It is of little surprise that American Muslims, like most Americans, received news of Osama bin Laden’s elimination with a sigh of relief and a sense of vindication. His death marks a key historical juncture, in that it offers us an opportunity to break away from the polarizing, divisive atmosphere he helped ignite and the paranoia and fear-mongering we unfortunately allowed to ensue in our culture as a result of it. For almost a decade, we have played into bin Laden’s hands by allowing him and his outfit to dominate our national discourse on Islam and Muslims.
Bin Laden was arguably the single most damaging individual to the domestic and global image of our faith. Bin Laden’s rhetoric and actions flew in the face of everything Islam stands for: honesty, compassion, and honorable conduct in war. The cowardice latent in the tactic of terrorism, in which innocent, unsuspecting civilians are consciously targeted, is antithetical to the basic precepts of Islam.
The damaging effects of bin Laden far extend beyond the physical attacks on the Twin Towers on that fateful day. Bin Laden was under no illusion that killing 3,000 people and destroying two buildings was in itself going to destroy a superpower of 300 million citizens. Bin Laden harbored much more ruthless ambitions; he planned to use that single monstrous act as a spark that would set off a much larger fire. That fire, he hoped would rage between Islam and the West, sowing the seeds of discord and suspicion, eventually leading to a global clash of civilizations in which Americans would turn against Muslims worldwide; and Muslims, in turn, would be forced to rally in unison against the United States.
Bin Laden’s devious strategy found an alarming degree of success in the sharp spike in Islamophobia in the U.S. and Europe and the surge in Al-Qaeda’s recruitment. But his plans hit an unlikely hurdle in the form of American Muslims, who rather than turn against the United States, unanimously condemned Al-Qaeda, reaffirmed their loyalty to their country, organized and mobilized their ranks to increase civic participation, and bolstered their community organizations to counter both bin Laden’s radical Islamic ideology and Islamophobia. The posture of American Muslims helped sabotage bin Laden’s vision for a new world order that would cut across religious lines with Muslims on one side, and the U.S. on the other. It helped quell the anxiety of millions in the Muslim-majority world who were watching the rollback of civil liberties and the widespread vilification of Muslims in the U.S. with great concern and skepticism. It sent the powerful message that if religious, practicing Muslims were proud to be American, something must still be right with America.
While we must remain vigilant against the threat of terror and never let our guard down, the fact is that radical religious militancy is on the decline; it is at best a fringe movement comprised of thousands of individuals, a far cry from the formidable global threat likely to enforce a radical Islamic state from Indonesia to Morocco as some in the far right have laughably claimed.
And the timing could not be better.
Much more relevant and much more representative of the true sentiments and aspirations of Muslims is the unfolding phenomenon of the Arab Spring wherein millions of young people are taking to the streets in Arab capitals calling for freedom, democracy, political transparency, and social accountability. While we had been busy entertaining our obsession with marginal radical militant movements, and wallowing deeper into Islamophobia, the populist push for democracy in the Muslim-majority world has taken us by surprise. We are now coming to terms with the reality that “they” do not hate us for “our freedoms,” but that “they” are sacrificing their lives to attain “our freedoms.” If anything, we have been guilty of supporting corrupt autocratic regimes that deny them “our freedoms,” a shortsighted and misguided foreign policy that hurts our strategic interests in the long term.
It is now up to us to ensure that the demise of bin Laden represents a larger turning point that puts an end to an era, and ushers in a new one in which we catch up with the changing tides in the Arab and Muslim worlds. We have an opportunity to redefine relationships, move beyond superficial conflict, and embrace a new world order of freedom, democracy, peace, and mutual economic development.