The speaker of Sudan’s parliament, Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Tahir, may not have spoken for the entire Arab world when he condemned the US for killing Osama bin Laden. “If they are so thrilled with his death,” he told Sudanese MPs, “then they should lift their hands off Afghanistan and let Afghans run their own affairs.” Parliamentarians chanted “Martyr, martyr!” in homage to the jihadist who ran his operations from their country from 1992 to 1996.
In the Arab world, as elsewhere, those who hated Bin Laden’s ideology and tactics welcome his demise. Those who sympathised with his objectives, however, condemn the US for shooting him and dumping his body in the sea.
To them, this is another illegal murder by a government they, like Bin Laden, regard as their greatest enemy. In between, millions of Arabs disapprove of the way the US dealt with Bin Laden while not lamenting his demise.
In some ways, the US, in making Bin Laden a martyr, rescued him from irrelevance. This year the Arab public has taken to the streets to demand participation in governance. Bin Laden saw himself and his followers as an elite who would lead the Muslim world, and primarily the Arab world from which he sprang, into a golden era of strict religious rule. But the people don’t want to be led any longer – they want to run their own affairs. Bin Laden’s elitism contrasts sharply with the popular struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Representing the split in the Arab world was the reaction of the two Palestinian parties in the Israeli-occupied territories. Hamas’s leader, Ismail Hanieh, said the assassination was the “continuation of the American oppression and shedding of blood of Muslims and Arabs”. The Fatah-dominated Palestine Authority in Ramallah took the opposite view: “Getting rid of Bin Laden is good for the cause of peace worldwide.”
For although Bin Laden often condemned the Palestinians’ plight at the hands of Israel, his violence against the US did not benefit the Palestinians in any way. If anything, it allowed Ariel Sharon after 2001 to claim he was fighting against the same terrorism as the US – and use that as cover for seizing more Palestinian land.
Arabs fighting for representative government had already turned their back on Bin Laden, just as they have on the US-supported regimes that they blame for their misery. Among them are Islamic parties, who are joining in popular protests rather than terrorising innocent civilians with suicide bombs.
These parties are part of the societies in which they live. The Muslim Brothers in Egypt, like the ruling Islamist AKP in Turkey, seek to participate in the political system. The same holds true for Islamic parties elsewhere in the Arab world.
When they – like Sinn Fein in Ireland or socialist parties in Europe in the early 20th century – are legitimised, they have a stake in the system. That was the last thing Osama bin Laden, whose revolutionary ideology required constant conflict and clandestine operations, would have wanted.
Charles Glass was chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993.