May 3, 2011

Does Islamism Have a Future?

Radical Islam has recently suffered two massive body blows. Although the killing of Osama bin Laden had great symbolic impact, it pales in comparison to the events of the Arab Spring. When Arabs across the Middle East took their destiny in their own hands and launched a series of massive, peaceful marches, they inadvertently shoved Al Qaeda and its violent acolytes to the margins of political life.


Despite the culture of fear generated especially in the United States by 9/11 and by the Bush administration’s promotion of the “Global War on Terror,” the violent practitioners of Islam were never more than a tiny fraction of Muslims. Initially, many Muslims were willing to support resistance to what they saw as the Western humiliation of Islam, including looking the other way when Americans and Israelis were killed by horrific measures that were obviously contrary to Islamic belief and practice. But the ideological arrogance of the takfiris – those who arrogate to themselves the sole right to determine who is a good Muslim and, by extension, all others who deserve to die – eventually sickened all but the true crazies at the far fringes of religion.

The real crazies will always be there – in every society – and they will always find an excuse to exercise their madness. Terror itself will never be defeated. But that doesn’t mean that terror should triumph.

Osama bin Laden was important in creating the image of a global campaign that was immensely attractive to the disaffected and the fanatic. As such, his loss will no doubt be felt. But his theology and his politics had already been discredited to anyone who was willing to devote even a few minutes of objective thought to the subject. He and his campaign were increasingly denounced from Muslim pulpits, by Islamic scholars and even by average citizens who saw the beheadings, the suicide bombings of innocents, and the incitement to religious civil war as an execration.

Al Qaeda’s political “solution” was the proposed return to the seventh century utopia of a holy caliphate that, if it ever existed at all, collapsed into civil war within half a dozen years. Like most utopias, this mythical caliphate was a figment of Osama bin Laden’s imagination and provided no solution to the genuine problems of his tortured followers.

With no plausible political goal to offer, and only appalling violence as a means to that end, Osama bin Laden understandably made no real headway. He could sow pain and chaos, but he was never able to change a government or to impose his illusory vision on any group outside his own immediate followers.

He was quite a respectable engineer, and his three great accomplishments – simultaneous bombings of two U.S. embassies, blowing a hole in a U.S. naval ship, and the 9/11 attacks – were masterpieces of careful planning, exquisite timing, and boldly patient preparation. Those operations were possible only because he had a secure base of operations in Afghanistan and access to modern communications networks. After 2001, that was over. For the past ten years Osama bin Laden and his colleagues have been on the run, and even his rather palatial refuge in a comfortable Pakistani suburb dared have no telephone or internet connection.

In time, Al Qaeda dissolved into a series of imitators whose great enthusiasm was not generally matched by their technological or strategic expertise. These little pockets of wannabe terrorists are often referred to as franchises, and there are at least some that perhaps deserve that title: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), Al Qaeda in Iraq, and perhaps Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. But most of what is called Al Qaeda today consists of lonely, disaffected souls with grandiose ideas and modest talents. That is a law enforcement problem, but it is a threat to no nation.

Am I wrong about this threat assessment? If so, we will not have to wait long to find out. If there is any Al Qaeda organization able to mount a major operation, they have every incentive to do it now, as revenge and to proclaim their continued existence.

But in the meantime, the real world moves on. The Arab Spring has yet to blossom into actual representative institutions and governments, but that is where the momentum lies, despite the efforts of the remaining regimes to stifle it. However unpredictable its path, there is a new ideology blowing in the breezes of the Middle East, and it has nothing to do with extremist Islam.

More than 40 years ago, Israel humiliated Arab nationalist regimes in the Six Day War. There were several unexpected consequences. The Arab nationalist cum socialist dogma of Nasser was perceived to have been a sham. The rulers who followed in the wake of this huge defeat were less wedded to an ideology. Their only real ideology was regime (and personal) survival, and they proved to be quite adept at it. They are, for the most part, the rulers who are now being deposed, several generations later.

There was also a turn to religion by Middle Easterners disillusioned with politics. “Islam is the solution” became the rallying cry. As the rulers effectively closed off all political space in the name of “national emergency” laws, the only place left was the mosque. The Islamists were also persecuted, of course, and some of them in despair and anger turned to violence and extreme interpretations of Islam. Their legitimacy derived from wholesale disgust with “normal” politics as brutal, dishonest and universally corrupt.

Now a new generation of young, educated and socially connected men and women in the Arab world have seemingly rejected the tatters of Arab nationalism, the sordid authoritarianism of the past 40 years, and the violent nihilism of the extremists. Their vision has yet to be realized, and it may yet wither. But it is based on fundamental principles of popular representation, personal dignity, rule of law, and governmental accountability.

Those are not impossible goals, even if they are often difficult to achieve in practice. They are goals that we share. They are our aspirations as well.

It is time to declare extreme Islamism a failed ideology, renounce the culture of fear, and get on with the new world of Middle East politics.

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