The U.S. air strike against the Taliban was a predictable, and perhaps inevitable, outcome of the United States’ public statements and wide-ranging diplomatic efforts to create a common front against the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. What was less predictable, however, was bin Laden’s swift statement which came out shortly after, in praise of and justifying the terrorist attacks. Though terrifying in tone and content, it proved him a formidable enemy.
Any observer reflecting on this operation is likely to judge it in light of what it will eventually achieve rather than its immediate military success. If it harms civilians, destabilizes the region, fuels extremism, and polarizes the Muslim public opinion, it will be seen as a grave failure. The United States has enough painful memories of aerial bombings and its consequences in Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq to make one feel skeptical of the successful outcome of this operation. However, if the elimination of bin Laden and his network (if indeed that is viable) is followed by a sincere effort to address the acute problems in the Middle East, only then can we view such military action as justifiable. This means finding an enduring solution to the political vacuum which emerges in Afghanistan and finding remedies to the incredible miseries that Afghans have sustained over the past two decades in the hands of the superpowers as well as the vicious Afghan warlords and fanatics.
An even greater challenge for the United States and its allies, however, is the question of Palestine. Anyone who is in doubt about the symbolic significance of the occupation of the Palestinian territories as the ultimate rallying point for the Arab and Muslim worlds should pay attention to bin Laden’s rhetoric skills in exploiting it for his own sake. His is a powerful message which will be heard far and wide in the Arab and Islamic world and will resonate deep in the hearts of many who, though disapprove of the Sept. 11 terrorist acts, nonetheless hold the United States responsible as the chief patron and supporter of Israel. As much as the Western allies would like to remind the world, and especially the Muslim world, that their action against bin Laden and al Qaeda is not about Islam but about terrorism, their differentiation will not weigh much in the minds of many Muslims so long as they are not prepared to facilitate a just and swift end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Bin Laden, “dead or alive,” as President Bush has demanded, has at his disposal a potent propaganda weapon to turn his own jihad into a religious war not only between Islam and the West but also between his militant version of neo-Wahhabi Islam and the Muslim voices of moderation. He has used the Palestine weapon, and if allowed, will use it more effectively, to convert many to his cause of pan-Islamic revolution. He presents to his audience the image of a messianic prophet.
If and when he is killed for his cause, he will evoke in the minds of many an even more powerful paradigm of a martyr. Ignoring the most obvious, and the most symbolic, sources of Muslim resentment, is to invite for a widening conflict with the darkest ramifications.
Abbas Amanat is professor of history and Chair of the Council on Middle East Studies.