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May 11th, 2012, by Asma Afsaruddin

Asma Afsaruddin

By Asma Afsaruddin

A year after Usama Bin Laden’s death, it is clear that his terrorist followers are in disarray and al-Qaeda’s self-trumpeted mission of revenge in the name of Islam against the West is about as hot as a tray of ice cubes on a July afternoon – and melting just as fast.  The anniversary was a complete non-event in the Muslim world — no mass rallies to mark the occasion; no raised fists at the West portending a diabolical duel to the end.  The event was actually marked more energetically by President Barack Obama when he flew into Afghanistan to commemorate his administration’s successful attempt last year to take out the terror mastermind.  And despite what his critics have said, the President’s gesture and words were appropriate to the occasion. They underscored the fact that Bin Laden’s death represents a closure and catharsis for most Americans, purging some of the helplessness that had emerged in the national psyche in the aftermath of September 11.  Sure, apocalyptic threats and nefarious plans continue to emanate from al-Qaeda’s members but these days they tend to be exposed and eviscerated long before they acquire the potential to do real damage. 

The sense of closure after Bin Laden’s death was also palpable among many Muslims, particularly American Muslims.  Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic HOPE, an advocacy organization in Los Angeles, spoke for many of his co-religionists a year ago when he remarked, “We are hopeful that the message was heard loud and clear, that if any Americans or allies are targeted by terrorism, our country will hunt you down and bring you to justice – no matter how long it takes.”   A year later that sense of solidarity has not dissipated.  In much of the Middle East, Bin Laden’s grotesque legacy appears irrelevant and completely overtaken by events of the Arab Spring and their augury of a different future.

Rewind the tape to more than a decade ago and one hears the lugubrious voices of doom and gloom at that time predicting escalating polarization between “us” and “them” that could potentially end human civilization once and for all.  Al-Qaeda’s ascendancy – or so we were warned – was the beginning of the establishment of a world-wide theocratic Islamic caliphate which would institute draconian capital punishments and launch a never-ending jihad against the West.  Muslims, particularly their youth, would flock to Bin Laden’s side and the clash of civilizations would begin in earnest.   No one was more sure of this than Bernard Lewis, the Middle East historian who made the concept of the clash of civilizations popular and who after the Twin Tower attacks remarked ominously to an interviewer, “I have no doubt that September 11 was the opening salvo of the final battle.”

Well, Lewis could not have been more mistaken.  His dark pronouncements over the last decade could be easily collected into a volume entitled “What went wrong with Lewis?” –  to echo the title of one of his best-selling books.  Contrary to the alarmist scenario painted by him and like-minded others, Bin Laden’s death — in a richly ironical development – has helped bring into sharp relief real convergences in opinion and world-view between the US and much of the Muslim world today.  Instead of theocratic caliphates, we are watching the birth pangs of democracy in a broad swath of the Middle East.  Instead of young people flocking to breeding-grounds of terror, they are marching against autocratic governments and demanding civil liberties and political freedoms – they have inspired in turn the Occupy movements in many US cities.

A harbinger of changing times in the Arab world is a new book by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a popular and controversial conservative preacher based in Qatar, which champions the creation of a pluralist Muslim community that is fully inclusive of religious minorities, drawing on precedents within early Islamic history. 
The beginnings of real change often occur below the radar screen, because that is where the lives of the majority of people in the mainstream of society play out.   One can never say this often enough – if one focuses only on the extremes of society and proceeds to generalize from that, then one will inevitably be proved wrong. 

The universal human aspiration to seek out and live the good life based on dignity, mutual respect, and peaceful co-existence consistently trumps the darker forces of violence and exploitation.  A year after the death of Bin Laden this narrative of human commonality that celebrates shared values, irrespective of religion, ethnic background, and national origin, is more credible than ever.      

Asma Afsaruddin is Professor of Islamic Studies and chairperson of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, Bloomington.


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