The killing of Osama bin Laden on Monday 3rd of May was indeed a historical advent which ought to signal the end of one of the most difficult phases in the relationship between the West and the Muslim world.
For nearly a decade, Bin Laden had become not only the world’s most wanted man but also the main signifier in a troubled relationship with Islam and Muslims worldwide. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, the world lived a brief moment of unity in which all nations expressed shock and outrage as to the attack that claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people. Sadly that moment was scuppered rather than capitalised on, with the launch of the ‘War on Terror’ and the apparent intent of the US administration to seek vengeance through a military, intelligence and security campaign that claimed the lives of thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians.
The war in Afghanistan followed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, brought not only unspeakable misery, pain and strife upon those who in normal circumstances would not support Al-Qaeda ideology and tactics, but severely damaged relations between the West in general and Muslims as a whole. With terrorist attacks following in London, Madrid, Paris, Istanbul and countless other locations resulting in the death of hundreds of innocent by-passers, it was clear that those intent on bringing death and destruction operated on both sides, with the global population caught in the middle and suffering as a consequence.
Over the past years and on frequent occasions, mainstream Muslim organisations, groups and figures have consistently condemned the ideology espoused by Al-Qaeda, the wave of terror and fear it was waging. The message from mainstream Muslim community was constant and unequivocal: Islam, as well as universal human values, forbids the shedding of innocent blood regardless of colour, creed, race or culture. It was immoral and criminal to consider commuters in New York or London as legitimate targets, as it was to consider passers-by in a Kabul or Baghdad market mere collateral.
Few disagree that for years, Bin Laden has been little more than a spiritual leader rather than an effective operational commander of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has rapidly become an idea and a brand rather than an organisation with any tangible structure or base, as a result of a number of factors including some which the USA, the UK and several Western governments must contend with and answer for. His capture and death should have signalled the end of a difficult chapter in the lives of countless people around the world. However, the manner in which he was killed and subsequently disposed of, adds to the long list of mistakes that cements the state of mistrust, lack of faith and goodwill between the West and the Muslim world.
The celebrations that broke out on the streets of several US cities, while understandable on some level, displayed an unsavoury side of the US to the rest of the world. Civilised nations do not celebrate the death of an individual in that manner, nor do they consider vengeance a palatable objective. It is also likely that this will lead to more young people sympathising with rather than rejecting the line which Al-Qaeda promotes, and rhetoric of an extreme nature is already appearing on online blogs and discussions forums. Instead of moving on, it seems we are in for a long haul of staying exactly where we are.
Some expressions of sympathy that have emerged from some corners whom were renowned to have always condemned the statements, policies and actions of Al-Qaeda, should be taken in the spirit of both Islamic tradition as well as political reality, rather than support for the demised. Islam forbids its followers from speaking ill of the dead especially those killed, and calls upon them to pray for their forgiveness. Furthermore, in light of failing Western policies throughout the Muslim world and particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst other reasons, Bin Laden was seen as the West’s nemesis. This afforded him popularity amongst disenchanted and disenfranchised masses despite them rejecting his ideology. Some groups and figures, chose to recall his earlier days of fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan forgoing the life of lavish luxury he could have well enjoyed, before an extreme ideology and skewed interpretation of Jihad and liberation took hold of him. He espoused an ideology of hatred, isolation, fear, violence and bloodshed.
Such statements must not be mistaken for support. Indeed, the Arab Spring that brought peaceful protests and revolutions throughout the Arab world in the past four months were the perfect antithesis to Al-Qaeda and its poisoned rhetoric, and were as much a rejection of extremism and terrorism as they were of corrupt despots and dictators.
Muslim leaders in the UK and the West must capitalise on this and act and speak responsibly as young people are searching for leadership and for guidance at these tense times. We must, at all costs, avoid initiating a new era where recriminations and counter-recriminations coin West-Muslim relationships. If anything was learnt from the past decade, it is that violence begets violence and the cycle of bloodshed is virtually impossible to break.
Western Muslims must join efforts with fellow country folk to reject policies which deem human lives dispensable and war an easily ready option. Just because the death of an innocent person is initiated by virtue of a government state decree does not make it any more acceptable than if decided by a rogue individual.
The challenge is for us all to truly turn a leaf and set a new standard for West-Muslim relations. This requires a new vision, new dynamics and people of courage, clarity and faith.