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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
The end of one dream and the birth of another
The Arab Spring has empowered Muslims to create new forms of leadership - dictators and mass-murderers "need not apply".
Last Modified: 13 May 2011 13:49
As the 'Arab Spring' progresses, young people across the Muslim world are leaving old ideas of resistance to the West behind and taking the future into their own hands [GALLO/GETTY]

It comes as no surprise that reactions in the Islamic world to the death of Osama bin Laden should be so muted.

Yes, we've seen the ritual postings on the so-called jihadi websites, including statements from the supposed al-Qaeda "general command", promising revenge and exhorting Pakistanis to rise up against an impious government of "traitors and thieves". No surprises there; but these outpourings represent a minuscule population, however dangerous they may be at a retail level.

And no doubt these fulminations by al-Qaeda generate an echo from the extreme fringes of the Salafi movement, from those who would actually embrace the dark, obscurantist, mono-chromatic governance championed by the Afghan Taliban and its al-Qaeda mentors, and for whom Sheikh Osama is not only a champion, but a model. But such views clearly have scant resonance among the broad, healthy-minded mass of the general Muslim population.

And yes, there have been condemnations of bin Laden's killing from groups far closer to the mainstream, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, who praised the Saudi exile as "an Arab and Muslim warrior". But these are the reactions of what we might call "Islamic nationalists". For them, Osama was a symbol of resistance to the overbearing West.

Osama's resistance was outdated

No matter how steadfast the Sheikh may have seemed in resisting perceived western encroachment, no matter how sincere he may have been in pursuit of his twisted aims, it is difficult to muster great sympathy for a man so utterly misguided, whose takfiri legacy was to inspire the wanton murder of thousands of Muslims by other Muslims in East Africa, in Iraq, and in any number of other places extending from Morocco to Indonesia.

Even in South Asia, where the presence of a huge Western army in Afghanistan and near-daily violations of Pakistani sovereignty have created a very different dynamic, in which previously disparate Islamic-inspired groups, pursuing their own highly parochial concerns, have increasingly come to identify with a global jihad whose agenda has largely been set by al-Qaeda - even there, one cannot find the groundswell of popular emotion one might have found had bin Laden been killed, say, in 2002.

Too much has happened since. 

The response of the West to 9/11 and the explosion of regional militancy it has inspired has led, ultimately, to a degree of Muslim-on-Muslim violence heretofore unimaginable, employing the most alien and macabre of methods, in what was already a violent part of the world. Even the demonstrations of the usual suspects, from the Jamaat-e-Islami to Lashkar-e-Taiba, have had a ritual, self-serving quality - and their participants betray the dispirited knowledge that they can hope to generate little resonance in the population at large. Indeed, their public outpourings appear to have more to do with them than they do with genuine devotion to Osama.

It was the fate of bin Laden that, in the end, he would become to most in the Muslim world a sterile symbol of ineffectual resistance, fundamentally rejected by those whom he would presume to represent. There is no greater indictment of the legacy of bin Laden than that his appeal was based upon an overwhelming sense of Muslim weakness. It thus is fitting that he should meet his demise precisely when a new generation is rising up to forge a different path, one based on an overwhelming sense of popular strength.

There is precedent for this. I remember well the feeling in the Arab street in 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and defied the calls of the West and of the international community to withdraw. I saw it from the streets of Algiers, where mass demonstrations built inexorably in size and vigour as momentum increased for a US-led attack on Saddam's Republican Guard. Those who surrounded the US embassy chanting pro-Saddam slogans surely had no illusions about the man: He was a thug and a known mass-murderer of his own people, whose greatest atrocities were yet to come. But then and there, the reality of the man counted for little. What mattered was the image, the symbol of a seemingly powerful Arab leader willing to stand up to the West.

Paper tigers

When, in the end, Saddam was overwhelmingly and ignominiously defeated, and his army revealed to be a paper tiger, one might have expected to see a popular explosion. In fact, we saw nothing of the kind. It is the singular fate of the personally discredited symbol to lose all popular support when his resistance is revealed to be a sham - and has come to an end. In the case of the Iraqi dictator, it was like air escaping from a balloon: As Saddam's legions fled northward in disorder, the headline of a popular newspaper in Algiers said it all: The End of the Dream. In the Arab street, there was a collective shrug, and everyone went back to what they were doing before.

In truth, the promise represented by Saddam Hussein was not a dream, but a nightmare. It should not be the fate of the Muslims to be "liberated" by mass-murderers, whether Saddam or Osama, whose contempt for the core beliefs and aspirations of most of those whom they pretended to lead was palpable. 

Instead, and in spite of the many obstacles ahead, one can see in the middle distance a very different sort of liberation, one forged by and for the people themselves, based on models which exist within the Muslim world, and carrying the tangible hope of a future where the leaders are servants to the desires of the people, and not the other way around.

Robert L. Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA's Clandestine Service. Mr Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Previously, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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