The death of Osama bin Laden marks the end of a dark era for the Muslim world, and it will, hopefully, usher in a new era for Muslims in America and abroad, an era that can emphasize democratic leadership, not totalitarian ideology; an era of constructive engagement, not destructive confrontation; and an era of religious pluralism, not religious exclusivism.
The nonviolent revolution in the Middle East accomplished more in a span of months than al-Qaeda ever did in decades. Al-Qaeda has killed tens of thousands of people, mainly Muslims. The “Arab spring,” however, began with a nonviolent orientation. The Arab revolution provides a clear example of al-Qaeda’s obsolescence. Rashid Ghannouchi of the Ennahda movement in Tunisia said, “Bin Laden died in Tunisia before dying in Pakistan” (http://twitter.com/amjr5448/statuses/65252530963230720).
Despots like Muammar Gadhafi knew that keeping it nonviolent meant his demise, so he forced a violent confrontation, which is actually prolonging the conflict. Unfortunately, Syria and Bahrain followed this tactic.
Bin Laden represented not only violent extremism but more broadly destructive religious nationalism in the Muslim world, which is based on a religious exclusivist global view. But al-Qaeda’s support has plummeted and its rhetoric discredited in the Muslim world (http://pewglobal.org/2011/05/02/osama-bin-laden-largely-discredited-among-muslim-publics-in-recent-years/). And many Muslim Americans viewed bin Laden’s demise as an opportunity to remove the stigmatization of their religion associated with al-Qaeda’s anti-Americanism.
Religious pluralists, on the other hand, are those who believe that Islam is part of a pluralistic world, to benefit societies and to enrich life, not glorify death. Religious nationalists are a product of reacting to colonialism even if it meant deviating from Islam. Religious pluralists are a product of critical thinking within Islam despite colonialism.
Those Islamic groups that justify violent means with grandiose ends are potentially no better than the despots they aim to replace. Out of their disdain for the United States, they could not see bin Laden for what he was — a sociopath who primarily targeted Muslim worshipers to make political statements against cooperation with the United States.
But a new cadre of leaders is flowing from the Arab spring, leaders who are part of religious groups and secular groups, leaders who embrace democracy and have street credibility. Perhaps the experiment of Islamic governance in Turkey was an inspiration for the Arabs. In Turkey, Islamic groups had to reconcile with secularism, not fight it. If Islam represents totalitarianism through its manifestation by militant groups, then it will be opposed by people, including Muslim masses, who will resent any form of Islamic expression in public life, a development we are all witnessing in Iran.
On the other hand, other groups afforded bin Laden a higher status in the Muslim world, even though he inspired the terrorist attacks that killed 175,000 Muslims between 1992 and 2006. The Muslim people who have been crying for freedom have rendered bin Laden and al-Qaeda irrelevant. So the groups claiming to work for Islam must come to terms with this reality or they, like al-Qaeda, will become irrelevant.
We, as Americans, need to make sure that the defeat of bin Laden is not just a single incident. It needs to be viewed as a cataclysmic event in the demise of violent extremism in the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda should be marginalized, not mainstream Muslims. Al-Qaeda targets the mainstream. It maims and kills people on the Arab and Pakistani streets.
Al-Qaeda should be viewed equally with other fringe groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the white militias, the Red Army and other extremist groups. These groups had their heyday in the past. They also present potential threats in society, but are seen for what they are —fringe groups. We may have another Faisal Shahzad or underwear bomber, i.e., lone wolves suffering from depression and needing a gang to join. But the international threat that Al-Qaeda has posed in the past is waning.
We need to connect more with the people on the streets of the Muslim world and not rely on extremist groups or dictators to determine our future. Once we deem al-Qaeda irrelevant to the shaping of the future, it becomes nothing more than a danger in the past and a nuisance of the present. The theology of life has prevailed over the ideology of death. We, as Americans, must focus on this reality, and our policies must be in line with the interests of the people of the Muslim world.
Salam Al-Marayati is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.