In the first moments after the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by an American military raid in Pakistan, some commentators observed that the War on Terror was also, now, officially dead.
The imagined war of the Bush era may indeed be over. And the jihadi insurrection associated with bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization may also be dead. But I suspect that the real perpetrators of their deaths may not have been the elite American military cadre some hours ago in Pakistan, but the legion of cell phone-toting protestors earlier this year in Tahrir Square. They have helped to complete the erosion of legitimacy that has undermined the jihadi activists in recent years within the Muslim world.
For the past thirty years, the jihadi movement has crested on a wave of popular unrest and been propelled by the moral legitimacy given by their violent interpretation of the Muslim notion of ethical struggle. Though jihadi activists such as those associated with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network have been regarded from outside the region simply as immoral terrorists, much of their popularity within the Islamic world has been their moral appeal.
These activists thought only bloodshed would create political change, and only the jihadi ideology of cosmic warfare—based on Muslim history and Qur’anic verses—provided the moral legitimacy for the struggle. Ideologists such as Abd al-Salam Farad and Ayman al-Zawahiri have written as if violent struggle—including ruthless attacks of terrorism on civilian populations—was the only form of struggle that was advocated by Islam.
These assumptions have been proven wrong. The dramatic popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Islamic world have demonstrated that protests that have been nonviolent in their inception (and have become violent only in response to bloody attempts to repress them) have been far more effective, and supported with a more widespread moral and spiritual consensus.
What brought down the tyrants in Egypt and Tunisia, as it turned out, was about as far from jihad as one could imagine. It was a series of massive nonviolent movements of largely middle class and relatively young professionals who organized their protests through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of electronic social networking.
There was also a religious element to the protests. The peak moments came after Friday prayers, when sympathetic mullahs would urge the faithful into joining the protest as a religious duty. But theirs was not the divisive, hateful voice of jihadi rhetoric. In a remarkable moment when the Muslim protestors were trying to conduct their prayers in the Square and Mubarak’s thugs tried to attack them as they prayed, a cordon of Egyptian Coptic Christians who had joined the protests circled around their Muslim compatriates, shielding them. Later a phalanx of Muslim protestors protected their Christian comrades as they worshipped in the public square, an urban intersection that was for that time transformed into a massive interfaith sanctuary.
The religiosity of Tahrir Square is far from the religion of radical jihad. Rather than separating Muslim from non-Muslim, and Sunni from Shi’a, the symbols that were raised on impromptu placards in Tahrir Square were emblems of interfaith cooperation; they showed the cross of Coptic Christians together with the crescent of Egypt’s Muslims in a united religious front against autocracy.
Imagine what Osama bin Laden must have made of all of this as news trickled into the fortress-like mansion in Abbottabad where he had lived for the past several years. Imagine even more the puzzled chagrin of someone like bin Laden’s primary lieutenant, al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian medical doctor who joined the most extreme Islamist jihadi movement years ago, convinced that only violent guerilla warfare would topple someone like Mubarak.
Tahrir Square clearly showed that Zawahiri was wrong. In a couple of weeks of protests, the peaceful resistors demonstrated the moral and strategic legitimacy of nonviolent struggle. And they succeeded, where years of jihadi bloodshed had not produced a single political change. Now that bin Ladin is dead, does this mean that al Qaeda is also finished, and the radical struggles of jihad will fizzle into history?
Perhaps, in part. It is unlikely, however, that the al Qaeda organization, such as it is, will be abandoned. The small group of people who comprise the inner circle of the bin Laden organization will no doubt harden its resolve, even after bin Laden’s death. Like the followers of millennarian movements who become more extreme and entrenched in their beliefs when the prophecized end of the world does not take place on schedule, the true believers of al Qaeda will soldier on. They may become more extreme in their rhetoric, more desperate in using acts of terrorism to draw attention to themselves and their increasingly impossible view of the world. Yet the al Qaeda inner circle has never been large, and its organization—though capable of conducting horrible acts of terrorism—has never been a consistent and widespread threat.
So although the hardened activists associated with al Qaeda will linger on, the fate of the global jihadi ideology—or rather the world view of cosmic war that the jihadi rhetoric promoted—is a different matter. This view of the world as a tangle of sacred warfare has been an exciting and alluring image among a large number of mostly young and largely male Muslims around the world for over a decade. It is an image that was brought to dramatic attention by the September 11, 2001 attacks, and stimulated by the perception that US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were wars against Islam.
This jihadi vision of sacred warfare was propagated by the internet, through postings on chat rooms and the dissemination of YouTube types of videos showing graphic acts of US military destruction in Islamic countries and calling on the faithful to respond. The jihadi idea of cosmic war provided a strategic legimitization of violence by the implicit promise—as a leader of Hamas once told me—that if one is fighting God’s war, one could never lose. God always wins.
Tahrir Square is a profound anti-jihadi lesson, and its significance has spread around the world. It has ignited similar nonviolent protests elsewhere in the Middle East, and it may also have altered the thinking of activists in other cultures as well. Intense discussion is underway in Palestine, where the Hamas-dominated strategy of strategic violence has been largely counterproductive; will a new nonviolent and non-extremist movement of young educated Palestinian professionals create a different kind of impetus for change in their region of the Middle East?
The rise of a new nonviolent popularism in the Middle East may seriously undercut the viability of the jihadi image of violent social change. On the other hand, a significant number of failures of nonviolent resistence may lead to a violent backlash once again. Not all protests will end like Tunisia and Egypt. Others will be ruthlessly crushed, as was the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009. The current protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Libya face an uncertain end. Failure of nonviolent revolution has, in the past, been the occasion for renewed acts of violence.
So the jihadi warriors may again have their day. For the moment, however, bin Laden is dead, and Tahrir Square has challenged both the strategic value and the moral legitimacy of the jihadi stance. The legion of young Muslim activists around the world have received a new standard for challenging the old order, and a new form of protest, one that discredits terrorism as the easy and ineffective path and chooses the tough and profitable road of nonviolence.