Islam After bin Laden

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AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

FANS: Bearing bin Laden posters, demonstrators in Karachi protest a possible U.S. war on Iraq

If Osama bin Laden is apprehended, the news will be met with a sigh of relief, perhaps even jubilation, by governments across the Muslim world. The capture of this soft-spoken but effective agitator would enable heads of state, directors of intelligence services and police commissioners from Casablanca to Jakarta to sleep comfortably for the first time in more than 500 nights. As spiritual leader and financier of the most shadowy and ubiquitous organization in modern Islam, one that is highly admired by the oppressed of the earth from North Africa to Southeast Asia, bin Laden has represented the biggest threat to scores of archaic Muslim regimes that, combined, govern one-fifth of the world's population and preside over a much higher share of its energy resources.

However, elation at the top would probably be shared by few of the folks walking the streets of Muslim capitals, towns and villages. Bin Laden spoke to them in a language that they understood, that resonated in their minds and hearts. If he's seized, the overwhelming sentiments are likely to be sadness, frustration and anger. How those emotions are expressed would depend on how he is taken.


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If bin Laden is captured alive and his picture is shown on front pages and TV screens across the world in a demeaning manner, as was the case with his recently arrested senior comrade Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, expect to see in the Muslim world a general sense of exasperated resignation, as well as increased anti-Americanism. Images of this dramatic and humiliating episode would forever be inscribed in the minds of the young and old — most important in the memories of a generation of frustrated teenagers searching for role models. The hero would be in shackles, untidy, with no turban and certainly no Kalashnikov, stripped of his glorious, rebellious past. His soft voice would be silent; there would be no more calls to arms through al-Jazeera TV or the Internet. His sad eyes would tell a different story; they would convey a message of surrender. The impact on the many who admired him and awaited his televised messages would be devastation, for none of what he promised has been achieved. Palestine has not been liberated, the land of Arabia is still infested with foreign troops, and infidels are still in control everywhere. For many young men and women in the Muslim world, bin Laden's capture alive would be an unseemly fate. Such an undignified end would at best earn him sympathy or pity but little respect. Bin Laden might still be alive behind bars, but effectively he would be dead.

No matter how operational bin Laden's organization might still be, it would struggle to recruit more members or provoke more rebellion. With the charismatic leader in shackles, the entire organization would suffer paralysis. His arrest might result in more hatred of the U.S. But without a leader as charismatic and appealing as bin Laden, his followers would not be able to utilize that anger.

The situation would differ a great deal if bin Laden were granted the honor of martyrdom. Muslims believe that martyrs do not die; they simply move to a better place, where they gain rewards, while their martyrdom inspires young men and women back on earth to seek the same fate in the service of the noblest of causes.

Rather than experience sadness and frustration, the masses who admired bin Laden's daring revolution would celebrate him and vow to avenge his death. Mobs might well take to the streets, despite the likelihood that national authorities would resort to force to suppress them. Mock funerals and special congregation prayers would no doubt be held in various parts of the Muslim world to herald the departure of another great mujahid in this open-ended war against what some Muslims call the infidels of all types.

The question is whether bin Laden's al-Qaeda would be able to utilize the occasion to revive itself, rally more people behind it and recruit more suicide bombers. Or perhaps we would find that al-Qaeda, as some already suspect, is more of a phenomenon than an organization. In that case, bin Laden's fate as a martyr might still pave the way for more terrorist attacks against Western targets across the world, exactly what the U.S. has been trying to avert. When President Bush announced in September 2001 that he wanted bin Laden captured, "dead or alive," he may have meant to tell the world that it didn't matter to him which way it turned out. He should hope it's the latter.

Tamimi is director of London's Institute of Islamic Political Thought and editor of Islam and Secularism in the Middle East.