As a Brit, I’ve seen the effects of al-Qa’eda’s style of violent Islamism firsthand. I was in England when London was hit on the 7th of July. I was in London when the second attempt, on the 22nd of July, took place – and I’ve spent years advising different governments and non-governmental organisations on counter-terrorism strategies. It’s a serious problem. But as we, as an establishment, went about confronting, we turned the entire Muslim community into a security problem. They were either pro or anti-terrorism – and everything about them had to be related in some way to terrorism or radicalism. In stigmatizing them in that way, we lost huge swathes of support for the British government in this vital, front line community.
Globally, we’ve done the same. On 9/11, I was in Cairo for a visit. As news of the attacks broke in the afternoon, everyone I met around me voiced two main sentiments. The first was sadness for those who died – and the second was the hope that it was not a Muslim or an Arab who was behind this. They feared what might happen to the rest of the Arab and Muslim world if the latter turned out to be true.
It’s been 10 years now. And those first fears turned out to be true. 9/11 was a cascade moment – it started a set of chain reactions that continue to plague us around the world. Many of those same Egyptians that I met on 9/11 were on the streets of Cairo a decade later to support the downfall of Hosni Mubarak – a man who had managed to maintain the support of the West for years on the basis that if he were not around, a bin Laden-style regime might take root in Egypt. While I write this, Gaddafi in Tripoli is probably still claiming that he is waging a war against al-Qaeda in the east - something no one believes anymore, but it worked for so long for so many other regimes, so, why not?
Now, Osama Bin Laden is dead. The reality is that he means far less to Muslims worldwide than he does to Americans and other Westerners. His image and his name have been far more prevalent in the Western press than it ever was in the Muslim world – because he was, and is, far less relevant to the Muslim consciousness. For most, he was important in some way because he defined the reputation of Muslims worldwide as one of violence, as he called his campaigns in the name of the Muslim faith. Never mind that time and time again, Muslims denounced him, in word and deed – never mind that more Muslims have died as a result of al-Qa’eda style terrorism than non-Muslims. Their collective image owed itself hugely to Bin Laden.
But that reputation has begun to change. It changed in Tahrir Square – months ago. The Arab uprisings are breaking all the stereotypes about the Arabs in particular, and the Muslims at large. They actually don’t need a strongman to keep them in check, otherwise they’ll fall into the hands of al-Qaeda. They really can enact change without resorting to violence – even when the other side (which was supported by the West) uses violence.
The question remains – has that link between violence and Islam in the public sphere been indelibly broken? Alas, even though the most scientific polls about Muslim public opinion suggests that it should, there is no birth certificate on record to prove it…
Dr H.A. Hellyer, a fellow of the University of Warwick, and of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, contributed this piece from Cairo, where he is currently writing a book on the Arab uprisings.