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.

Go here to read the rest.

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. 

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Interestingly, In “The Future Church”, John Allen makes a very similar albeit cautious prediction about the direction of the Arab world. Quite remarkable given that this book was penned 18 months ago or so, before the recent uprisings.

  2. I don’t calculate measurable correlation. I guess the Arab spring will be as efficacious as the 1848 liberal revolution.

    BTW. Osama needs a new make-up artist.

  3. 1848 was mixed T. Shaw, but overall it did start sounding the deathknell of autocratic monarchies and multi-ethnic empires in Europe. Big changes are up in the Arab world. I think it is too early to say whether these changes when viewed in toto will be good or bad for the US, but it is beyond question that the Arab world at the end of the year will have undergone more rapid change than we have seen in one year in that part of the world since World War ii. Opportunity and danger both present themselves to us.

  4. Don

    An interesting corollary.

    The revolutions of 848 followed the crop failure and hard winter of 1847. I gather it was like the African famines of recent decades in the dead of a European winter. This was just before the development of the rail road that made it possible to move food to a famine stricken area, it was leave or strave. The riots Paris in February 1848 were food riots, most of the other political trouble has it’s origin in a food shortage. Of course all sorts of groups hijacked the legitimate concerns to support their favorite cause. This of course is the origin of the famous Communist Manifesto” exploiting a major natural disaster for political gain. This is the cause of the Irish potato famine that sent many Irish to the US, and many groups such as the German immigrants whose ancestors insist the fled oppression were really fleeing famine.

    Annia Ciezadlo in Foreign Affairs suggests a more basic commodity is involved – Bread.
    Most Middle East countries subsidize the price of bread. The rising cost of bread is forcing them to raise the price. Not anywhere like 1848 but resulting in unrest. Let Them Eat Bread

    Or my shorter summary Bread and Oil

    As to where it will all go . . .? ? ?

  5. 1848 and onward were not good years for Pope Pius IX and the Catholic Church. He started out as a liberal and became conservative when he saw the fruits of liberalism in the wreckage left by the revolutions which swept Europe.

    In the same fashion the Arab uprisings are resulting in even more persecutions of Christians in the Middle East.

    Furthermore, I think that Pope Pius IX’s Quanta Cura is even more applicable to today’s liberalism than when it was written in 1861 (I think). It’s endlessly fascinating that we have the same problems today with liberalism and violent revolutions as the Church faced then in Europe. Man hasn’t changed one iota in spite of his science, engineering and technological prowess.

  6. Pio Nono is an appealing figure to me Paul in some ways, but in the political realm his instincts were unerringly disastrous. He was one of the more incompetent rulers of the Papal States and never missed an opportunity to do damage to his cause. A man may be holy and still be a terrible secular ruler, and that is certainly the case with Pius IX. On the other hand, in the purely religious realm, his deft handling of Vatican I made for a much stronger Church to withstand the horrors awaiting it in the next century from the totalitarian regimes, and he was the first Pope to understand that using then cutting edge technology: photographs, the telegraph and mass newspapers and pamphlets, a closer bond could be forged than ever before between the pope and average Catholics. Complicated is the word that always springs to my mind when I think of the long pontificate of Pio Nono.

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