Reassessing Osama Bin Laden’s Legacy
Bin Laden’s death is an opportunity to reassess what he and his legacy mean.
For me, one point stands above all others in importance: Bin Laden’s twisted, Manichaean, psychotic worldview was not Islamic. Yes, he couched his views in the language of Islam. And yes, many misguided souls believed him when he claimed to speak with the authority of a religious leader.
But he was a fake. He had no religious qualifications at all. And neither did those around him.
The fact is that Ayman al-Zawahiri — the ‘second in command’ — is a medical doctor with no qualifications; Abu Musab al-Suri, “one of al-Qaida’s leading military thinkers,” studied mechanical engineering, (and failed to complete the degree); Abd al-Qadir bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, lauded as one of “the most influential Egyptian Jihadi theorists,” also lacks a formal religious education. Even Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, is on record as having stated that Bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa issuing a jihad against America was “null and void” as Bin Laden was not actually qualified to even make a fatwa. And he is the leader of the Taliban!
Not only that, but there are also vast numbers of Islamic scholars who have argued comprehensively that Bin Laden’s words are not just not-Islamic, they are positively un-Islamic.
Last year, an unprecedented array of Islamic scholars, academics, and religious authorities gathered in Turkey. Their purpose was to refute Al Qaeda’s worldview once and for all. The conferences was attended by Muslim authorities from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco, Mauritania, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, United Arab Emirates, India and Canada, and representatives of mainstream Salafism, Sufism and Shia Islam.
And it definitely cleared up a misunderstanding which had boiled within Islam for many years.
Jihadi authors had traditionally justified killing innocents with reference to a particular fourteenth century fatwa from a scholar named Ibn Taymiyya. Its influence was such that Osama Bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa which urged “every Muslim who can” to “kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military,” was justified with reference to Ibn Taymiyya’s fourteenth century fatwa, via ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj’s book, The Neglected Duty, which urged excommunicating and killing of Muslims and non-Muslims.
The fatwa had, in other words, been a theological foundation stone of jihadi terror. What the conference in Turkey revealed was that that foundation stone — justifying killing innocents in Islamic law — was actually based on a typographical error. The Mardin Fatwa states that “the Muslims living therein should be treated according to their rights as Muslims, while the non-Muslims… should be treated according to their rights.” But a mistake in a 1909 edition incorrectly rendered it as “…while the non-Muslims… should be fought as is their due.” This revelation completely pulled the intellectual rug from under the global jihadi discourse. In the words of Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, it revealed that “the entire philosophy of radical Islamists is based on a misprint.”
I could not put it better. Osama bin Laden represents the views of Islam as much as the Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones represents the views of Jesus: he doesn’t.
There were already signs that the intellectual tide was turning away from his abhorrent views. The Arab spring showed that al Qaeda’s message was increasingly irrelevant to the most pressing needs of Muslims, especially in the Arab world. Even the fears of some on the US right about the potential for democracy in Egypt to unleash Islamic radicalism now looks misplaced. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the object of most of the fears, has seen fit to release a statement explicitly saying that the world must “correct the erroneous image” of Islam.
The fact is that last year’s conference in Turkey has already reaffirmed what the vast majority of ordinary Muslims the world over had known all along: that real, authentic Islam is about mercy, compassion, peace and beauty. Real Islam honored the sanctity of all life. Real Islam is about, spreading justice, upholding fairness and avoiding the shedding of blood.
Today is an important day to reaffirm that message to the world. Let us hope that with Bin Laden dead, his message will wither too.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.
This article was published by Huffington Post on May 5, 2011.