I often see my gardener pruning trees, especially flowering ones, really drastically. I get a bit alarmed at the way he slashes them back, but he says it’s the best way to get them to bloom.
So when I heard the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, I didn’t get too excited. “Mati satu, tumbuh seribu,” we say in Indonesia: One dies, a thousand grow to take its place.
It seemed to me that chopping off one of the hydra’s heads wouldn’t make all that much difference. It might even exacerbate terrorism.
It also made me wonder if my gardener should be advising the White House on its GWOT (Global War on Terror).
The jubilation of cheering crowds in the US wasn’t surprising, but they could have used the time more usefully to think about how it all came to this and what happens next, because it isn’t likely to be nice.
The point is that Bin Laden’s death is tied up with a mass of complicated issues that are nowhere near being sorted. These include the dysfunctional states that emerged in the Middle East after decolonization, the tensions between India and Pakistan, the Palestine conflict, the mess left behind by the Cold War, the short-sightedness of much American foreign policy and, of course, the aftermath of its interventions in the region.
The 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan was one of these. The Soviet invasion led to US and Saudi money funding proxy soldiers to fight the Commie Russians, with Mujahiddeen fighters produced en masse by madrasahs in the Pashtun areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Later, they produced the Taliban, while some of the radicalized youth who had fought the Soviet Union went on to become key players in al-Qaeda. Bin Laden, a former commander of foreign volunteers in Afghanistan, became their leader. The US had created a whole pack of monsters.
When the Cold War fizzled out in the early 1990s, the proxy soldiers didn’t stop fighting their holy war. In fact, they found new causes.
US foreign policy in the Middle East had long relied on dictators like Mubarak in Egypt, or Zia and Musharraf in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, this created animosity and mistrust toward the US that was easily exploited by militant Islamists.
And what happened on 9/11 was that US foreign policy in the Middle East turned up downtown in New York. The US became what so many Middle Eastern countries have so often been: A war zone. It was only for a day, but it killed thousands of people and created a massive shift in US attitudes.
Of course disasters like these have been happening in Middle Eastern countries for decades, with similar dramatic consequences for people on the receiving end there, but that’s not something many Americans care to think about too much.
So, rightly or wrongly, Bin Laden stands for different things for different people. For the US, he’s a mass murderer and a criminal, but some Muslims in the Middle East (and elsewhere) see him as a symbol of standing up to an interfering superpower that props up dictators.
It is a sad comment on our times that Bin Laden became one of the most influential people in the world in his lifetime (and after it as well). Think of this next time you hop on a plane and go through all those security measures.
In one way or another, his murderous campaigns affected the security policies of every nation on the planet, and most of the people living on it as well.
Yes, Bin Laden is dead, but the things he stood for continue to present deep problems for today’s world.
So what’s the solution? It won’t come from Bin Laden “reincarnations”, who can be relied on to keep his memory alive with continued violent terrorism. Nor will the solution come from Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who paradoxically continues to prosecute wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (now Libya as well). The drones that make the US so technologically superior now are going to create a whole host of horrendous new problems when everyone else gets them, and want their own “surgical strikes”.
Can it come instead from Mohamad Bouazizi? He was the 26-year-old Tunisian vegetable vendor who set himself on fire to protest harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by municipal officials. His death literally sparked the Tunisian revolution and those in neighboring Arab countries.
But sadly, while Bouazizi is a heroic figure, his model also involves violence, albeit self-destructive. That is a dead-end solution.
All of us — including the US — should pray that the Middle East finds itself a model that doesn’t involve violence and destruction, brings people together, develops good governance, and builds functioning societies, rather than the destroy-or-be-destroyed “game” that now dominates the world. Many believe the youth-led uprisings calling for democracy and justice that begin in Tunisia spread across the Arab world offer a chance of this, a new way forward.
Maybe they do, but it’s still just as likely they will get hijacked by the usual Middle Eastern struggle between wannabe military dictators and Islamist zealots. And there is little the US can do about any of it now.
Ironic isn’t it? Maybe you could say that “democracy” bit itself in the bum!
The writer (www.juliasuryakusuma.com) is the author of Jihad Julia (Mizan).