Osama Bin Laden has been captured and killed by a military operation conducted by the US Navy SEALs in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. This execution, however, does not necessarily mean an end of terrorism. Rather, the seeds of terrorism lie in the imperialist policies of United States itself, which will - if it has not already - give birth to a thousand more bin Ladens.
How do we account for the emergence of Osama bin Laden? Islamism as a political ideology and movement in the Muslim world can be categorised into three distinct operational strategies: 1) Mainstream Islamists, 2) Non-mainstream Islamists and 3) Extremist Islamists. The mainstream Islamists generally use and choose parliamentary democratic methods like participation in elections and mass mobilisations, like the Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and others. Non-Mainstream Islamists use both parliamentary methods and armed violence like Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Extremist Islamists on the other hand use only violent and terroristic methods like Osama’s Al-Qaeda, Mullah Omar’s Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and militant groups like the LeT which are based in Pakistan and operate in Kashmir.
The rise of Islamism as a political movement, irrespective of the strategies they adopt, is linked to the politics and economics of imperialism. Unemployment and poverty resulting from the imperialist world order combined with imperialist policies vis-à-vis Muslim societies, destabilizing the erstwhile national-secular, progressive-democratic and in some cases socialist regimes (Patnaik: 2003a, 2003b), have played the major role.
In mid-twentieth century, we found several strands of secular-nationalist and other forms of progressive and even socialist/communist political currents in many parts of the Muslim world. The secular nationalist project in the Muslim world itself started with the rise of Eurocentric model of Kemal Ataturk, often termed as ‘Kemalism’ in Turkey (Sayyid: 1997). We also know how the central Asian region, which was largely under the influence of former Soviet Union in the recent past, was affected by the Islamist strand of extremism (Rashid: 2002). Pakistan also had a nationalist-populist slogan of ‘Islamic socialism’ under the leadership of its former executed Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the decade of 1970s but under General Zia-ul-Haque, the Islamists rose to prominence as a countervailing political force. Bangladesh too had a glorious history of liberation on the basis of nationalist and secular ideas under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League in early 1970s but like in Pakistan, the Islamists regrouped under successive military regimes in late 1970s and 1980s and subsequently Islamist parties have remained as important players in Bangladeshi politics.
The histories of several other Muslim countries like that of Indonesia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt etc. witnessed similar trajectories: erstwhile anti-imperialist, liberal, nationalist-secularist, democratic and in some cases socialist governments and movements were either replaced or strongly challenged by the Islamist forces. A shift from secular-nationalism to Islamism is a common feature engulfing the entire Muslim world, over the past few decades.
Rise of Islamism
Mahmood Mamdani has made an important contribution to the debate on the rise of Islamism as an influential movement in the Muslim world. He dispels the notion of ‘good’ (secular and westernized) Muslims as against ‘bad’ (pre-modern, fanatic) Muslims (Mamdani: 2005). He argues that such simple judgements based on a construction of binary opposites emerge out of a certain brand of politics rather than from cultural or religious identity. Mamdani demonstrates how Islamism emerged from a modern encounter with western power, and how the terrorist movement within it arose out of the USA’s post-Vietnam proxy wars. His analysis ranges from the 1960s to the Reaganite-Thatcherite regimes of 1970s, when a simplistic ideological positioning of the politics of ‘good versus evil’ began to be espoused.
Simply put, the Islamists were either directly used by American imperialism to crush the progressive regimes in the Muslim world like in Afghanistan or emerged out of a vacuum created by the elimination of the progressive forces like it happened in Iran. At times CIA sponsored military coups to decimate the communists, like in Indonesia and Sudan, also created conditions for the rise of Islamists as an anti-hegemonic force pitted against American imperialism.
However, imperialism is not the only factor behind the rise of Islamism in the Muslim world. The limits of western oriented secular-nationalist political projects in dealing with the developmental issues of poverty, inequality and unemployment on one hand and their recourse to authoritarianism and repression in dealing with popular protests have also contributed significantly to the rise of Islamism. The role played by Islamists in charity and social welfare has also enhanced their political acceptance and credibility, like in Turkey, Bangladesh and Palestine. Therefore one cannot locate the emergence of Islamism merely as a fallout of the Cold war strategy of the United States. As Mamdani points out, Islamism “is more a domestic product than a foreign import. But neither was bred in isolation; both were produced in the encounter with Western power. Political Islam was born in the colonial period. But it did not give rise to a terrorist movement until the Cold War.” (Mamdani: 2005, p. 14).
Bin Laden’s Rise and Fall
Bin Laden’s rise, for instance was directly linked to the support he received from the CIA during the war against the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan. But his popularity in the Muslim world, despite the gruesome and audacious tactics he adopted, can only be explained by the deep rooted anger and frustration at the unjust and hypocritical policies pursued by the US vis-à-vis the Muslim world since decades – from Palestine to Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite Barack Obama replacing Bush, those policies have by and large remained in place. Obama’s double standards on Palestine or his contradictory responses to the happenings in Libya on the one hand and Jordan on the other, exposes American foreign and strategic policymaking as a granite block of vested interests. Therefore, the political basis for Islamism – rooted in deep grievances against the imperialist West – remains intact. The basis for extremist Islamism also continues to exist in similar way.
However, what bin Laden’s execution has proved, is that terrorism far from solving any of the problems of the complex world we live in today is actually doomed to fail. This is not only true of Islamist extremism, but extremism of any variety. That is simply because the terrorist apparatus of the state is logistically a thousand times more powerful and sophisticated to be overpowered by individual or group acts of terror. Moreover, the killing of innocents in terrorist acts like 9/11, rob any cause of its moral basis.
Of late, we have witnessed a democratic upsurge of the people against authoritarian regimes in several Arab countries, where Islamists have not played a significant role. The people in Egypt and Tunisia have written a new history. The way ahead for the Muslim world lies in reinventing its progressivism and drawing large section of masses in democratic revolutions against authoritarianism and lackeyism of American imperialism. The electoral debacle of centre-right BNP-Jamaat combination at the hands of a secular Awami League and sections of Bangladeshi Left in 2008 also point out the loss of people’s support for the Islamists in Bangladesh. The Islamists in many Muslim countries will try to utilise bin Laden’s death to whip up support for extremism. Pakistan seems particularly vulnerable to such outpourings of Islamist rage. However, the dominant trend in the Muslim world today does not favour such a resurrection. Bin Laden has fallen and a resurgent anti-imperialist and democratic Muslim world will rise from its ashes.
Mamdani, Mahmood (2005) Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Islam, the USA, and the Global War Against Terror (Delhi: Permanent Black).
Patnaik, Prabhat (2003a) ‘Imperialism and Terrorism,’ in The Retreat to Unfreedom: Essays on the Emerging World Order (New Delhi: Tulika), pp. 105-110.
Patnaik, Prabhat (2003b) ‘Of Finance and Fascism,’ in K.N. Panikkar and Sukumar Muralidharan (eds.), Communalism, Civil Society & The State: Reflections On A Decade Of Turbulence (New Delhi: SAHMAT), pp. 75-87.
Rashid, Ahmed (2002) Jihad: Islamic Militancy in Central Asia (New Delhi: Orient Longman).
Sayyid, S. (2003) A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism  2nd ed. (London: Zed Books).