Written By: Rami G. Khouri
Article Date: May 9, 2011 - 7:37:54 PM
The death of Osama bin Laden coincides and contrasts with several other historic developments throughout the Middle East that collectively highlight the overriding issue that has preoccupied local citizens for the past generation: How does a dehumanized person regain his or her humanity?
How do disaffected, angry, subjugated, vulnerable and humiliated men and women go about dealing with their condition, and fixing the problems or relieving the pressures that can ultimately crush them?
Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda movement were one extreme – and the very smallest and least popular – of a range of options that people throughout the Middle East adopted to deal with their many grievances. This included lack of political rights in security states, economic and environmental stresses, invading foreign armies, Israeli aggression and colonization, corruption, abuse of power, joblessness and others. Many individuals suffered from the deadly combination of material discomforts – jobs, income, fresh water, adequate education, housing and health care – to intangible degradations related to their sense of being helpless and voiceless in the face of power that local and foreign powers exercised over them.
Given that hundreds of millions of Arabs, Iranians and Turks, in different ways, faced the common question of how they should respond to the unsatisfactory conditions that defined their lives, this is a good moment to assess how the option that bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda movement offered fit into the wider array of options that citizens could choose from.
A look back at the last 25 years or so indicates that four major waves of activism (and bin Ladenism was not among them) dominated the choices of citizens who were dissatisfied with their rights and sought a greater say in how their societies and governments functioned: First, mainstream Islamist politics and resistance, or both, represented by phenomena such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Turkish Justice and Development Party and its antecedents, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and others of the same ilk.
Second, participation in national civil society organizations and political elections that were usually heavily controlled by the ruling regimes, regardless of whether such activities actually changed conditions on the ground.
Third, local activism through tribal and family associations, neighborhood volunteerism and community-level Islamist charitable and religious and social education.
And fourth, street activism for democratic transformations and the application of full human rights, culminating in the current wave of national citizen revolts most often referred to as the Arab Spring.
The overwhelming majority of Arabs, Iranians and Turks chose these options to express their grievances and worries, and to do what they could to bring about better conditions for themselves and their families. A few chose other options, like joining militant movements such as Al-Qaeda and its many affiliates, migrating abroad legally or illegally in search of a better life, joining criminal gangs dealing in drugs or engaging in smuggling and other criminal activity, or joining the ruling elite as a means of satisfying their material needs without expecting to change society.
Each of the four main activism options that captured the imagination of the Middle East’s citizens provided a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Some registered real accomplishments, for example the Turkish slow transition to democracy, Hezbollah and other Lebanese driving the Israeli occupiers out of the south of the country, the overthrow of the shah of Iran, the popular rebellion in Lebanon that drove Syria out of the country in 2005.
In most cases, with the notable exception of the Turkish democratic transition, the activism of individuals brought them a sense of satisfaction. However, most of the societies failed to address the structural ailments (lack of democratic accountability, prevalence of corruption, dominance of security agencies) that have kept most of the region in states of conflict and recurring violence. Al-Qaeda-style militancy has been the biggest failure, because its terroristic methods are repulsive to the vast majority of people in the Middle East, and the group has achieved no measurable positive accomplishments that respond to fundamental citizen grievances.
The current mass demonstrations to reform or change Arab regimes represent the most powerful expression ever of mass political sentiment in the Arab world, because they express both the grievances that people suffer and the political ethics and institutions that they aspire to implement. They clarify beyond any doubt the core values, aspirations and political aims of hundreds of millions of citizens who have experimented with other forms of political and social activism for change and found them mostly ineffective and unsatisfactory, or limited in their positive impact.
Osama bin Laden-like criminals will continue to pester the world. Hundreds of millions of Arabs, Turks and Iranians who clamor for democratic dignity can change their world for the better, and this is where foreign powers and local activists alike should focus their energy in the years ahead.
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