Does the death of Osama bin Laden raise the likelihood of a broader shift in favor of democratic ideas? Or does his legacy remain a toxic political force in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond?
The pro-democracy protesters of the Arab awakening had already demonstrated Al-Qaeda’s political irrelevance, observers suggest.
“Bin Laden became part of the past, just like the Arab regimes that have been toppled,” said Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements. “
“It was the soft power of Wael Ghoneim and his associates, not bin Laden’s crude power, that led to regime change,” he said, in a reference to Wael Ghoneim, the former Google executive and public face of the youth-led Tahrir Square protests.
Bin Laden’s death is “a big blow” to the organization, said Olivier Roy, one of the world’s leading experts on Islamist politics.
But the Arab Spring had already marginalized its appeal. “It wasn’t making headlines in the Middle East, it ceased to be at the core of the region’s issues.”
The Arab world’s pro-democracy movements “accomplished in weeks what militants couldn’t in decades,” notes one account:
Radical and ultraconservative Muslims temper their screeds these days to speak to a Middle East and North Africa that crave jobs and freedoms over religious extremism and holy war that have led to promises of paradise but few earthly rewards.
The ouster of Mubarak and Ben Ali “was a significant blow to al-Qaeda extremist ideology, which always claimed that violent Jihad was the only way of regime change in the Middle East,” said Khaled Hamza, a leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
But with jihadist ideology losing its appeal, Islamists are adapting their discourse.
“All the rhetoric that Bin Laden and his allies were using against Arab governments no longer applies,” said Gulf-based analyst Riad Kahwaji. “That’s why we see the Salafists talk about participation and the Muslim Brotherhood [in Egypt] modifying its agenda and meeting the seculars half way.”
The region’s citizens are moving towards a positive, constructive agenda, observers contend.
“The problem now is not how you can destroy something, how you can resist something, it’s how can you build something new — a new state, a new authority, a new relationship between the public and leadership, a new civil society,” said Radwan Sayyid, a professor of Islamic studies at Beirut’s Lebanese University.
Bin-Laden’s death should also boost democratic ideals and the legitimacy of promoting democracy, argues Dominique Moisi, a prominent analyst at the French Institute of International Relations.
“Seen from Europe, this is part of the return of America. The story a few years ago was America’s relative decline, but this shows a return,” he writes. “We see that democracy prevails as an aspiration and democracy prevails as a force.”
Bin Laden’s death highlights al-Qaeda‘s irrelevance, especially in the context of the Arab Spring, says Maajid Nawaz, director of Quilliam, the UK-based anti-extremist group.
“The Arab world has moved on since al-Qaeda was founded in the 1980s,” he contends. “A clear majority of Muslims around the world have decisively rejected al-Qaeda’s vision; people’s real concerns are now about poverty, unemployment and a lack of government accountability; not about establishing a caliphate and fighting a worldwide jihad against the West.
The Obama administration should take advantage of this new momentum by “pushing further to end the vicious and violent regimes” in Libya and Syria, writes Elliot Abrams.
“As the republics of fear fall, al Qaida’s message will fall further into disrepute and the message of freedom that is now spreading in the Middle East will grow stronger,” he argues.
Bin Laden’s death has a powerful symbolism, writes Paul Berman. Some pundits have airily dismissed the war on terror, but his demise represents a major victory for democracy in the struggle against radical Islamism.
“The war has been a struggle over principle,” he argues. “It has been a struggle between the Islamist fantasy of founding a theocracy versus the democratic principle of promoting and defending a reality of democratic freedom.”
Le Monde, France’s newspaper of record, celebrates a historic coincidence:
The man who embodied international jihadism dies at the moment when the ‘Arab spring’ has just given a blow to this totalitarian fantasy. As soon as Arab peoples revolted in the name of democracy and not Islamism or the return to the caliphate preached by Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was politically moribund.