The death of Osama Bin Laden marks the end of an era in contemporary world affairs. He is viewed by both his supporters and his enemies as the true symbol of global terrorism and militancy. His death is a major blow to his terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, and people around the world viewed it as a victory in the war against extremist violence which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
It is clear that the death of bin Laden does not mean an end to the global terrorist threat. Both President Obama and surviving leaders of al-Qaeda affirm that the attacks by terrorists against the whole world, including the United States, will continue. The death of the major leader of al-Qaeda does not mean an end to the organization but it does mean that trends toward a more decentralized network of militants will be strengthened. The various regional groups associated with al-Qaeda, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have long operated with inspirations from the central group but limited organizational direction. The operations of these groups will not change significantly in the era of changed leadership.
In recent years, al-Qaeda and global terrorism have been weakened by counter terrorism efforts as well as populations in Muslim countries, from Egypt and Algeria to Iraq and Pakistan that have been sickened by terrorist attacks and the slaughter of civilians in their countries. Major polls such as the Gallup World Poll and polls by Pew and others reflect widespread rejection of religious extremism and terrorism. Indeed, as the Gallup World Poll indicates, majorities of Muslims globally like majorities in the West share a common fear and concern about the threat of religious extremism and terrorism to their families and societies. It is important that non-Muslims recognize that most Muslims share their opposition to terrorism and the killing of innocent people.
The death of bin Laden and the political transformations in the Arab world may signal a turning point in contemporary world affairs. The revolutions and calls for reform in the Arab world demonstrate to those still living under oppressive regimes that religious extremism and terrorism are not the only ways to gain freedom from entrenched autocrats. Since the rise of militant religious extremist organizations in the past two decades, the path of terror has been ineffective in liberating people, while in the past few months it has become clear that non-violent people-power is an increasingly effective mode of opposition in the contexts of twenty-first century realities.
The challenge for leaders around the world is to take advantage of these opportunities. The United States should take the lead in working with European and Muslim allies in efforts to construct new political and socioeconomic realities that reduce conditions and grievances that have in the past and continue in the present to foster extremism and the recruitment of terrorists.
John Esposito is author of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.
John Voll is professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
John Esposito and John Voll | May 2, 2011 3:53 PM