President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US’s most-maligned figure, Usama bin Laden, had been killed in a covert operation 50 kms north of the Pakistani Capital, Islamabad, has caused surprise and cynicism in the Muslim world.
There are many Muslims, in capitals such as Cairo and Tunis, who regard it as ironic that the rallying icon of the “War on Terror” for a neo-conservative American president, George Bush junior, has provided the fuel to re-ignite the fading career of Barack Obama, a neo-liberal.
The surprise has been that it has taken ten years to locate Bin Laden, who in 2001 had just enough time to flee his Tora Bora mountain hideout in Afghanistan before US forces destroyed it with Tomahawk missiles.
That he was discovered by Pakistani intelligence, living a comfortable suburban life in the leafy rural town of Abbottobad, is another surprise. The stereotype of him huddling in dark cave in Waziristan was finally proved to be a myth.
Also surprising was that an Arab, a foreigner, could live undetected in a Pakistan rural community. The question is: how long did he stay there? In small towns, where gossip travels fast, secrets are extremely difficult to keep.
Part of the answer definitely lies with the Pakistani intelligence service. Its operatives have been known for their alliances with the Al-Qaedah sympathetic Taliban, whose Pashtun identity enjoys blood ties amongst Pakistanis, and Peshawar’s Afghan refugee camps.
The cynicism in the Muslim world is based on several factors, not least the timing and the nature of Bin Laden’s demise. By not bringing the Al Qaedah leader to legal justice, the US has done itself no favours.
Whilst not denying Bin Laden’s bloodthirsty legacy, many argue that two wrongs do not make a right.
Then there is the issue of his burial. By dumping his body at sea – in an obvious attempt to prevent his grave from becoming a shrine – the US authorities have insulted the dignity of the Muslim dead, even a man of terror such as Bin Laden.
It will be puzzling to mainstream Muslims that the US was unable to realise that the extremist Salafi-Wahhabi sect, to which Bin Laden belongs, does not permit shrines. They seem to have forgotten that Al Qaedah was responsible for the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
But with the US in the midst of an economic crisis, and led by a Democrat forced to seek favour with Republicans, the demise of Usama bin Laden – the world’s most-wanted bogey man – is a huge, morale-boosting victory.
And whilst the Muslim world – a world threatened more by Al Qaedah’s rigid extremism than the West ever has been – does not regard Usama bin Laden’s passing as insignificant, it does perceive Obama’s triumph as being symbolic.
For many, Bin Laden has been the ghost of an ill-contrived and erroneously perceived clash of civilisations – a man created by the CIA during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and re-invented in another role after that.
The fact is that the international Islamic community has had to bear the brunt of an Islamophobia caused by 9/11 where Islam, and all Muslims, were unfairly seen as adherents of terrorism. This in turn informed the perception of a conspiracy that the US was locked in a war with Islam.
And whether one liked it or not, Bin Laden was able to touch the nerve of many poor, disenfranchised and down-trodden people.
However, in recent years, Al Qaedah’s profile has diminished considerably. Its last major accredited act of terror was London 2005, and the involvement of Bin Laden and his second-in-command, Dr Ayman Al-Zahawiri, more distantly ideological than hands on.
Then there are the uprisings that have spread across North Africa and the Middle East. In spite of leaders such as Hosni Mubarak and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi blaming Al Qaedah for their woes, evidence on the ground has pointed more to social movements yearning for democracy.
The final question surrounding the death of Bin Laden are the multitude of myths that now have to leave the shadows of his being. The abstract nouns of the “War on Terror” need some serious scrutiny. Al Qaedah, for example, was never the multi-continental organisation it was so often said to be.
Al Qaedah was always an idea. It was a tragically literalist, fundamentalist one in which the world could be conveniently divided into a domain of Islam and a domain of Unbelief, and that the domain of Unbelief had to be conquered so that Islam – a victim of secularism and colonialism – could be the victor.
The world needs to know that Al Qaedah’s worldview – a total travesty of the Islamic creed – was always an unwelcome extremism that for a brief historical moment, managed to hijack one of God’s most beautiful faiths.