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View From The Arab World: Bin Laden Failed


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Still to come, we'll ask our regular panel of moms how they have changed as parents over the past five years. We're observing our fifth anniversary on the air.

But, first, we continue our look into the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. We just spoke with Michael Scheuer, former of the CIA. He spent years tracking bin Laden's activities.

Now, for another perspective, we've called upon Rami Khouri. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a former Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. He's currently their director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and he joins us today from Beirut.

Rami Khouri, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you. My pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, Rami, shortly after the death of Osama bin Laden - and, frankly, you know, several times since then - you've written about the conditions that you say made it possible for al-Qaida to exist in the first place, and that includes things like resentment of the West for its relationship with Israel, a distaste of the Arab police states that the U.S. had traditionally aligned itself with. And you've said many times that Muslims in general repudiate bin Laden, but they share some of the same grievances.

And I wanted to ask, you know, so many things have happened in the past year. Do you think these same conditions still exist today?

KHOURI: You know, I think there's two things that are important a year after bin Laden's death: one, the underlying conditions, but two, how do people in the Arab world, in particular - which was really the center of gravity of bin Laden's movement, even though he was based in Afghanistan and Pakistan because he was kicked out of the Arab world. But it's really Arab anger that he tried to play on and failed miserably, because most of the vast majority of Arabs repudiated him.

But the interesting thing is: How do people react to those resentments? So I think the answer to your question is, first, that the bulk of the reasons for bin Laden-ism - the criticism of the Western world with its double standards on the Middle East, whether it's vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians, UN resolutions - most of those are still there.

The other problem was the domestic conditions in Arab countries: poverty, inequality, oppression, abuse of power, corruption. And most of those conditions are still there to some extent, but the really important thing is how these revolutions and these uprisings in the Arab world have provided the mechanism that has challenged these conditions and that has actually tapped into the sentiments and the activism of millions and millions of Arab people, people trying to create stable, democratic systems with some social justice and equity and accountability. And that's the real message that the Arab people have sent to the world in the past year.

The bin Laden way appealed to a very small number of, you know, people who would have joined cults in other places, people who were outcasts. And, you know, you're talking about a handful of probably a core of a couple hundred people.

MARTIN: You know, there's a new Pew Research poll that confirms something that you've been saying for quite some time, which is that large majorities of Muslims in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Lebanon view al-Qaida unfavorably, but the minority that views that group favorably still has done a lot of damage and has also done a lot of damage to Muslims, as well as people in the West. And so I think the question many people would have is: Is the world safer now because bin Laden is dead, or not?

KHOURI: Probably, there's not much difference. You know, there are grievances by citizens that happen to be - the majority of them happen to be more Muslims, but there are grievances that citizens have that are somehow expressed in action. Some people become apathetic. Some people emigrate and leave. Some people become petty criminals, or they become corrupt.

And then a few of them go into terrorism. This is what's happened. The problem in the past 20, 30 years was that discontented people in the Arab world or in Asia had no political outlet for their grievances. They couldn't go off and vote for a different government. They couldn't create a political party. They couldn't have their regrets and grievance in the courts. They couldn't have what the United States had in the '50s and '60s, a civil rights movement that changed the law and dealt with the inequities and the injustices. Those options were not available and, therefore, a few people went off and became terrorists.

MARTIN: But why do you say, then, the world is not much different, then? Because, as you've noted, that all these things have occurred, that in many countries now, throughout - because of the Arab Spring, people are expressing themselves in ways that they had not done, or been able to do heretofore. So why do you still say that the death of Osama bin Laden hasn't made much difference?

KHOURI: Because there's still a small group of lunatic fringe terrorists who are out there, and some of them will now come back and say, look, we told you so. They'd say look at Bahrain and look at Syria. They say, you know, trying to make a democratic uprising isn't going to achieve anything. They're going to say, look at Egypt. The unemployment rate is higher than it was a year and a half ago. There's more poor people today than there were two years ago.

So some of these people will actually try to use the Arab uprisings as a way to convince others that the bin Laden way is right. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people in the Arab world reject that.

MARTIN: And, before we let you go, you know, you're saying that there's a view among al-Qaida sympathizers that only kind of total war against the West is the way to address this issue. You know, there's a similar view in the West - particularly, I think, in the United States - that suggests that the reason that al-Qaida has not yet been stamped out is that, despite the fact that there's been a decade of war, you know, in the region, starting in Afghanistan that there has not yet been a total commitment to wiping out al-Qaida.

And I wonder if you've - do you find that view at all credible?

KHOURI: Well, I understand that view, and I agree that you have to have an all-out effort to use every available legitimate means - including warfare and legal action and arresting people - to catch these guys and put them on trial or put them in jail if they're found guilty, because they're criminals. They're terrorists.

But there's no way that, you know, sending a 200,000 person army from the United States to Afghanistan is going to do that. You have to keep in mind: How did bin Laden-ism start in the first place? It was the long-term presence of American military in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War in 1991, '92. So foreign military action against al-Qaida only brings on more and more al-Qaida sympathizers, rather than defeats it.

It's very hard to stop that kind of activity, and it cannot be stopped by foreign armies. It can only be stopped most effectively by the intelligence and police and judicial activities of the governments where those people operate.

But I think there's an understanding around the Arab world, in particular, that the overwhelming majority of people want to redress their wrongs and fix up their societies through more democratic and more accountable and participatory and pluralistic government systems, more democracy and a great deal of social equity, which - social justice is the great underlying cry at the Arab uprisings that is often not sufficiently heard in the West. The demand for social justice is as strong as the demand for ending subjugation and the corrupt and (unintelligible) regimes. So that's really the root to a more decent life, and ultimately, to end terrorism.

MARTIN: Rami Khouri is the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He's also an internationally syndicated columnist, and he was kind enough to join us from Beirut.

Rami Khouri, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

KHOURI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.