Osama bin Laden: How long will it take to kill his ideology?

It took 10 years to find and kill Osama bin Laden. It may take much longer to kill his ideology.

ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
A woman walks past a screen announcing the death of Osama bin Laden, on May 2, 2011 in a street of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

As Americans cheer the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan yesterday, here’s a sobering thought:

It took roughly 10 years to find and kill Osama bin Laden. It may take much longer to kill his ideology.

Take the US Civil War. General Lee’s surrender ended the Confederate rebellion. But it did not end the South’s leading idea: a rejection of the truth that “all men are created equal.” Ridding the South of that poison would take another 100 years – at least. Forceful federal action was needed, but so was the quieter work of changing attitudes in schools, churches, and homes.

At the heart of bin Laden’s hateful ideology is the concept that all men must submit to theological tyranny. He did not originate this teaching. He was simply the most visible modern figurehead of that radical Islamist slogan going back to the 7th century: “We love death more than you love life!”

Ridding the world of that extremist poison will be the work of generations. And like yesterday’s raid, this fight will sometimes be waged with arms. But the most important work will be wrought in mosques, markets, and madrassahs.

As President Bush put it in his address to Congress shortly after 9/11:

“Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.”

Perhaps the hardest part of the struggle will be breaking the hypnotic effect that radical Islamist sermons can have on young men. Years ago, I asked two of our European freelancers to investigate Britain’s “jihadi echo chambers.” I still recall the anecdote they published about an Irish man who converted to Islam:

By portraying militancy as the ultimate expression of piety, Abu Osama and preachers like him are leading young Muslims down the path toward violence.

"Some of the people tell you Islam is a religion of peace because they think that then you'll want to convert," says Dublin-born convert Khalid Kelly, who soaks up Abu Osama's sidewalk sermon. "But you cannot possibly say Islam is a religion of peace; jihad is not an internal struggle."

Armed struggle was the last thing on Mr. Kelly's mind until his conversion several years ago. "I was your average Irish drunkard, partying and so on," he says. Arrested in Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a nurse, for brewing his own alcohol, Kelly found Islam in prison - an increasingly common arena for Muslim conversion and radicalization.

After his return to Britain in 2002, Kelly quickly became a disciple of Bakri, a radical Syrian-born cleric based in Britain, who is most widely known for celebrating 9/11, and more recently, blaming 7/7 on British foreign policy. Through Bakri's circle, which is now largely underground, Kelly met Abu Osama. Now, they gravitate toward obscure mosques that nurture homegrown extremists.

"The imam here" - Kelly nods at the mosque - "said, 'Pray for the victory of the mujahideen in all the world.' He's talking about Osama bin Laden, but he can't say that."

The good news is that attitudes toward Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have been dropping across the Muslim world since that article was published in 2005. And as this year’s Arab Spring reminds us, entire regions defy decades of dictatorship once they perceive the promise of self-government. As one Libyan protester, Mutaq Saleh, told the Monitor: "We've broken a barrier of fear. We're not going back to that."

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