This morning I awoke to the news that Osama bin Laden was dead, murdered by the United States of America in a what appears to have been a heavily fortified compound in Pakistan; more precise details will no doubt emerge over time. The news is currently being presented in such a way as to suggest capture, not death, was the objective, though whether that was in any way realistic is open to serious debate: surely resistance was expected, and so the statement that bin Laden ‘did resist the assault force’ should come as no great surprise.
Although bin Laden was regarded as significant in many western policy circles, serving as a very useful oppositional figure (and one we will no doubt see replaced in a short time), he was not highly regarded by most Muslims, who saw his understanding of Islam as being no less abhorrent than many Christians’ perspectives of Hitler’s understanding of Christianity. His significance lay in substantial measure in his elevation to a position as ‘super-terrorist’ by US Presidents Clinton, Bush (the Lesser) and Obama on the one hand, and every self-serving dictator claiming to be an ally of the USA-led actions against ‘international terror’ on the other: indeed, one might reasonably argue that bin Laden was emboldened by all the attention he received.
In substantial part this way of thinking about bin Laden arose from a racist strand of thought that was articulated in American neoconservative thinktanks, represented most publicly in two different though related books: Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Samuel Huntingdon’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Fukuyama has since distanced himself a little from his thesis, though he is still firmly in the neoconservative camp). Huntingdon’s book in particular has been influential well beyond its literary or intellectual merit. His thesis of distinct civilisational or religious blocs – one of them being Islam – that were in competition or even war with one another dominated Bush’s administration, in particular as it suited his own simplistic dualism of good and evil struggling against each another. Although strenuously denied by Obama and especially by his immediate supporters, this kind of thinking has continued without change, albeit in more nuanced form, as the ‘drone war’ amply illustrates.
This thinking is not confined to conservative thinktanks and policy-makers, however, as the cheering crowds outside the White House celebrating bin Laden’s murder demonstrate. There is clearly no understanding of bin Laden’s significance or otherwise beyond American (and to a lesser extent, European) interests, and the conflation of his thinking into ‘fundamentalist Islam’ (as Tony Blair and others called it) simply highlights the paucity of intelligent reflection and comment (for a better assessment, the Independent’s Robert Fisk offers careful engagement with bin Laden and his changing thought in The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East). In fact, bin Laden’s death is largely irrelevant to most Muslims in the Middle East and South East Asia, beyond perhaps removing a stigma that had become attached to idea of Islam – this is how we can read the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s statement that bin Laden’s death has removed one of the causes of violence in the world. Bin Laden was not a cleric, had no formal training in Islamic law, spoke for no government, no substantial movement and had few followers: it is hard to underestimate his irrelevance to most Muslims, who might have agreed with his assessment of the cause of problems faced by Muslims, but disagreed with his proposed methodology for dealing with these problems, as Tony Karon has argued. In so far as localised movements used or use the al Qaida name, whether in Iraq, in the Arabian Peninsula or elsewhere, it was and is always as part of a nationalist or irredentist movement, riding on the coat-tails of a wealthy supporter of attacks against a perceived enemy of Islam. As the name itself suggests (it translates simply as ‘the base’), people don’t really ‘join’ al-Qaida, they simply adopt the name if it suits them at that particular moment in time.
And that is a key issue: these nationalist movements will not go away unless some meaningful compromise or agreement can be reached on issues they are addressing. We might not sympathise with their modes of engagement, but their causes are often at least partially legitimate. None of this is about what we might think of as ‘religion’ in the sense of Islam being a key issue: these are struggles over land, rights, political engagement, freedom and the like, though they may be presented as being about Islam by some. Even bin Laden saw nationalist struggles as significant: one of his most important early demands was the removal of American troops from Saudi Arabia (he saw this as a violation of the land of Mecca and Medina, the two foremost holy cities in Islam), and his aim of defeating America in the same way (he claimed) he had defeated the Soviet Union was at least in part about liberating Muslims from American influence.
So if Americans and Europeans now think that they can begin to relax over the prospect of ‘international terror’, they are very mistaken. US policy in particular is catastrophically misaligned in the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia (where the majority of the world’s Muslims live), proclaiming democracy, whilst propping up regimes that clearly only serve US interests rather than the interests of the people of these countries. For those who hitherto refused to see this reality it has been made very clear over the last year, with two key factors playing a role: the first is Wikileaks and the unprecedented insight into US-policy making it offers, and the second is the ‘Arab spring’, as al-Jazeera elegantly calls the uprisings across the Middle East. Bin Laden was a minor, irrelevant issue in this context: he had not commented significantly on any of the current issues, had not engaged in any noticeable way with the rebellions, and so his murder, whilst perhaps a satisfying act of violent revenge for Americans, serves no useful or meaningful purpose in resolving these wider global conflicts.
After all, US and European policies towards Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East and South East Asia are unlikely to change simply because bin Laden is now dead, and so rather than this really being the end, this is more likely to be the end of the beginning. So long as Americans and Europeans continue to think in simple dichotomies of good (us) and evil (them), advanced (us) and primitive (them), having rights (us) and threatening our rights (them), and so on, the ‘clash of civilisations’ will continue. Huntingdon thought he was describing a reality, when in fact he was describing a choice – in classic Marxist/Leninist terms we can see this as an ideologically-driven reversal of cause and effect designed to preserve existing systems of dominance. When viewed through a Fukuyama/Huntingdon lens, religion, culture, civilisations all become more important categories of analysis than they deserve to be in the wider struggle for rights, self-determination and freedom. If US and European policy continues to follow a doctrinaire view of the world as split into competing or warring blocs based on misappropriated understandings of religions, civilisations and cultures – note the plurals – rather than understanding the hybridity and connectedness underpinning our world, continuing conflict and equivalent resistance is assured. Sometimes that resistance will take the form of so-called acts of terror. Whether the tears of an Afghan mother or father mourning the death of a child in a drone attack ‘defending American freedom’ are worth the same as the tears of an American mother or father mourning the death of a child in an attack on ‘imperialist invaders’ is an active choice we make. We can make that choice and we can vote for governments that make that choice, but if we choose to prioritise our needs, our understanding of culture, religion or civilisation, then we must always expect that others will contest that. Murdering bin Laden does not help with these choices, rather it is simply more of the same: unless we make choices that subvert the dominant paradigm propogated by those that determine our countries’ foreign policy, this might just be the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end of the clash of civilisations.