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.
By the 1960s and 1970s, this phrase had gained telegraphic power among many Muslims because all of their other identities and associations had been so badly mauled by modernity. Al-Islam huwa al-hall can mean anything, and in the hands of militants it started to mean an ever-expanding conception of sanctified killing.
What started out as the targeted assassination of detested local officials became, with the rise of the PLO, the killing of Israeli civilians and Jews in general. From the Iranian revolution to 9/11, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Islamic militants developed an ethical universe that allowed them to attack almost anything foreign (non-Muslim) without much fear of condemnation in the Middle East.
This has obviously changed. The excesses of al Qaeda and allied Islamic groups in spilling blood in Muslim lands since 9/11—especially in Iraq—have created considerable unease and sometimes even fire-and-brimstone disgust among Muslims. The Great Arab Revolt is altering how Arabs see themselves. It’s still much too early to know where this awakening is going—whether it will lead to democracy or back to dictatorship—but it’s not too early to see how the turbulence that started in Tunisia has discombobulated the holy-warrior set. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri fell silent when these popular pro-democracy eruptions started. Both Iran’s ruling elite and al Qaeda finally described the Arab Revolt, surreally, as an Islamic movement that mirrored their most cherished principles.
It’s possible that a democratic Arab society could be fertile ground for Islamic militancy. Pakistan is an utterly broken society that has a hybrid political system allowing some democracy and a lot of (pretty religious) military autocracy. That scenario is certainly possible in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, where the country’s social and economic problems are only a bit larger than the military’s conception of itself as the backbone of the state. Pakistan has been an astonishing incubator of lethal militancy. A vibrant Hindu India has, of course, been next door, always offering an invidious comparison. With Egypt, a dynamic Jewish state is nearby to provoke feelings of inferiority and outrage.
Yet holy warriors, both Sunni and Shiite, probably offer the best guide to how this is going to shake out. Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, lives in fear of representative government. He and the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards see democracy as the end of their world. Democracy might not make the United States and Iran allies, but it would surely end the unofficial war Tehran has waged against the United States since 1979. It’s difficult to imagine any of the terrorist apparatus that the Islamic Republic has set up surviving a free parliament, which would likely restore diplomatic relations with the United States. The pro-democracy Green Movement has made it crystal clear that it wants no part of the anti-American fundamentalist mission civilisatrice that has defined so much of the Islamic Republic’s actions under religious dictatorship.
The Arab world is definitely trickier, since the autocracies in the region have often been supported, or at least not opposed, by the United States. But democratic Arab states would surely have great debates about the Holy Law and women, two core issues for Islamic militants, and about whether parliament or God’s law is supreme. A freer press in the Arab world is bound to push further the questions that even the not-so-free press—think the Arabic TV channels al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya—have already started to address about when jihad is lawful and who morally can be slain. These discussions may seem hopelessly crude and retrograde to Western audiences, but they are important steps in the creation of healthier, less violent mores.
And it is difficult to imagine a functioning Muslim democracy, with an elected parliament overseeing government, running clandestine networks of jihadists. Beyond the fact that in any democracy there would be Muslims who sincerely and strenuously objected to jihadism, a simple concern for self-defense would militate against it: Would an Egyptian parliament really want the United States or Israel to bomb its military bases because Egypt was aiding Palestinian suicide bombers? Compared with what we’ve had under dictatorships, where suicide bombers against Jews have usually been called “martyrs” in the state-controlled media, a functioning democracy would increase the voice of those Muslims who have moral qualms about killing infidels, even Israelis. Democracy might not end the appeal of holy war, but it would surely diminish that appeal among the mainstream. It would likely constrict the river into a rivulet.
But holy war will probably continue to have traction where autocracy flourishes. Saudi Arabia, which has strenuously tried to diminish the appeal of jihadism on the home front by enlisting the Wahhabi establishment to say how bad terrorism is, at least when aimed at Saudis, may well remain the big incubator of Islamic terrorism in the Sunni world, for the simple reason that the Saudi state perpetuates an unbridgeable contradiction. The Wahhabi creed is virulently intolerant of non-Muslims and Muslims who don’t practice with the requisite rigor. It’s no accident that so many of al Qaeda’s foot soldiers have come out of Saudi Arabia—the distance between the official creed and the ethos of those who become holy warriors, or admire them enough to support them financially, isn’t great. If much of the Arab world starts going democratic, the Saudis may become even more generous to Islamists who take a dim view of representative government. Saudi Arabia could well become a robust Wahhabi police state that tortures internally the same people it supports externally. If bin Ladenism has a future in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia will likely remain its friendliest terrain.
Iran, too, will probably remain a bastion for those who want to wage war against the United States. As long as Khamenei rules, anti-American Sunni militants will have a friend. A large number of al Qaeda warriors, including members of bin Laden’s family, fled Afghanistan for Iran after 9/11. It’s not clear where they all are now, but we can be fairly certain that they are not under house arrest. It’s a decent guess that if al Qaeda can rise again as a centralized organization, Iran will be helping the cause.
And then there’s Pakistan, the adopted home of al Qaeda, which is de facto no longer an Arab organization. Much of al Qaeda’s ideology has been absorbed by several Pakistani holy warrior groups, most prominently the umbrella for most fervent Pakistani Pashtuns, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and the Hindu-loathing Lashkar-e-Taiba.
With the war in Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Taliban are ethnically and spiritually joined with their Afghan brethren, the conflict in Kashmir, and the crisis of identity among Pakistanis themselves (who really are they as a people?), Islamic militancy in Central Asia has found fertile soil. Pakistani democracy offers some countervailing hope, but it is fragile and anemic—especially when compared with the Pakistani military, which has been deeply impregnated with Islamist ideology since the rule of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988).
The bloodshed caused by the war since 9/11 between the army and Islamic militants who’ve gone too far in their zeal has certainly hurt the Islamist cause. But Pakistan hasn’t yet experienced the revulsion that we’ve seen in the Arab world for jihadists. The military and the civilian elite remain conflicted about who is a good Islamic militant and who is a bad one.
Bin Laden may be dead, but in Pakistan hope springs eternal. Mainstream Islamic thought in the country still provides considerable sustenance to the spiritual descendents of al-Maududi. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true in Saudi Arabia. And in besieged Iran, where the regime is philosophically at war with the most educated members of its own society, any Sunni holy warrior who hates Iran’s enemies is likely to be viewed increasingly as a friend.
Although some American liberals and conservatives would now like to declare the global war on Islamic terrorism over, a little bit of patience is in order. We don’t get to declare the war over. Only Muslims do. And among them, we still don’t have the necessary quorum. For far too many, jihadism still has a certain redemptive appeal.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).