Al-Qaeda is spent as an ideological force in the Arab and Muslim world, so we might as well come out and say it, and, hopefully, act like it too. It's not so much that al-Qaeda is irrelevant -- it isn't -- but, rather, that it is, and has increasingly become, beside the point. Having lived in Jordan in 2008 and now in Doha, it's really quite remarkable the extent to which al-Qaeda doesn't figure into Arab conversations about the future of the Arab world. Except it's not remarkable.
Al-Qaeda never intended to win the hearts and minds of Muslims and become what might be called a membership organization. In fact, it preferred less, rather than more, active supporters. There have generally been two predominant models of Islamist activism -- one of bottom-up society and institution-building, exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood, and another that focuses on top-down seizure of power, through a mobilized, ideologically-committed vanguard. Al-Qaeda and its offshoots have always been of the latter category. Its model is simple -- to use small numbers for big effect, and, in this, there is little doubt they succeeded, at least for a time.
How does a small, relatively weak organization strive for big effect, particularly when facing the world's superpower? It draws the stronger power in, provoking it, and, more importantly, provoking it to respond in ways it would otherwise not. This was the point of September 11. By making al-Qaeda into the pinnacle of evil -- by insisting that it threatened our very existence as a nation -- we unwittingly helped make al-Qaeda into what it wished to become.
To be sure, al-Qaeda gained the sympathy of many Arabs post 9/11, and it's probably better to not pretend otherwise. But sympathy is not the same as support. It is difficult to overstate the anger many Arabs feel toward us -- more often than not because of tangible (not imagined) opposition to any number of destructive American policies in the region -- and they, for a time, saw al-Qaeda as a vehicle for their anger. From their perspective, however despicable its methods, al-Qaeda was at least standing up the United States when few others were. I had to contend with such views from my own relatives in Egypt, including an aunt who, after the attacks, told me to my face that she was "happy 9/11 happened" to us. Mind you, here was a denizen of the westernized, monied, secular Egyptian elite with villas in European coastal towns. I couldn't believe that she could say that to me, without any hint of remorse. It shocked and angered me. But it would have been a mistake to cast such views as irrational without understanding how they came to be.
There were some people in the Bush administration who seemed to realize much of this. Michael Doran, who later became the Bush NSC's Middle East director, wrote what was remains one of the definitive post-9/11 articles, appropriately titled "someone else's civil war." His words are probably worth recalling now:
The script was obvious: America, cast as the villain, was supposed to use its military might like a cartoon character trying to kill a fly with a shotgun. The media would see to it that any use of force against the civilian population of Afghanistan was broadcast around the world, and the umma would find it shocking how Americans nonchalantly caused Muslims to suffer and die.
Indeed, the script was obvious and we dutifully played our role. However, with Barack Obama's election, the narrative of Muslims versus America became much harder to frame, and al-Qaeda had a great deal of trouble responding to the new tone in U.S.-Middle East relations. They never regained their footing, except perhaps for now. If Republicans have their way, they will succeed in doing what al-Qaeda could never do for itself - demonstrate its relevance in a world where it is becoming less so.
The war on terror, if we wish to call it that, has not ended but we would do well to act as if it has. We must continue to be vigilant against those who wish to destroy us, and, if we wish to destroy them, we best do it quietly and without fanfare.
The second and perhaps just as important way to deprive al-Qaeda of the political capital it seeks is to address the real policy grievances that are the source for much of the anger, both real imagine, that Arabs and Muslims continue to feel toward us. Obama's Cairo speech was a good start. But six months later, there has been only limited follow-up. Arabs were hoping and waiting. Now they are just waiting.
Lastly, progressives need not mince words: Republicans, by encouraging hysteria over the terrorist threat, are making the threat of terrorism that much more salient. In the coming weeks, it will be worth remembering Al-Qaeda's formula: small acts for big effect. The amateurish efforts of the Christmas bomber have brought a nation to its knees, and reduced us to fear and panic. Fear and panic make us do things that are ultimately self-destructive. Al-Qaeda knows this but perhaps we still don't.