Opinion

After Osama bin Laden: In Arab world, America's troubled post-9/11 legacy lingers

The shrug that greeted news of Osama bin Laden’s death here in the Arab world was not surprising given that most never thought bin Laden belonged to them. His death offers an opportunity for reconciliation and accountability – for Americans and Arabs – for all the events that followed 9/11.

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The shrug that greeted news of Osama bin Laden’s death here in the Arab world was not surprising given that most across the region never thought Mr. bin Laden belonged to them. To the contrary, bin Laden was seen as an American creation and to some, in recent years, an American phantom, who surfaced to justify American policies and military presence in the region. The details of his recent life, in a comfortable suburban home in a country supposedly allied with the US, were further proof to the more conspiracy-minded here that he was essentially in US witness protection and was merely terminated when he no longer served a purpose.

But for most, not just the conspiratorial, there was nothing authentically Arab or Muslim about bin Laden. So similarly, it came as quite a shock when after 9/11, bin Laden came to define Arabs and Muslims in the American imagination. Many had expected the opposite, that victimization at the hands of Al Qaeda, which Arabs and Muslims had already experienced themselves, would instead provide an opportunity for Americans to see Arabs and Muslims as hardly monolithic and peoples with whom they had something in common.

But as Arabs and Muslims in the diaspora would immediately come to learn, bin Laden would be branded an Arab and Muslim invention. He became the lens through which they, even Arab and Muslim Americans, came to be seen by many in the US and Europe. Indeed, bin Laden’s definitive arrival on the global scene with 9/11 launched an era of Islamophobia and nativism in the US that cost people not only their sense of belonging, but also their jobs, freedom, and other human rights and liberties.

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And so his death is already being greeted hopefully, by those living under the weight of that hate and suspicion, as an end to that period. For the Arab world, bin Laden’s death merely punctuates his already waning relevance, as a new Arab Spring both eclipses him and refutes the empty promises of Al Qaeda’s philosophy. Thus there is a sense, buoyed by a great desire for as much, that with his death, the world is finally moving on from the post-9/11 era and its ills.

The Iraq War issue still festers here

But putting that era to rest is not as easy as sinking a body to the bottom of the Arabian Sea; a reckoning of several post-9/11 legacies still needs to happen. From here in the Arab world, it is evident that of 9/11’s heirs, the Iraqi invasion, whose illegitimacy is ultimately sanctioned as long as no one from the previous US administration is held accountable, still festers even when not mentioned at all.

The crisis in US credibility and integrity that US involvement in Iraq has created here is not yet old news. Moreover, the half-truths, blatant non-truths, and the convenient shifting and short-sighted alliances that made up the Iraq enterprise ultimately enable and validate a similar (and familiar) flexibility with truth and plausibility here – one that those invested in the status quo are happy to take advantage of.

When it would seem Iraq is a non-sequitur, it is instead invoked in conversations, which often conclude with much left inconclusive. (Maybe the protesters in the region are agents of other countries? Is the US orchestrating this? Why wouldn't the US do so, when it already invaded another country in the region and created chaos there? How do we know that's not what's happening here?)

This inconclusiveness is convenient for a variety of folks, from those guarding their power and wealth to those who are loathe to give up the security they have, which they see demonstrably eluding those across the border in Iraq. Looking the other way is thus psychologically easier, if it can be somehow justified.

All this has made for a very foggy spring in nearby Arab capitals.

How will Arab world chart its future?

Contradictory US reaction to events in Syria, Libya, and Bahrain would signal that the US itself is not particularly intent on moving on when it comes to how it sees the Middle East – essentially as not much more than a proxy playground (in the Iran vs. Saudi Arabia and Israel-first games) or as petrol pump. And of course, it remains for the people here in the Arab world to determine for themselves what comes next, including choosing what to believe and whether it really matters in how they chart their futures.

But it is clear that the crimes of 9/11 and its aftermath are not yet behind us. Perhaps in bin Laden’s death, however, there is an opportunity to embark on a reconciliation of all that happened after the tragic events of one September morning, to the benefit of not just people here in the Arab world, but for Americans and our national well-being as well, which continues to suffer from a lack of true accountability.

Alia Malek is the author of “A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives and the editor of the forthcoming “Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9/11 InjusticesFollow Alia on Twitter @AliaMalek.

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