I did not celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death. Killing an individual is easier than killing an idea. Osama’s idea of jihad survives his death.
He was the mastermind of 9/11 and the most iconic jihadi figure. Yet he had long ceased to direct jihadi movements and had run foul of some by killing Muslims opposed to al-Qaida.
Nevertheless, Osama succeeded in popularizing a new version of jihad. In this, suicide attacks and civilian killings—both crimes in traditional Islam—became glorious jihadi tactics that fulfilled Islamic goals and ensured a passport to paradise.
John Brown, US anti-slavery leader, led a slave uprising in 1859, and was hanged for it. Yet his ideal of abolishing slavery triumphed. This inspired the US civil war song “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.” So too will Osama’s.
His death may encourage the US to withdraw troops quickly from Afghanistan, strike a deal with the Taliban, and play down terrorism directed at India rather than the US. Pakistan will see this as vindication of its two-faced policy of using terrorists against India while playing footsie with the US. Such two-facedness may mean worse violence within Pakistan, with radicals gaining ground from liberal Muslims. India may suffer further 26/11-style attacks, more violence in Kashmir, and more external assistance for domestic jihadi groups. We may even suffer another Kandahar-type hijack.
To scotch this, militant Hindus want to emulate the US by raiding and assassinating targets in Pakistan such as Hafeez Saeed of the Lashkare-Taiba , mastermind of 26/11. This approach will fail. Just look at the ultimate failure of many killing missions of Israel, which is global No.1 in political assassinations and much admired for it by the RSS.
Ronen Bergman, Israeli military analyst, recalls that in 1992, Israel assassinated Hezbollah founder Abbas Mussawi. Far from weakening Hezbollah, this fuelled its anger and led to a retaliatory attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29. Mussawi’s replacement, Hassan Nasrallah, greatly increased Hezbollah’s clout using arms supplies from Iran. This helped him wage an inconclusive war against Israel in 2006. Israel inflicted much damage on Lebanon, yet ended by withdrawing, a worse outcome than anything imaginable in Mussawi’s time.
In 2004, Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, hoping to cripple the organization . Instead, Hamas became stronger and more aggressive. Yassin was a devout Sunni who opposed Shia Iran, but after his death, Hamas happily joined hands with Iran and was armed by it, to Israel’s utter dismay. So, while India faces a growing threat from jihadis, Israel shows us that assassination is no solution—it looks macho but ends up strengthening your foes. Ultimately, militant Islam will be quelled only by liberal Islam , not by outsiders, and that internal struggle is beyond our power to resolve. Whether we like it or not, we cannot impose a military solution.
Optimists disagree. They claim that jihad as a philosophy has been beaten back by the Arab Spring, and that secular freedom movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have displaced sectarian ones. I would love to believe this is the case, but history suggests otherwise.
Many liberals (including me) hailed the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah. Alas, this brought not democracy but a murderous , oppressive theocracy.
Liberals cheered prospects of democracy when Algeria held its first free elections in 1991. But an Islamist party won the first round. So, with US blessings, democracy was abandoned in favour of continued military rule. Elections in Palestine brought to power Hamas, a radical Islamic party, humiliating the secular PLO.
Why do Islamists so often win free elections in the Middle East? Because local dictators can neuter secular opposition groups but dare not close down the mosques. Hence mosques become natural opposition centres. When autocracy gives way to elections, Islamic parties (like the Muslim Brotherhood) are the best organized, and so best placed to win. In Egypt’s referendum on constitutional reform in March, opposition leader El Baradei (who wanted elections put off to help secular parties organize) was prevented from casting his vote by Islamists who pelted stones. Does this portend liberal democracy or Islamist intolerance?
This must stoke fears that the Arab Spring will bring radical Islamists to power in many countries. I would love to be proved wrong. But I have a sinking feeling that we will soon say of Osama what Bertold Brecht said of Hitler.
Don’t rejoice in his defeat, you men.
For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard,
The bitch that bore him is in heat again.