The long arc of jihadi activism may be coming to an end. Twenty years of terrorism that reached a crescendo on 9/11 may be diminishing, not because of the deaths of leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. There were other activists who could easily have replaced them. Rather, the movement has been destroyed by two other factors: Barack Obama and Tahrir Square.
The great achievement of President Obama is largely that of not being George W. Bush. Though Obama’s military policies in the Middle East and South Asia have not been significantly different from the policies in the last months of the Bush administration, Obama’s speeches have been conciliatory and his image is not that of cowboy militarism, unlike the presidential persona that was projected during the previous eight years and that so galvanized the ire of much of the world. Without an enemy, movements based on hatred found it hard to sustain their momentum.
But perhaps even more significant has been the impact of Tahrir Square and the many massive protest movements across the Middle East and throughout the world that has elongated the Arab Spring into what may be becoming a Global Decade of popular uprising. The implications of this new activism are still unfolding, but the effect on the old style of activism based on small, secretive militant cells cannot be overstated. On the one hand, the Tahrir Square approach has been tactically more successful, at least in Tunisia and Egypt. On the other hand, it provides a whole new arena for moral politics.
Before the popular movements that toppled the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011, many Middle East activists were convinced that guerilla violence was the only strategy that would work against ruthless dictators. Egyptian activists imagined that only strategic acts of terrorism – aimed at Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the “far enemy” of America that they assumed was propping up his legitimacy – would eventually lead to a massive revolt that would bring the dictatorship to an end.
They also thought that only the jihadi ideology of cosmic warfare, purloined from historical incidents and isolated scriptural passages, could provide moral legitimacy for the struggle. Ideologists such as Abd al- Salam Faraj and Ayman al-Zawahri wrote as if violent struggle – including ruthless attacks of terrorism on civilian populations – was the only form of struggle that was advocated by Islam.
These assumptions were proven wrong. The dramatic popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere in the Islamic world demonstrated that protests that were nonviolent in their inception (and became violent only in response to bloody attempts to repress them) have been far more effective – and supported with a more widespread moral and spiritual consensus – than terrorism. What brought down the tyrants in Egypt and Tunisia, as it turned out, was about as far from jihad as one could imagine. It was a series of massive nonviolent movements of largely middle class and relatively young professionals who organized their protests through Facebook, Twitter and other forms of electronic social networking. No doubt the passivity of the Egyptian military was also a critical factor; the army did not forcibly resist the protests, as the military has in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya, where the struggles have indeed been bloody.
Yet one cannot underestimate the importance of Tahrir Square and similar protests in Alexandria and throughout Egypt. Clearly, they constituted the catalyst for change. Perhaps not since the peaceful overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines has the world seen such a dramatic demonstration of the power of nonviolent resistance. The protests were not the weapons of jihad, nor were the voices of opposition the strident language of Islamist extremism.
There was also a religious element to the protests. The peak moments came after Friday prayers, when sympathetic mullahs would urge the faithful to join the protest as a religious duty. But theirs was not the divisive, hateful voice of jihadi rhetoric. In a remarkable moment, when the Muslim protesters were trying to conduct their prayers in the Square and Mubarak’s thugs tried to attack them as they prayed, a cordon of Egyptian Coptic Christians who had joined the protests circled their Muslim compatriots, shielding them. Later a phalanx of Muslim protesters protected their Christian comrades as they worshipped in the public square, an urban intersection that was for that time transformed into a massive interfaith sanctuary.
The religiosity of Tahrir Square is far from the religion of radical jihad. Rather than separating Muslim from non-Muslim, and Sunni from Shia, the symbols that were raised on impromptu placards in the square were emblems of interfaith cooperation; they showed the cross of Coptic Christians together with the crescent of Egypt’s Muslims in a united religious front against autocracy.
Imagine what bin Laden must have made of all of this as news trickled into his hiding place in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Even more, imagine the puzzled chagrin of bin Laden’s primary lieutenant, al-Zawahri, the Egyptian medical doctor who joined the most extreme Islamist jihadi movement years ago, convinced that only violent guerilla warfare would topple someone like Mubarak.
Tahrir Square clearly showed that Zawahri was wrong. Does this mean that al-Qaida is finished and that the radical struggles of jihad will fizzle into history? Perhaps, in part. It is unlikely that it will regain the strength of previous decades. But several situations will continue to fuel the forms of extreme activism that can lead to terrorism:
Continued U.S. military presence. The U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan, along with accompanying attempts in Pakistan to diminish the influence of the Taliban, will provide occasions for terrorist acts, not only directly against U.S. military forces, but also against symbols of U.S. presence, such as diplomatic headquarters. These actions could be extended to other symbols of U.S. power, but since the anti- American sentiment is linked with the specific situation in South Asia, it is unlikely that it will be generalized into an image of cosmic war that would fuel 9/11-type scenarios attacking the American public in general.
Local struggles against perceived local oppressors. After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011, terrorist attacks by Sunni activists against the Shia-majority Iraqi government have increased considerably. At present, however, the targets of the attacks are the Iraqi government, police force and the Shia population that presumably supports that government. The targets have not shifted to the U.S. or other entities outside the country.
Frustration when nonviolent protest does not succeed. A significant number of failures of nonviolent resistance may lead to a violent backlash. Not all protests have ended like Tunisia and Egypt. Others were ruthlessly crushed. The protests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were quickly put down, and in Syria, the bloody repression has lasted for months. In Libya, the protests turned into a civil war. Failure of nonviolent revolution has, in the past, been the occasion for renewed acts of violence, including terrorism. And once again, God may be asked to justify the struggles.
Yet, as Tahrir Square showed, God does not always have to fight, at least not in the terrorist ways that jihadi warriors imagine. During this past year, peaceful resisters have demonstrated the moral and strategic legitimacy of nonviolent struggle. And they succeeded where years of jihadi bloodshed did not produce a single political change.
This is a profound anti-jihadi lesson, and the significance of Tahrir Square has quickly spread around the world. It has ignited similar nonviolent protests elsewhere in the Middle East, and it has altered the thinking of activists in other cultures as well, including protests in Russia against elections allegedly manipulated by Vladimir Putin, and the global uprising of “occupy” movements in New York, London, Berlin and elsewhere, where protesters have taken a stand against economic inequity and corporate greed. Discussions in Palestine, where the Hamas-dominated strategy of strategic violence has been largely counterproductive, may lead a new nonviolent and non-extremist movement of young educated Palestinian professionals into a different direction.
So it seems that the rise of new nonviolent popular movements in the Middle East may have seriously undercut the viability of the jihadi approach. Still, it is always possible that frustration with the slow pace of change will lead to renewed violence and that jihadi warriors may again have their day. For the moment, however, Tahrir Square has challenged the strategic value and moral legitimacy of the jihadi stance. The legion of young activists around the world have received a new standard for challenging the old order, and a new form of protest – one that discredits terrorism as the easy and ineffective path and chooses the tough and profitable road of nonviolent popular protest.
Mark Juergensmeyer is author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence and Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State.