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Bin Laden and the Arab Spring: A Turning Point in U.S.-Muslim World Relations?

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MIDDLE EAST
AP File

Coauthored by John L. Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani

The death of Osama bin Laden like the Arab Spring signals a possible turning point in the Arab and Muslim world and an opportunity to strengthen U.S.-Muslim world relations.

The killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad is a major psychological blow to al Qaeda, who lost a charismatic leader, and global terrorists for whom he symbolized their militant jihad. It does not end the transnational threat. As President Barack Obama has stated, "There's no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must -- and we will -- remain vigilant at home and abroad." At the same time, significant change has occurred.

In recent years, al Qaeda and other terrorists have been weakened by counterterrorism efforts not only by the U.S. and Europe but also by Muslim countries. Indeed, as the Gallup World Poll indicated, Muslims globally, like majorities in the West, share a common fear and concern about the threat of religious extremism and terrorism to their families and societies. From Egypt and Algeria to Iraq and Pakistan, terrorist attacks and suicide bombings have slaughtered innocent Muslim civilians.

While terrorist groups, a fraction of 1% of Muslims, are able to appeal to and recruit from small pockets of Muslims, they have failed to inspire a mass movement or topple oppressive governments. In contrast, as recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen and calls for democratic reforms Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman have demonstrated, broad based non-violent opposition has proven an effective mode of resistance and regime change.

The challenge for American and EU policymakers today is to construct a new narrative and framework to replace a failed paradigm and conventional wisdom, based on support for authoritarian regimes and the "democratic exceptionalism" in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Policymakers must move beyond policies that equated protection of national interests with the stability and security of regimes and were driven more by fear of the unknown than support for Western principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights. This policy, while attractive to authoritarian allies and their entrenched elites, fed anti-Americanism and fears of Western intervention, invasion, occupation and dependency.

The Arab Spring challenges Arab rulers to respond to the winds of change and engage in a fundamental reevaluation and reconstruction of their relationship with their "subjects," to acknowledge and respond to legitimate demands by citizens for greater political rights and participation. Failure to enact substantive political reforms, as in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, risks that calls for reform from within will become demands for regime change.

Despite political and cultural differences and perceptions of national interest, universal aspirations and principles do exist and form the basis for a new way forward. As President Barack Obama affirmed in his Cairo speech:

All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

Prof. John L Esposito is founding director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, author of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam and The Future of Islam.

Sheila B. Lalwani, a former Fulbright scholar to Germany, is a research fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.