[Originally published in Bitterlemons.org]
Among the dozens of tweets that I received from fellow Turks following the breaking news of Osama Bin Laden’s death, one was a bit uncommon. While most others expressed relief when confronted with the demise of a man “who brought only trouble to the world”, this particular message rather expressed sympathy for the slain al-Qaeda leader. “He will be remembered as a hero,” it bluntly argued, “a hero who dared to challenge the world’s mightiest imperialists.”
Now, before moving on, here is a very simple hint: the term “imperialist” does not exist in the Quran. It is rather a very modern and a very political term. Besides, you don’t have to be an Islamist–or even a Muslim–to see the world in an evil-imperialists-versus-heroic-insurgents dichotomy. You just have to be angry at the West for some reason.
That’s why Bin Laden’s radical message and terrorist acts found sympathy not only among some of the Muslim pious, but also some of the secular yet “anti-imperialist”-minded within the Muslim world. “Even young Arab girls in tight jeans”, as American scholar Henry Munson reminds us, “praise Bin Laden as an anti-imperialist hero”. And in Turkey, where I live, even a marginal secular leftwing publication like “Turk Solu”, which takes not only Che Guevara but also Kemal Ataturk as its hero, can praise Bin Laden after his death.
Such signals should lead us to reconsider the emphasis on the religious nature of al-Qaeda–an emphasis that became almost common wisdom in the West in the aftermath of 9/11. Since then, we have all heard that Bin Laden promoted jihad, the Islamic call to holy war, or that he wanted a global caliphate, the Islamic notion of a rightful state. On a more popular level, it became famous that al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers anticipated some 72 beautiful virgins in heaven as a reward for their sacrifice.
All these popular themes had an implicit message: “the problem” was Islam, or, at least, some particular teachings in Islam. In other words, al-Qaeda militants would have been normal, serene, peace-loving people had they not read the war verses in the Quran or not been inspired by the Prophet Mohammed’s wars with the infidels. And since the trouble was in the Muslim texts, the solution would be a “reform” in those texts–a reform that “moderate Muslims” would hastily accomplish and others would monitor with concern.
However, a careful observation of Bin Laden’s message reveals a different picture: the man was speaking about the context of today’s Muslims first, before calling them to fight in the light of sacred texts. “Osama bin Laden’s central theme is the suffering and humiliation of the Muslim nation (the umma) at the hands of non-Muslims,” notes Thomas Hegghammer, a specialist in the study of violent Islamism. The United States’ role in this “suffering and humiliation,” real or perceived, was the main reason for the call for jihad–a call whose appeal would decline only when Muslims around the world felt more secure and more dignified.
That’s why the “Arab spring,” the series of popular uprisings against longtime dictators in the Middle East, is a significant antidote to al-Qaeda and similar groups that aspire to violent jihad. The alliance between the secular dictators in the Muslim world–such as the recently deposed ones in Tunisia and Egypt–and the West has been one of the main sources of Islamists’ anti-westernism. Now, a democratic space is being opened up both in Tunisia and Egypt that can help the Islamists of those countries to become peaceful partners of the democratic game–a route hopefully similar to the one taken by the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. Such transformations in the political context of Muslims–including a much-needed solution to the Arab-Israel conflict–are the steps that will decrease the sense of “suffering and humiliation” and thus render jihadism unappealing.
None of this means that there are no doctrinal problems in Islam. Quite the contrary, the self-righteous Salafis, who denounce every individual and every idea that deviate from their strict ways, are a source of fanaticism that threatens Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Even in mainstream Sunni and Shiite Islam there is a need to question and revise some of the misogynistic, brutal or oppressive elements within the Sharia. The bans on apostasy and blasphemy, which derive not from the Quran but from the political considerations of the early Muslim community, should be reinterpreted in the light of religious freedom. Muslims should even revise the idea of imposing piety on fellow believers, and consider what I call “the freedom to sin”.
Yet the need for reform within Islam is one thing; tensions between the Islamic world and the West are another. Arguably, there is some connection between the two, but probably not in the way that is often suggested: that Islam needs a doctrinal reform first in order to be at peace with the West or Israel. On the contrary, peace with the West or Israel and the end of tyrannies within the Muslim world will create the medium in which more liberal interpretations of Islam are likely to flourish.