Last Tuesday, September 11, while the United States was commemorating the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anti-American demonstrations erupted at U.S. consulates in Libya and Egypt.
The demonstration in Benghazi, the home base for the Libyan rebels who came to power thanks to military intervention by the United States and NATO, led to clashes that killed several American diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
In an interview with Al Jazeera a few days earlier, Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, offered to broker a 10-year peace deal between al Qaeda and the West. The U.S. is to abstain from interfering in the affairs of Islamic countries, in return for which the “legitimate rights” of America and the West will be protected and they will stop being provoked.
Mohammed al Zawahiri, who was acquitted by an Egyptian military court in March this year after spending 14 years in Egyptian prisons on extremism charges, is just one beneficiary of the Arab Spring. Many other opponents of the regime have been set free since the fall of the Mubarak regime.
The events in North Africa and the Middle East, which began in December 2010, have led to regime changes in four countries and seriously undermined the governments in two others and created a new political atmosphere in the region. Another major event was the killing in Pakistan 16 months ago of Osama bin Laden, the symbol of Islamic extremism. Although this had an impact on U.S. domestic policy and gave Barack Obama a trump card in his campaign for re-election, it has had little effect on the Muslim world.
Political Islam, which has only been discussed in the context of al Qaeda and the global anti-terrorist coalition since the early 2000s, has acquired a new dimension. The Muslim Brotherhood party has come to power in Egypt, and contrary to expectations, its leader Mohammed Morsi is no mere figurehead for the military junta but a man in control of the situation. The influence of Islamic forces is growing rapidly in all countries where dictatorial governments have been overthrown or are teetering on the brink of collapse.
The era when the struggle against “international terrorism” was trying to be the core of world politics lasted nearly 10 years. If we put aside the emotional factor – the attacks of September 2001 unquestionably came as a huge shock to the United States, one which encouraged a forceful response – we will have to admit that the desire to exploit that tragedy was understandable.
By the beginning of the 21st century, the conceptual clarity of the initial post-Cold War period had grown murky. Events were not taking the expected course, and the absence of a clear threat following the dissolution of the Soviet Union was disheartening. The global system, whose structure became quite vague after the collapse of the bipolar model, was becoming uncontrollable.
Under the circumstances, the appearance of a formidable enemy, who was especially frightening because it was dispersed and impossible to put a finger on, engendered the hope that resistance to it would help restore the old global structure and control. In other words, international terrorism should have replaced the Soviet threat and consolidated the “forces of good will” in the struggle against the “global evil.”
But things haven’t worked out that way. Firstly, it turned out that terrorism was not a structured phenomenon and hence cannot be turned into an opposite pole. The term “international terrorism” disguised a complex combination of various cultural, social, economic and geopolitical problems. Terrorist attacks were mostly a shell, a front that concealed a variety of underlying reasons for the attacks. In any case, the struggle against terrorism could not become a universal mission, because there are specific elements in each particular case that have to be taken into account.
However, the policy of President George W. Bush was based on the assumption that terrorism is a global evil that must be resisted, that those who are not with “us” are against “us,” and that democracy is a cure-all and if it does not come naturally then it must be helped along. The results of that policy are well-known. Even the Afghan war, which was initially seen as justified and legitimate (it began with the quick overthrow of the Taliban and the destruction of the al Qaeda infrastructure), has turned into an endless quagmire without any clear end goal.
Instead of the clarity that was the objective 10 years ago, we now have complete ideological and political chaos. The Arab Spring has thrown a spanner in the works. The United States has actually become the ally of those forces in Libya, Egypt and Syria which it had been fighting in its war on terror. On the other hand, although al Qaeda overlooked and so could not influence the unrest that was brewing in Arab countries, Islamic extremists are now rapidly becoming part of the process.
Notably, the U.S. presidential candidates are paying very little attention to the threat of terrorism in this year’s election campaign. Of course, Obama often mentions that he was the man who got rid of bin Laden. But Mitt Romney has no interest in the subject at all. Instead, he has been advocating the revival of the clear-cut system of the Cold War era, when the “free world” was pitted against the “non-democracies.” His comments about Russia being the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe” are an attempt to find a consolidated threat, but he is looking in the wrong place.
The Middle East is experiencing a tectonic shift, and the contours of the ensuing fundamental change are still pretty vague. Both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush helped create the conditions for this change, but subsequent events have assumed their own logic and are following a script that does not depend on external forces. The changes that are underway in the Middle East will explode the myth that the 21st century world can be based on a simple and understandable plan.