Once the rejoicing at Osama bin Laden’s death is over, the West must address the real issue at hand: its relationship with the Muslim world in light of the Arab Spring.
The death of Osama bin Laden, as an icon and symbol of terrorism, is all but a non-event for the world’s Muslims. His vision and actions were neither widely emulated nor respected, as numerous surveys by Western governments and anti-terrorism experts have confirmed. We are dealing, above all, with a primarily American, and more broadly European, event.
The staging of the announcement, in the form of the American president’s firm and carefully worded statement on live television, was designed to convey the impression of calm in the hour of victory over terrorism and over America’s public enemy number one. There was no empty boasting. President Obama, who has in the past been sharply criticized for his apparent lack of strength and determination on national security issues as well as on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has scored a powerful symbolic success that will have a strong impact on public opinion.
Not only did he keep up pursuit of Mr. bin Laden, but in total secrecy commanded a sensitive and ultimately successful operation that seems sure to strengthen his image as a decisive president able to take action in the critical fields of national security, defense, and patriotic pride. The only images available to date are those of the president micromanaging operations from his Washington office: a succession of cleverly calculated and skillfully conceived media dividends.
But we must go well beyond the flurry of exuberance that saw people celebrating in the streets of New York. What lies ahead for the Middle East, as it contemplates two contradictory realities? On the one hand, there are the massively popular peaceful revolutions taking place in the Arab world. And on the other is the death of the symbol of violent extremism, of a leader of tiny marginal and marginalized groups.
There may well be terrorist reprisals; they must be anticipated and met with all necessary firmness. But the task will be to combat and to neutralize isolated acts of provocation that under no circumstances can be used to justify a philosophy of political action, the course adopted by the previous American government. It is time to treat violent extremism for what it is: the action of small groups that represent neither Islam nor Muslims, but deviant political postures that have no credibility in majority Muslim societies.
The elements of a new political philosophy defining the West’s relationship with Islam and with the Muslims can only emerge from the crucible of the broad-based movement for justice, freedom, democracy, and dignity now sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. The rebirth now under way in the East must be understood first as an appeal for critical self-examination by the West. Once the rejoicing at the elimination of bin Laden, the “symbol of the cancer of terrorism,” is over, the West should move rapidly to review its regional policies.
The American and European presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the absence of a firm commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is an obstacle to any positive development. To this list must be added domestic issues such as discriminatory legislation that offends human dignity and personal liberty, the existence of Guantanamo, and the use of torture: practices that amplify mistrust of the United States and its allies. Selective support for dictatorships in the Middle East or in the oil sheikhdoms should be rapidly reconsidered lest these policies raise legitimate questions about the West’s true support for the democratization process in the Arab world.
The Muslim majority societies have a substantial responsibility for managing their own future. It cannot be stated strongly enough that the sirens of violence and extremism have never seduced the overwhelming majority of their peoples. More than ever, as the people awaken, it is essential that civil society (including intellectuals and political parties) remain mobilized and alert; that it expose corruption and the absence of the rule of law and of justice; that it develop a genuine strategy to create free and democratic societies; and that, in the end, it create the conditions for new political and economic relations with the West.
For the old couple made up of Islam and the West is no longer young; the presence of new players from the Far East, starting with China, is even now resetting the parameters of the world economic order.
America, like the countries of South America, like China and India by way of Turkey, knows exactly what is taking place. It may well be that the Arab Spring is, in reality, the autumn of the Arab world’s relations with the West, and a new path to another, broader spring, bounded this time by the East and Orient. Against this emerging geo-economic landscape, the announcement of bin Laden’s death has all the force of a fading wind, of a random event.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford. His latest book is “The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism." Mr. Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928.