For ten years millions of Arabs were held hostage due to the acts of a minority. During this time tens of thousands of lives were lost in senseless violence that only a megalomaniac would be able to justify.
Even for Arabs who had not lived in the West, essential movement in this globalised world was impaired. Arabs sensed looks of suspicion at international airports. As long queues formed passengers young and old had to take off their shoes, belts, coats, offload their laptops. Mothers were subjected to tasting their own bottled breast milk to carry it on board a plane to feed their infants. Feelings of suspicion were only compounded.
Now, with Osama Bin Laden’s death, Arab and Western relations - indeed the entire world - has a chance to start anew. And yet in many ways the Arab world moved on many years ago. Following the attacks of 9/11 Western suspicion of Arab money meant that much of it was directed into the region and rising Asian powers. In the Gulf, Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi are now capitals of culture, commerce and communication. One hundred million North African Arabs have freed themselves from tyranny in the course of the Arab Spring. Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Ennahda Islamic party proclaimed on Al Jazeera; “Osama died in Tunisia before dying in Pakistan.”
Education, the empowerment of women, tourism, commerce and democracy are driving these nations forward in an unstoppable manner.
This is not the world that Osama was born into, and it is certainly not the world he sought to leave behind. Arabs, like any other people, want freedom from subversion under any guise. In conservative and heavily armed Yemen, Osama’s father’s own land of birth, men and women stand today in tandem on the streets calling peacefully for democracy.
For all the men he blinded, the children he orphaned, the wives he widowed and the homes he wrecked – he had it coming. It is fitting though that Osama lived to see the Arab Spring, this powerful movement that rejected the twisted ideology that he dedicated his life to. Osama, having tarnished the name of his father Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, one of the greatest Arab entrepreneurs of the 20th century, caused family members to shy away from using that last name as they have for decades with pride. This will now also come to an end.
This is an era where science and knowledge triumphs. Universities are dotting the Arabian Peninsula, from KAUST in the Hejaz to Dubai, Doha and Sharjah’s University cities. Since the devastating attacks of 9/11 women have won the right to vote in Kuwait, young men and women have forced their governments to expand democratic rights across the region and despots have been overthrown. The internet has freed the minds of Arabs. Blogging and tweeting has allowed them to express themselves as individuals and counter stereotypes that formed following the various attacks carried out by Osama’s minions.
Al Qaeda thrived on highlighting differences between people and on the suppression of individuality. Arabs today celebrate these differences as part of the common fabric that binds our identities together. We are a stronger Arab world because of the minorities among us - not despite of them, as Osama’s ideology would have us believe. Coptic, Maronite, Catholic Christians; Shia, Druze, Jewish and Bahai Arabs and Middle Easterners are just as vital to this region as any of the various shades of Sunni sects of which only one narrow strand is good enough for Osama’s poisonous ideology.
In countless ways the Arab world today is a stronger, more coherent entity. In a virtuous circle, Gulf and Levantine Arabs relate to North African Arabs and share their aspirations. We read each other’s newspapers, websites and tweets and form a deeper understanding and respect of one another’s culture.
Osama preyed on the weak-minded, the ignorant, and the hopeless while the Arab Spring radiated with the intelligent, the righteous and the brave. Millions of Arabs took to the streets chanting “silmiya, silmiya” (peacefully, peacefully) indicating the form of change they want. And yet not one of those millions of Arabs called upon his name, carried his picture or tweeted a sympathetic word for Osama.
Al Qaeda can strike again of course, but it will be the futile struggle of a drowning man, the giant wave of confident Arab youth will triumph. It is not enough to simply hope for a better Arab world now that the most notorious Arab has been killed. We must actively fight the poisonous ideas that he planted in the minds of his followers. We Arabs are just as smart, just as ambitious, and just as forward-thinking as any other people. We have the power to change the world for the better: in fact, we’ve already started to.
(Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi a non-resident fellow at Dubai School of Government. The opinions expressed are his own.)