«The Arab spring defeated them too»
Olivier Roy interviewed by Elisa Pierandrei 11 May 2011

The announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death closes a decade of difficult relations between Muslims and the West.

Al-Qaeda has been successful in casting itself as the expression of the “Muslim wrath” and as the vanguard of both political and religious Islamic struggle. The consequence is that everything pertaining to the Muslim world was seen in the West through the lens of terrorism, jihad, and violence (e.g. what happened after the famous Danish cartoons were published must be ascribed to Al-Qaeda). Don’t forget that the day after 9/11 sales of the Koran surged in the USA. So any manifestation of Muslim-related violence was contextualized through theology, in reference to what the Koran says about jihad. Even purely political movements, like the Palestinian struggle, were cast in terms of religious violence. Thus, in the general perception, the concept of “war on terrorism” merged heterogeneous movements with very different agendas.

On the Muslim side, although hundreds of fatwas and declarations unequivocally condemned the attack against the World Trade Center, there was some uneasiness and ambivalence. There was strong resentment against the U.S. strategy as a response to 9/11: invading Iraq when it was obvious that there was no correlation, and branding as radical or terrorist some popular and well-established clerics and intellectuals, like Sheykh Qaradawi or Tariq Ramadan. Moreover, requesting Muslim “moderates” to call for a “reform” of Islam and explicitly condemning “radicals” added to a sense of Islam-bashing and Islamophobia. But the event also had a clarifying effect, forcing many Muslims to find a more sophisticated and nuanced discourse.

In the war against Islamist terrorism, are the young generations of Arabs, who took the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Benghazi, Damascus, Amman and so on, Al-Qaeda’s worst enemy?

Yes they are, for two reasons. First they “ignore” Al-Qaeda, second they adopt a political discourse that is based on premises exactly opposed to the narrative of Al Qaeda. There was no mention of Al-Qaeda, no reference to its mottos, no picture of Bin Laden, just nothing. This indifference went on when the news of Bin Laden’s death reached the public; there were no demonstrations of joy or sorrow. And this indifference is the worst thing that could happen to Bin Laden. His strategy was based on making the headlines. That has been the only real impact of the terrorist attacks, which have had little geo-strategic or even economic impact. Al-Qaeda is not a grass-roots organization, with a political base; it exists only to the extent it acts. So Al-Qaeda was politically killed by the “Arab spring” before Bin Laden was physically killed. The second point is that the political discourse of the demonstrators is the exact opposite of Al-Qaeda’s narrative: no Islamic state, but democratic state, no Islam versus the West, but universal values (democracy, human rights, and respect).

Now we’ll find out how incidental his role in current world terrorist operations really is…

Sure, but Al-Qaeda is more a label than a centralized organization. More precisely, both could co-exist. Nothing prevents local groups or individuals from claiming that they act in the name of Al-Qaeda. They are sure to have more impact by doing that.

It took so long to track him down, despite all of the billions spent on intelligence and high-tech defense gear, that by the time he died, it seemed almost irrelevant to the wider problems of the region.

Yes, probably the main mistake was to think in terms of military territorial control. Bin Laden was able to escape an invading army, but fell victim to more traditional intelligence means. Secondly, the problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan was no more an issue about Al-Qaeda than about the radicalization of an indigenous Taliban movement on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

What are the political consequences of his death?

The coincidence of the political death of Al-Qaeda and of the physical death of Bin Laden is very important in symbolic terms. It closed a chapter, allowing to adopt different policies (toward Hamas, toward Afghanistan) and to develop a different approach toward the integration of Islam in the West.



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