On Bin Laden's death and the Arabs

I had just woken up when I wrote the earlier post on Bin Laden's death, after a long flight from New York back to Cairo yesterday, so I just commented on the news. A few hours later — and after receiving some calls from journalists — there some other things worth pointing out with regards to Osama Bin Laden's place in the Arab political imagination.

There's no need to ignore that, for a time, Bin Laden had a superficial role to play as a symbol of resistance to American or Western imperialism. So did Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Qadhafi or the Assads at various points. But I never thought that feeling ran very deep for the vast overwhelming majority of Arabs, or indeed Muslims. But the sentiment Bin Laden evokes today is probably indifference. Bin Laden simply wasn't an important figure in recent years, and was particularly irrelevant to the Arab uprisings.

Al Qaeda could have been important, perhaps, if it had scored some major military victories against the West, particularly after the Iraq war when anti-Western sentiment ran its highest. Indeed, Bin Laden's greatest achievement may have been to enable the neo-cons to carry out their loony agenda, which has done more than anything to discredit the US in the region. Between Iraq '03, Lebanon '06, Gaza '09, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib there were plenty of occasions in which the US (or its allies) discredited itself.

The radical-theological option that Bin Laden represented as a solution to the state of the Arab world has long been discredited. It was discredited before it even began, in that it was a result of the failure of the violent Islamist movements of the 1970s-1990s era. Also discredited, or at least on the ropes, are the pro-US "reformist" option of the "moderate" Arab regimes. Moderate, in the way Saudi Arabia or Mubarak's Egypt was, and reformist, because they are interested in changing to survive, not making a radical break. But the people spoke and they don't want reform, they want rupture.

The trends that are winning out in recent years are the radical-resistance ideologies of Hizbullah (and to a lesser degree Hamas) and the radical-centrist view that fueled the uprisings. And in the longer-run, it is the latter rather than the former that have a vision of societies that are not constantly mobilized towards an external (or internal) enemy. The views of Hamas and Hizbullah address the problems of war and occupation, but not those of these societies beyond those problems. Bin Laden never really addressed either, his fight was for the glory of the impossible and in the hereafter.