Rowan Callick, from The Weekend Australian7-8 May 2011
OSAMA bin Laden and his world view have hovered over us for the decade since his operatives commandeered four aeroplanes in American skies. Suddenly, on September 11, 2001, people in the West were confronted by the palpable power of ideas that seemed utterly alien. The efforts to impose through terror a 7th-century style Islamic caliphate with a chosen people ruling the world as a theocracy, and the emergence on the international stage of a tribal approach to dress, lifestyle, justice, sexuality and governance, could not easily be shrugged off.
The shock waves caused by the collapse of the World Trade Centre aided the collapse of this short-lived project.And those shock waves will not stop with bin Laden’s demise. Alan Dupont, the Michael Hintze professor and director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, says: “The ideas that bin Laden and his organisation perpetrated are very much alive and you can argue they may be stronger than ever.” They underpin today’s Islamism, which holds that “the West and its values are anathema to good Muslims and must be contested at every level”. Dupont says after 60 or 70 “reassuringly stable and predictable years”, during the past decade the world began to enter a more complex and diffuse era, in which non-state actors played a big role.
David Martin Jones, associate professor in political studies at the University of Queensland, says the age of enlightenment was already being undermined from within. British sociologist Anthony Giddens, a Labour peer who has become notorious for his friendly meetings with dictator Muammar Gaddafi, developed the notion of a globalised Third Way, popularised by former prime minister Tony Blair. Martin Jones says this concept, allied with those of “post-nation constellations”, promulgated by German sociologist Jurgen Habermas, and of the “corrosive relativism” of French deconstructionist philosophers, together anticipate eagerly the redistribution of global wealth, the imposition of transnational justice and international governance administered by the UN as liberal democratic nations fade.
The dramatic arrival of the “Islamic Other”, bin Laden, made a natural fit in this emerging ideological framework. “On one level, bin Laden married the relativist desire for non-Western alternatives with a version of a cosmopolitan universalism. Islamism offers an arrangement that is attractively non-Western and transcends the nation state,” Martin Jones says. The inconvenient elements of bin Laden’s Islamism — such as its marginalisation of women, hatred of gays and cruel punishments — are overlooked, says Martin Jones, or else reinterpreted as “articulating a critique of Western selfishness, individualism, property ownership and rule of law”. He says: “In some senses, the whole Islamist project is a Western product, from Muslim Brotherhood founding theologian Sayyid Qutb to bin Laden.” Much of the Islamised radicalism that picked up pace from the mid-1990s was derived from London, he says. The West has become increasingly fragmented, Martin Jones says, with the US increasingly focusing on its role as a Pacific power and “Europe in a bit of a mess”.
However, he believes that the recent reverses against liberal democracy can be staunched and that “the nation-state idea might be in for a revival”. There are signs of this in the jasmine revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. But it is more palpably present in the rise of China, a state with a clear sense of optimism and of purpose and identity, and with scant concern about concepts such as “the Other”.
Lowy Institute director of studies Andrew Shearer says “all the developed world except the resource-rich countries, Australia and Canada, are doing it really hard. The West’s increasingly sclerotic economies are far from out of the woods and bin Laden’s demise [is] a terrific result and a reminder that the US still has enormous military reach and capacity, [although it] still faces massive structural problems.”
“If it’s true that bin Laden’s death does result in the diminution of the anti-modernist challenge in the world, it will accentuate the distinctly modern competition under way between the US and China.” Gradual victory in the war against terror, he says, could lead to the world being wound back, in strategic and other areas, to the way it was on September 10, 2001. After the attack on the twin towers, defence planning was reviewed hastily.
Shearer says: “We shouldn’t underestimate the challenges still ahead in the clash between anti-modernist extremist forces and the West. How does the West now support the forces of enlightenment and marginalise the forces of extremism” as the Middle East explodes? He says this ferment in the Middle East and China’s rise will coalesce to form “the strategic question of our lifetime”.
China’s dependence on energy from the Middle East to fuel its rapid development will have big implications for maritime security and access to energy. The 10 bin Laden years thus form something of a lost decade for the 200-year project of enlightenment, for modernisation, and for the Western form of humanism. Can Islam move to shake off a lingering sense that some of the extremists who advocate killing in its name exude a true piety? Can the West regain its sense of purpose, the coherence of its once envied civilisation?
How extraordinary that the life of an estranged minor Saudi aristocrat should drive such epochal questions. It is his death that opens the door to asking them.