Farewell to Geronimo
Published: May 3, 2011
There is only one good thing about the fact that Osama bin Laden survived for nearly 10 years after the mass murder at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that he organized. And that is that he lived long enough to see so many young Arabs repudiate his ideology. He lived long enough to see Arabs from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Syria rise up peacefully to gain the dignity, justice and self-rule that Bin Laden claimed could be obtained only by murderous violence and a return to puritanical Islam.
We did our part. We killed Bin Laden with a bullet. Now the Arab and Muslim people have a chance to do their part — kill Bin Ladenism with a ballot — that is, with real elections, with real constitutions, real political parties and real progressive politics.
Yes, the bad guys have been dealt a blow across the Arab world in the last few months — not only Al Qaeda, but the whole rogues’ gallery of dictators, whose soft bigotry of low expectations for their people had kept the Arab world behind. The question now, though, is: Can the forces of decency get organized, elected and start building a different Arab future? That is the most important question. Everything else is noise.
To understand that challenge, we need to recall, again, where Bin Ladenism came from. It emerged from a devil’s bargain between oil-consuming countries and Arab dictators. We all — Europe, America, India, China — treated the Arab world as a collection of big gas stations, and all of us sent the same basic message to the petro-dictators: Keep the oil flowing, the prices low and don’t bother Israel too much and you can treat your people however you like, out back, where we won’t look. Bin Laden and his followers were a product of all the pathologies that were allowed to grow in the dark out back — crippling deficits of freedom, women’s empowerment and education across the Arab world.
These deficits nurtured a profound sense of humiliation among Arabs at how far behind they had fallen, a profound hunger to control their own futures and a pervasive sense of injustice in their daily lives. That is what is most striking about the Arab uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in particular. They were almost apolitical. They were not about any ideology. They were propelled by the most basic human longings for dignity, justice and to control one’s own life. Remember, one of the first things Egyptians did was attack their own police stations — the instruments of regime injustice. And since millions of Arabs share these longings for dignity, justice and freedom, these revolutions are not going to go away.
For decades, though, the Arab leaders were very adept at taking all that anger brewing out back and redirecting it onto the United States and Israel. Yes, Israel’s own behavior at times fed the Arab sense of humiliation and powerlessness, but it was not the primary cause. No matter. While the Chinese autocrats said to their people, “We’ll take away your freedom and, in return, we’ll give you a steadily rising education and standard of living,” the Arab autocrats said, “We’ll take away your freedom and give you the Arab-Israel conflict.”
This was the toxic “out back” from which Bin Laden emerged. A twisted psychopath and false messiah, he preached that only through violence — only by destroying these Arab regimes and their American backers — could the Arab people end their humiliation, restore justice and build some mythical uncorrupted caliphate.
Very few Arabs actively supported Bin Laden, but he initially drew significant passive support for his fist in the face of America, the Arab regimes and Israel. But as Al Qaeda was put on the run, and spent most of its energies killing other Muslims who didn’t toe its line, even its passive support melted away (except for the demented leadership of Hamas).
In that void, with no hope of anyone else riding to their rescue, it seems — in the totally unpredictable way these things happen — that the Arab publics in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere shucked off their fears and decided that they themselves would change what was going on out back by taking over what was going on out front.
And, most impressively, they decided to do it under the banner of one word that you hear most often today among Syrian rebels: “Silmiyyah.” It means peaceful. “We will do this peacefully.” It is just the opposite of Bin Ladenism. It is Arabs saying in their own way: We don’t want to be martyrs for Bin Laden or pawns for Mubarak, Assad, Gaddafi, Ben Ali and all the rest. We want to be “citizens.” Not all do, of course. Some prefer more religious identities and sectarian ones. This is where the struggle will be.
We cannot predict the outcome. All we can hope for is that this time there really will be a struggle of ideas — that in a region where extremists go all the way and moderates tend to just go away, this time will be different. The moderates will be as passionate and committed as the extremists. If that happens, both Bin Laden and Bin Ladenism will be resting at the bottom of the ocean.