Osama bin Laden saw a clash of civilizations: Muslims vs. non-Muslims. He was wrong. This is a battle between the civilizations of the 7th century and the 21st century. And Bin Laden's death is a victory for all of us who choose to live in the modern world.
The man who successfully launched the war of civilizations is dead – but his war rages on. Osama bin Laden, the iconic face of global terrorism, has finally met the fate President George W. Bush promised when he pronounced the judgment that the United States would get him eventually, “dead or alive.” President Obama carried out the sentence.
Both leaders were at pains to affirm to the Muslim world that the war on terror is not a war against Islam. They believed it necessary to repeat those assurances because so many Muslims have bought into Bin Laden’s false syllogism: America, a nonMuslim country, was killing some Muslims, therefore it is at war with all Muslims.
Many in the West also fell into Bin Laden’s trap: some Muslims have attacked Americans and other Westerners, so all of Islam is at war with the West.
For those in both camps holding those views, the war on terror is a war of civilizations.
The reality, slightly more complex and thus less amenable to slogans, is that if there are two civilizations in conflict, it is not Muslims vs. nonMuslims, it is the civilization of the 21st century against that of the 7th . Bin Laden and adherents of his extremist ideology oppose all those – Muslims and “infidels” alike – who choose to live in the modern world of religious tolerance and even secularism.
The self-appointed keepers of the “original,” “authentic” version of Islam as it was practiced in the time of Muhammed cannot tolerate such concepts as respect for different belief systems or the equality of women. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, violent Wahhabis and Salafists, and their militant Shiite counterparts see themselves as the guardians of the pure, true faith. They intend, one way or another, to “persuade” the errant or nonbelievers to comply with their vision of the world.
Jordan’s King Abdullah labeled their motivation as “pure” all right – the pure lust for power: “They are religious totalitarians, in a long line of extremists of various faiths who seek power by intimidation, violence, and thuggery."
President Bush put it this way: “We have seen their kind before. They are the successors to the fascists, Nazis, Communists, and other totalitarians of the 20th century, and history shows what the outcome will be – the defeat of the terrorist totalitarians and victory for the cause of freedom and liberty.”
The last moments of Bin Laden and his entourage perfectly captured their twisted mindset: They used a woman as a human shield. No doubt she was also a Muslim.
Bin Laden’s terrorism is not one side of the war of civilizations. It is the war on civilization. His death is not only a victory for the side of civilization but a key defense of modern humanity around the globe.
The real death blow to Al Qaeda’s view of the world is the “Arab spring” movement that is rejecting both military and monarchical dictatorship and religious totalitarianism. Instead, the majority of Arabs and Muslims have decided that they have the capacity – and the right – to enjoy both religion (or non-religion) and freedom. Bin Laden cannot have been pleased with this revolution.
Joseph A. Bosco, a national security consultant, worked on Muslim outreach and strategic communications in the office of the secretary of Defense in various assignments from 2002 to 2010 and served on several interagency committees on US-Muslim relations.