The death of Osama bin Laden has some symbolic value, particularly for the United States. A great power exercises influence not just through its military and economic assets, but through its prestige. A power that can be relied upon to punish its enemies, no matter how long it takes, and reward its friends will be respected, and that respect will figure into the calculations of other nations as they pursue their interests. Killing bin Laden may go a little way to repairing our prestige by undoing the recent foreign policy mistakes in the Middle East, where we have abandoned “friends” like Egypt’s Mubarak and appeased enemies like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Apart from that slim possibility, however, the practical effects of bin Laden’s death will be minimal. There is much wishful thinking right now about the negative impact of his demisem on the morale of al Qaeda and other jihadist outfits. Yet the flashpoint of al Qaeda activity is no longer in Afghanistan, but in Yemen. Then there are the other, more dangerous groups such as Hizbollah in Lebanon, Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, and Hamas in Gaza, all of which share al Qaeda’s aim of attacking the West and using violence to change our behavior. Meanwhile, in Egypt the Muslim Brothers, the theoretical godfather of modern jihadism, are enjoying new political power and support from the people, 75% of whom in a recent Pew poll look on the Brothers favorably, while 79% look on the U.S. unfavorably, despite our help in removing Mubarak. And, as the recently thwarted terrorist plot in Germany demonstrates, there are an unknown number of autonomous jihadist cells throughout the world that will not stop plotting and attempting terrorist attacks just because bin Laden is now a “martyr” mating with virgins in paradise. Religious movements pursuing spiritual aims are not dependent on the life of any one or even a thousand mortal men.
Even more important is what the operation reveals about the duplicity of Pakistan. President Obama’s diplomatic nod to that country’s cooperation can’t hide the obvious: it is highly unlikely that bin Laden could have holed up for six years in a million-dollar compound with 12-foot high barbed-wire fences, in a city of 100,000 that hosts Pakistan’s most prestigious military academy, without the knowledge and sufferance of highly placed Pakistani military and security officials. That’s why the operation was kept secret from our so-called allies until the very last minute. But we know Pakistan has been playing a double game for almost a decade, cooperating just enough to keep receiving billions in aid and military hardware, at the same time supporting and protecting the insurgents and terrorists killing our troops in Afghanistan.
More broadly, removing bin Laden from the scene will do little to change the delusional interpretation of jihadism that has compromised our policies no matter which political party is in power. This is the idea that Islamists have “highjacked” the “religion of peace” in order to pursue their totalitarian aims. Despite this alleged distortion of Islam, Islamists gain traction among Muslims because of a lack of political freedom, or economic opportunity, or progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict. Hence the President’s statement, “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader. He was a mass murderer of Muslims. His demise should be welcome by all who believe in peace and human dignity.” In this view, bin Laden was a “beard from the fringe,” an extremist outlier despised by mainstream Muslims.
So far, though, we haven’t seen huge demonstrations in the Muslim world celebrating the death of this “highjacker” of Islam who has brought such disorder and opprobrium to Muslims, despite a plunge in support for bin Laden and al Qaeda, a result not of his “distortion” of Islam, but of attacks on Muslims in Afghanistan. But of course, we never have seen over the last decade mass demonstrations by “moderate” Muslims protesting the Islamist distortion of Islamic doctrine, or marching to condemn terrorist violence against Westerners. What we have seen are large celebrations of the 9/11 attacks, and violent riots about various perceived “insults” to Islam and Mohammed. Nor was bin Laden a fringe figure like pseudo-Christians David Koresh or Jim Jones, a bearded maniac living in a cave and concocting bizarre interpretations of Islamic doctrine. On the contrary, bin Laden knew Islam’s doctrine, history, and theology much more thoroughly and intimately than most Christians know Christian theology. In his writings and those of his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, we find arguments for jihadist violence buttressed with quotations from the Koran and references to other Islamic texts. And these arguments are consistent with the views of other respected Muslim figures such as the Ayatollah Khomeini, Hassan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb.
Even someone armed with a dull Occam’s razor can figure out from all this evidence that far from being outside the Islamic tradition, the jihadists are squarely within it in the view of millions of Muslims. That helps explain Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, and the billions of dollars flowing to jihadist organizations from Gulf petrocracies. Yet we persist in imposing our materialist philosophy on a spiritual struggle, and rationalizing away the religious dimension of jihadism. Thus we have spent billions of dollars and the blood of our citizens in rescuing Muslims from brutal dictators, building schools and highways, promoting economic development, and bringing democracy to Muslim countries. But all this effort will not “win instant love” for the United States, as The New York Times paraphrased our motives in a story about a failing $1.5 billion aid effort in Pakistan. Nor has any other of our good deeds improved our standing among the majority of Muslims, many of whom see our efforts as further evidence of Allah’s favor for the “best of nations.”
Bin Laden and al Qaeda made tactical errors in Afghanistan by brutally attacking Muslims, and that misstep, not their so-called “distortion” of Islam, eroded their support. But the idea of jihad against the infidel still resonates with millions of Muslims worldwide. Until we accept that truth, and until we stop appeasing the enemy with our groveling rhetoric and our foreign aid, the demise of bin Laden will not do much to convince the Islamists and their supporters that they can never win.