When the World Trade Center's twin towers collapsed almost 10 years ago, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was the only person to publicly express joy at the carnage. "The American cowboys are reaping the fruit of their crimes against humanity," he declared.
Most of the other leaders and regents of the Islamic world -- including Syria's new leader, Bashar Assad; Iranian President Mohammad Khatami; and even Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi -- condemned the attack with which Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization al-Qaida will forever be associated.
And yet Sept. 11, 2001 appears to have been one of the few times the Iraqi leader better understood the mood on the streets than his apparently more moderate colleagues. Many Muslims admired Osama bin Laden, and not secretly. A study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center conducted two years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington found that 72 percent of Palestinians, almost 60 percent of Indonesians and Jordanians and almost half the Pakistani population considered bin Laden to be "trustworthy."
Given such overwhelming support back then, it is amazing how little interest there is today in the former batal, or hero, in the Arab world.
The news of the audacious Navy Seals raid electrified the West, but in North Africa and the Middle East it was merely one story among many. On Tuesday, the front page of Dubai's Al-Bajan newspaper was dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates. In Cairo, the lead article in the Al-Wafd newspaper addressed worries about money flowing out of Egypt. The Arab News in the Saudi capital Jeddah reported that English would now be an obligatory subject at school from fourth grade onward. Only then did it mention and comment on the death of "the Sheikh," as bin Laden was always respectfully and reverentially referred to.
No Respect Left for Bin Laden
Not much of that respect and reverence appears to remain, and both bin Laden's reputation and the violent culture he symbolized have been on the decline in the Muslim world for years. Since 2003, researchers at Pew have asked the same question about bin Laden every year. While 72 percent of Palestinians backed him in 2003, that figure has now fallen to 34 percent. Jordanian support has dropped from 56 to 13 percent, while Pakistani backing for bin Laden has slumped from 46 to 18 percent.
There are still those who advocate jihadism, the belief in a holy Islamist war. Backing by one in three Palestinians is a considerable proportion of the population, and presumably one of the reasons why Ismail Haniya, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, publicly expressed regret this week about the killing of the al-Qaida leader.
But as dangerous as al-Qaida remains as a terrorist organization, its political ideology has become virtually irrelevant in the Middle East. The more attacks it has carried out since 9/11 -- including on targets in the Muslim world -- the harder it has been to justify that terrorism to ordinary Muslims. This was already the case with the 2002 bombings on Djerba and Bali, and in Casablanca and Istanbul the following year -- not least because many of the casualties were Muslim, rather than just Western or Jewish. But support was particularly undermined by a series of al-Qaida assassinations carried out in Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006, in 2005 in Jordan and the countless attacks during the Iraq conflict, which quickly cost thousands of lives.
The particularly brutal nature of this wave of terrorist strikes not only appalled broad swathes of society across the entire Arab world, but also triggered a serious conflict within al-Qaida itself.
While the bitter ideological dispute was eroding the movement from within, the economic developments that fundamentally changed Arab society would prove at least as significant in frustrating the jihadists' plans.
Sharing the Wealth
The upturn in fortunes in the Persian Gulf, the resulting opening of previously closed Arab economies and the simultaneous boom in the use of social media have threatened to sideline al-Qaida completely. A growing majority of mainly young Arabs are no longer primarily interested in fighting presumed American hegemony in the Middle East or pushing for the acceptance of a religion allegedly repressed by pro-Western regimes.
Instead they want a share of the economic growth from which only their rulers' clans have profited until now. Pious jihadist philosophers simply have no answers to such aspirations. Religious arguments are as useless in countering anger at the unjust division of wealth as the sham reforms with which autocratic leaders in the region have tried, and in several instances, failed to cling to power. It is ironic, for example, that bin Laden's killing comes only weeks after the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who claimed until the bitter end that "hundreds of new bin Ladens" would make the world unsafe unless his advice was heeded.
Other dictators and terrorist leaders will undoubtedly follow Mubarak and bin Laden into the annals of history. As the commanders of a sinking epoch both men managed to cause a lot of harm, but their philosophies are finished.
This view is also shared by former associates of the al-Qaida founder. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who reported extensively on bin Laden during his fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, long believed that the only way to beat the corrupt Arab regimes was to become a communist or an Islamist. But today he says: "Democracy wasn't an option here -- until now. Al-Qaida was was buried in Tahrir Square in Cairo."