling (in Arabia’s corpulent world, bin Laden was a tall, lithe prince with guts), the legend of his fight against the Soviets, and his no doubt sincere wish to defend mother Arabia from Saddam Hussein without the demeaning assistance of infidel America—all gave bin Laden charisma among many Muslims. And charisma matters.
But modern Sunni jihadism has never really revolved around individuals. Sunni Islam is emphatically communitarian. It reacts poorly to cults of personality. Although messianic figures have appeared, they aren’t nearly as frequent as in Shiism, whose foundation myth revolves around the divine authority that sprang from the union of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, and Fatima, the prophet’s daughter. Sayyid Qutb, a vastly more important force behind modern jihadism than bin Laden, remains relevant because his critique of Islamic society since the West gained military preeminence over Islam is so trenchant.
Compared with Qutb, bin Laden is a gadfly. Bin Laden was so scary because men like Qutb and the equally impressive journalist-turned-philosopher Abul Ala Maududi, the great self-taught theologian of the Indian subcontinent, had prepared the ground: Militancy was not a rivulet within Islam but a wide river.
Bin Laden played on the moral collapse within Islamic civilization, brought on chiefly by Islam’s calamities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Intellectually and militarily, Muslim empires couldn’t hold their own against the West. When an Islamic identity was reborn, it was in an age of global extremism—the catastrophic aftermath of World War I, when fascism, national socialism, and communism were rampant. Later, the growth of jihadism as an ideology was poorly checked by the dying ideologies of the Middle East’s calcifying police states, which had done so much to validate the critiques of Qutb and his kind.
And traditional ethics, the bulwark of decency, had also been transformed: The urban cosmopolitan mores of the Ottoman Empire and the British Raj had ceded considerable ground to Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Wahhabi faith and its subcontinent equivalent, the Deobandi school. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s most famous line, which has become the anthem of modern fundamentalists far and wide—Al-Islam huwa al-hall, “Islam has all the answers”—would have made little sense to a devout Ottoman gentleman or his equivalent in British India at the end of the 19th century. He would’ve been confused, since the complexity of who he was and what he believed could not possibly have been reduced to so radical a statement.