The killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs has many immediate repercussions – for the Afghanistan war, US-Pakistan ties, even American politics. But history will probably note the opportune timing of this final triumph over the leader of Al Qaeda and of the 9/11 attacks.
It came just months after the Arab Spring began to plant the seeds of democracy and equality in the Middle East.
These popular uprisings were already killing off the false promise of Al Qaeda – that Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea must be forced to accept unelected Islamic clerics ruling over them in one grand caliphate – and that only the use of terror can achieve that single theological state.
Since December, Arabs have begun to shake off authoritarian rule of any stripe, whether it be religious, secular, even tribal. They are embracing the powerful idea about the sovereignty of the individual. They want a society organized around that powerful idea, one that is only achieved by the peaceful consent of the governed.
Militant movements like Al Qaeda that wage a “holy war” have always been on the fringe of Muslim societies. A majority of Muslims already live in democracies, such as Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and soon Egypt and Tunisia.
Polls show that most of the world’s 1 billion Muslims want freedom and are not fundamentalist. They reject Iran’s model of clerical rule as well as a caliphate, sultanate, or emiratic form of governance.
Al Qaeda’s origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood of early 20th-century Egypt and the anticolonial attitudes of that time. Bin Laden’s presumed successor will likely be Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician who fled to Afghanistan in 1984 and joined up with Al Qaeda during the mujahideen fight against the Soviet occupation.
Mr. Zawahiri is not pleased with the coming of democracy to Egypt. Even the Muslim Brotherhood there is being forced to recognize the popular call for a secular state that keeps religious groups at arm’s length. The Brotherhood is even forming a political party that claims to be open to non-Muslim members and to women as leaders.
Many fence-sitting Muslim fundamentalists who have passively supported Al Qaeda are being forced to become moderates who accept a separation of mosque and state. That seems to be the case with the Shiite movement Hezbollah in Lebanon and perhaps the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza. They may yet accept that elected government can reflect the values of religion without being beholden to any one religion or group of religious leaders.
The rejection of the concept of human autonomy by bin Laden and other violence-prone jihadists was destined to be their biggest downfall. Such a skewed ideology, which violates individual rights, also led to the killing of innocent people, even Muslims who stand in the way. And it never achieved its goal of overthrowing a dictatorial Arab regime.
While such terrorism alone was reason enough to crush Al Qaeda, especially its isolated leader, the deeper global struggle has always been a contest of ideas about the worth and role of the individual in defining the source of legitimate authority and the shaping of constitutional government.
The killing of bin Laden will not end the need for vigilance, especially among Muslims, to oppose the network of radicals prone to take up the sword in the name of his vision of a top-down, Taliban-style governance.
Thanks certainly goes to the US intelligence community and the military for finally finding the man behind 9/11. But it is Muslims who are ridding their world of the bin Ladens.
The enemy has always been within, and in the end Muslims will be the real heroes.