By Barry Rubin
Usama bin Laden is dead. But revolutionary Islamism is very much alive and stronger than ever. Thinking that bin Laden is the main problem and his death is the solution is very dangerous indeed and might well intensify the policies that have been leading toward the victory of his cause, though not his specific movement.
It is easy to forget that when bin Laden came on the scene revolutionary Islamism was in retreat. True, Iran was ruled by a revolutionary Islamist regime but that government had failed to extend the revolution overseas very much despite its best efforts. Another such regime, the Taliban, came to power in remote Afghanistan.
But by the end of the 1990s, revolutionary Islamism wasn’t doing so well. The reason was that its strategy was to overthrow Arab governments from within. There had been civil wars in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, and to a lesser extent in other places. The existing dictatorships, however, had repressed them.
So bin Laden came along with a different approach. If direct attacks on non-Islamist governments in Muslim-majority countries didn’t work, he proposed an international movement that would raise revolutionary enthusiasm by attacking the West.
One doesn’t have to isolate a single reason for this targeting. The West represented democracy and modernity, a licentious freedom and secularism that bin Laden and his comrades detested. They also hated Western policies, especially the support of Middle Eastern regimes to which these Islamists attributed their own inability to win.
While Israel was one of these countries, prior to September 11, bin Laden’s movement was more concerned about Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It also spoke a great deal about an alleged genocide in Iraq due to sanctions. And finally, it wanted to hit the West to show that it was a paper tiger and could be defeated. And an overarching factor was that the Islamists did not want the West to serve as role model for the future of their own societies though they feared that this was precisely what was happening.
So bin Laden formed al-Qaida and took the road to September 11. It is important to understand that al-Qaida failed as a movement but succeeded in the broadest sense as an idea. Since al-Qaida was relatively small and eschewed political action and base building for the sole tactic of terrorism it was relatively easy to repress, though not to eliminate entirely.
The U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan drove it from its home base and killed or captured many of its leaders. Al-Qaida scattered but that was not such a great disadvantage given its strategy. From Morocco to Somalia, from Indonesia to Western Europe it continued to stage scattered, but sometimes very bloody attacks. Yet that was the most it could do. In revolutionary terms, al-Qaida was equivalent to the terrorist’s of late nineteenth century Europe, the assassins and bomb throwers of anarchism and Russian social revolutionary tradition.
Ah, but who, then, is the Lenin of our day? Just as the anarchist bomb-throwers were a sideshow—however horrific, bloody, and needing to be repressed—the same is true of today.
Al-Qaida stages individual acts of terrorism. Hamas, Hizballah, the AKP in Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhoods seize state power. And they do so with the help of Iran and Syria.
That’s power, that’s a threat far exceeding the blowing up of a café or embassy. To take control over the lives of millions of people, to hold assets amounting to billions of dollars, to rule over whole territories and launch full-scale wars, that is power. That is a threat to Western interests, to world stability.
What has happened since September 11, 2001? We can list the terrorist attacks by al-Qaida and the casualties. And we can list the following not by al-Qaida:
–An Islamist regime rules Turkey and has seized control of most institutions and is gradually crushing democracy. This regime has aligned itself with Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, and Syria.
–An Islamist regime rules the Gaza Strip and has already set off one war and will no doubt do so again. Its patrons are Iran, Syria, and now Egypt. This government now exercises veto power over any Israel-Palestinian peace which means there won’t be an Israel-Palestinian peace.
–An Islamist-oriented regime rules Lebanon, backed by Iran and Syria. It has already set off one war and will no doubt do so again.
–The Iranian regime has weathered a major internal upheaval and is heading full-speed ahead toward nuclear weapons.
–With Western help the regime in Egypt—one of the main bulwarks against revolutionary Islamism has fallen–and whether or not Islamists there take over they will be a lot stronger, able to act freely, and direct a movement of millions seeking to Islamize and eventually make Islamist the largest Arab country of all.
–Revolutionary Islamism is also a serious threat, though so far has been kept at bay, in countries like Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan while in other parts of the world it has spread to places like Chechnya, the northern Caucasus, the Balkans, Nigeria, Somalia, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines, and Indonesia. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan seems far from impossible as does a revolutionary Islamist upheaval in Pakistan.
–Serious Islamist movements have gained political hegemony over growing Muslim communities all over the West. While many Muslims are indifferent to the movement and a few courageous dissidents combat it, Western governments and elites often blindly favor the Islamists.
–In fact, the degree that Western governments, elites, and societies are blind to the actual threat defies belief. The far left—which is a lot nearer than it used to be—often makes common cause with revolutionary Islamism.
Many of these other movements are “smarter” than bin Laden, which is to say they know how to be more tactically flexible. They can smile, and smile and be a villain. They understand far better how to be patient, conceal their plans, use elections, sponsor social services to win supporters, run youth camps to train suicide bombers, take Western aid and assistance, hang out with Western journalists to prove they’re cool guys, produce satellite television networks, and play Western democracies for all they are worth. Oh, and they can still throw bombs with the best of them.
Or, to put it in Iranian terms, bin Laden was the “little Satan” and the “big Satan,” the real revolutionary Islamist movement, couldn’t care less about his death. Indeed, his death serves a useful purpose. If the West thinks the “war on terror” is over and it’s time to celebrate, all the better. Countries can go on trading with Iran, engaging Syria and Hizballah, and acting as if there’s no big threat in Egypt. All the better to eat you up.
So bin Laden is dead and September 11 is, in a sense, avenged. But his cause goes marching on. It is marching forward. And as the West cheers at the good news of bin Laden’s death it may go back to sleep thereafter, snoring as the bin Laden’s of the world advance.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org.