Osama bin Laden and 1848
In 1848 the quiet of mid-nineteenth century Europe was shattered in a wave of revolutions throughout the continent. Beginning in France in February, a wave of revolutions began that would ultimately engulf 50 states in Europe and Latin America. Some succeeded and some failed, but at the end Europe and the world was a very different place. People who lived through this stunning year wrote with disbelief as well established governments were suddenly toppled by popular uprisings. History often proceeds at a fairly stately pace, and change can be imperceptible. At other times History moves with a lightning pace and dramatic changes occur almost literally over night. In 1989 we saw a similar year of revolutions in Eastern Europe where the Communist regimes vanished like chaff before a driving wind. The Arab world is experiencing a similar year of revolution this year, and the year is but little more than a third gone as of this writing.
Thus far governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have been toppled. Libya is in the grip of civil war. The Syrian government is making war against its own people as a popular uprising continues. Major protests have occurred in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Morocco and Oman and minor protests, so far, in Djibouti, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauretania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara. In the age of the internet, blogs, facebook, twitter and ubiquitous cell phones, it is simply no longer possible for most autocratic regimes to keep their peoples ignorant of developments around the globe, and with each government that falls the movement grows throughout the Arab world to replace highly unpopular dictatorial regimes.
Osama bin Laden launched his jihad against the West as part of a powerplay to gain enough prestige for his jihadists to topple existing Arab regimes and to put in their place jihadist regimes that would rule their societies based on sharia and dedicated to ultimate rule by Islam around the globe. Instead, he died in a year when Arab regimes are tottering as a result of broad based popular uprisings that seem to have little to do with the jihadist movement he led. Fouad Ajami in a brilliant column yesterday in the Wall Street Journal entitled Osama Bin Laden, Weak Horse, wrote:
The Arab Spring has simply overwhelmed the world of the jihadists. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, younger people—hurled into politics by the economic and political failures all around them—are attempting to create a new political framework, to see if a way could be found out of the wreckage that the authoritarian states have bequeathed them. It is a risky thing to say, but Arabs appear to have wearied of violence. I hazard to guess bin Laden’s fate was of no interest to the people in the sorrowful town of Deraa enduring the cruelty of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his death squads.
When our remarkable soldiers gave him a choice, Osama bin Laden gave them a fight. Fittingly, he was not in a cave. He had grown up in the urban world of Jeddah, and he was struck down in a perfectly urban setting, a stone’s throw from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, in odd proximity to a military academy, in a visible and large compound. He had outlived his time and use, and doubtless Pakistani intelligence was now willing to cast him adrift.
A savvy American official once observed that Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, must have an “office of hedging your bets.” A generation ago, South Asia made room for the Saudi plotter and financier. He had money, and the aura of the Arabian Peninsula, the land of Islamic revelation. Now all that was of the past.
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No doubt the Arab world will remain in turmoil for quite some time to come, and continue to spawn movements and states that mean America ill. However, I do not think it is overly optimistic to view the revolutions sweeping the Arab world and suspect that there is a chance that perhaps the day of the jihadists represented by bin Laden has come and gone and that a new path is being blazed in the Arab world. We shall see.