[Viewpoint] What Bin Laden’s death means to usOsama bin Laden, the leader of the global militant Islamist terrorist group Al Qaeda, was killed by U.S. commandos three weeks ago. Assessment and commentary about his dramatic life and bloody death will likely go on for some time because such an event marks both an end and a beginning to chapters in history.
His end in a hideout in Pakistan was pathetic. There have been tragic heroes in ancient Greek who irrevocably marched to their dooms by challenging and resisting the course of history, nature or fortune. They were blindly led by their ego and a passion to pursue their desires and dreams, even though it was obvious they were impossible. Bin Laden was not like them and was no hero, but a ridiculous maverick.
Bin Laden’s world view was driven by an obsession with past glory rather than an honorable attempt to pioneer a future for the Muslim world. The world has gone beyond the days of imperialism and the Cold War, and has evolved into a dynamic multifaceted period. Yet Bin Laden remained dedicated to a deluded dream of reviving Islam’s golden days. He demanded absolute loyalty and total sacrifice from those who followed him and his dream.
In that sense, he may have been a fan of “The Clash of Civilizations” by U.S. political scientist Samuel Huntington, which described an essential incompatibility and inevitable clash of the Islamic and western Christian civilizations, especially considering such outlandish campaigns to restore the Islamic world’s lost glamor and power.
Bin Laden never gained a respectable reputation as a leader because he resorted to violence and terrorism against the United States, by targeting it as an enemy state for landing troops in Saudi Arabia, his homeland, during the invasion of Iraq in 1990. His leadership was basically based on lunacy and desperation.
His death, however, does not signal the end of clashes of civilizations. Ominous news of confrontation between the West and Islamic world in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan make headlines almost every day. But the elimination of the leader of the world’s most infamous terrorist organization could suggest that the worst threat from terrorists, which have alarmed the world since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, may be over.
Most violent revolutions and rebellions have leaders, even if they are largely symbolic. Bin Laden will be remembered as the symbol of a clash of civilizations in our time. The scores of street protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, which coincidentally occurred at the time of Bin Laden’s demise, could open a new chapter in the history of our civilizations. We may have to ask whether the clash of civilizations in the 21st century is inevitable or avoidable.
Unlike the era of imperialism and the more recent Cold War period, the world is now moved not by nations but by the masses that run the markets and information mechanisms of a globalized world. All nations face the ongoing challenge of establishing better and sounder economies, welfare systems, democratic political systems and cultural identities.
Of some of these common goals, democracy and the free-market system originated from the West. And any strong aversion to Western traditions by non-Western nations - to safeguard their unique cultural heritage and identity - can lead to some extreme choices, which was the road on which Bin Laden traveled so far. It is unclear what he envisioned to enhance the economies and political freedom in Muslim society, but he surely believed that American-led globalization would corrupt Islamic civilization.
The Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths came from the same root, a belief in one absolute God. Yet they went in different directions, and their civilizations over history clashed with extreme hostility. Many hope that the sprouting democratic movements in the Arab world may bridge the gap among civilizations.
East Asia, which has been relatively less aggressive in religious pursuits and rejections of different cultures and traditions, could emerge to lead a middle path of engagement and empathy. But its leadership would only be persuasive if backed by strong cultural identity, a democratic backbone and economic prosperity accompanied by balanced welfare.
Korea, China and Japan - with their common Confucian tradition - and Asian countries with Muslim identities, should have more faith in their capabilities to pave a new, open way for the world.
*The writer is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAngIlbo.
By Lee Hong-koo