It has been a year since Osama bin Laden was killed. What is remarkable about this past year is how little “the most dangerous man in the world” has figured in the political debate among his fellow Arabs and how diminished his terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda, is on the priorities of international security.
The popular governments created by the Arab spring are now consumed with the difficult process of piecing together democratic governments. Even in Syria, ravaged by a civil war, bin Laden’s name is never invoked and al-Qaeda rarely mentioned. The US and other governments remain wary of al-Qaeda. But the days when its name could rustle up billions of budgetary dollars and have governments chasing intelligence shadows are gone. Al-Qaeda continues to have offshoots — in Yemen, Nigeria, North Africa and so on — but these are often indigenous militancies that have adopted the brand but keep organisational independence. They operate on the margins of the international system. They are threatening, but not earth-shakingly so. Bin Laden was an inspirational model for radical Islam, a politicised and violent distortion of one of the world’s great religions. The terrorist wave he initiated disgusted many — including the overwhelming majority of Muslims. In his last days, even bin Laden worried that al-Qaeda’s name and standing had been fatally compromised by the indiscriminate nature of its violence. He took radical Islam to unusual levels of international importance and influence — and then unwittingly brought it down again through his own tactics.
Is there a bin Laden legacy? There are a number of possibilities. However, what may prove to be the most important is that he gave a global respectability to conservative Islam. This strand used to get indiscriminately clubbed together with radical Islam because of its illiberal views on morality, women’s rights and anti-secular stance. However, conservative Islam did not support violence and terror. Today, that distinction has proven important in shaping a new-found international acceptance of conservative Islam. Organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood or even political parties inspired by extreme schools of thought like Salafism now contest elections and form governments — an anathema to the West a decade ago. This is why the international system is more sanguine about the spread of Muslim democracy and the idea of Islamicist governments. Bin Laden can be said to have produced the right international environment for political Islam to pursue a more natural path of evolution. He hated this path himself, but bin Laden won it acceptance by showing how much more dangerous the alternative was.