NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Osama bin Laden died violently, the way he lived.
Bin Laden together with the Al Qaeda terror network that he spawned has defiled the name of Islam by promoting wanton terror and deadly violence throughout the world — from Indonesia to the Middle East, from Africa to the United States.
Osama bin Laden and his global war of terror contributed to the perception that Islam is synonymous with violence and intolerant behavior.
One might recall bin Laden’s so-called fatwas, urging Muslims to kill any and all American citizens including their allies — whether or not they were civilians or military. He argued that such action was warranted in any country in which it was possible to do so, because American citizens pay taxes to their government and thus there were no innocent civilians living in America or in the lands of their allies.
For trained Muslim scholars and jurists, bin Laden’s interpretation is unprecedented in Islamic scholarship. It is obvious that bin Laden offered a self-serving version of Islam to match his political agenda. It is this kind of interpretation that has fed into Islamophobic depictions of Islam as an extremist religion.
Muslims must use the opportunity of bin Laden’s demise to once again state loudly and unequivocally that acts of wanton violence and barbarism are contrary to the teachings of Islam. In Islamic ethics, the end does not justify the means. Whatever their motivations, those responsible for the mass murder of innocents have not only demeaned their cause but have entered the abyss of irrelevance.
Religious extremism has no virtue in Islam and has been unequivocally condemned by the prophet Muhammad. He is reported in an authentic prophetic tradition (hadith) to have declared thrice: “The extremists shall perish.”
For contemporary Muslims it is important to acknowledge, no matter how painful it is, that we do have extremists (mutatarrifun) in our ranks. This is, of course not unique to Islam. What is peculiar to Islam is that extremists appear to have a disproportionate role in shaping the image of Islam, not least because of the proclivity of the media for sensationalism. Muslim leaders have an especially onerous challenge of condemning violent overreactions by misguided individuals who act in a thoroughly reprehensible and depraved way in responses to perceived provocations against Islam.
In our response to the news of bin Laden’s death, Muslims need to avoid apologia, conspiracy theories and simplistic analyses. Instead, we should use this as yet another opportunity to reflect upon the reality and root causes of extremism.
A number of analysts for a very long time have called upon the world community to examine the underlying causes that give rise to desperation, in conditions of dictatorship, impoverishment and powerlessness. They have highlighted the dire need for a public debate concerning the controversial role of the United States and other Western powers in abetting and supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
For example, the renowned scholar of Islam, John Esposito, ominously warned in his most recent book, "Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam," that “If foreign policy issues are not addressed effectively, they will continue to be a breeding ground for hatred and radicalism, the rise of extremist movements, and recruits for the bin Laden's of the world.”
Our primary strategy towards combating Muslim extremism and all other forms of extremism should be that of ameliorating the root causes that provide a fertile ground on which extremism can thrive.
In light of the wave of pro-democracy protests that have swept despots from power in Tunisia and Egypt and are threatening to do so in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Iran, it might be a good time to call on the United States and European powers to be more consistent in their support of democracy as a panacea for terrorism.
Bin Laden’s death comes at a time of the demise of dictatorships and increased optimism for change in many countries with Muslim majority populations. I know I speak for many Muslims when I say I hope that bin Laden’s death will help quench the flame of terrorism, and that with the rise of democracy throughout the Muslim world we can all finally begin to live in a world that respects and affirms the dignity of people of all faiths.
Our condolences continue to go out to the families of all the innocent victims of terrorism committed in the name of Al Qaeda as well as those whose lives were sacrificed in the “wars on terror” throughout the world.
A. Rashied Omar is Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.