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(Randy Quan)
(Randy Quan)

Doug Saunders

Bin Laden died in Sidi Bouzid before he died in Abbottabad Add to ...

It was never difficult to find fans of Osama bin Laden. You ran across them almost daily if you spent time in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf or Pakistan. T-shirts and garish wall hangings bearing his image have always done a brisk trade. He was a rock star.

But it's been almost impossible, in recent years, to find anyone who subscribes to his ascetic and medieval view of the role of religion in politics, who has any interest in installing his endlessly touted Islamic caliphate in their country. The ideas died long before the man.

If you talk to the kids wearing him on their T-shirts, you find they admire him as an Arab who took on the United States, who ran his own show, and who wouldn't bow to anyone else's agenda. It's the way many blacks admire Malcolm X, as an icon of self-sufficient resistance, without any interest in the Marxist-tinged racial separatism he sought. Mr. bin Laden will long be remembered, but bin Ladenism is already forgotten.

And so we saw small protests on Friday in the squares of Cairo and in his final hideout in Pakistan, but those protesters were expressing formulaic anger at Americans, not support for al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda has played no significant role in Afghanistan for at least half a decade, and none of the Taliban factions likely to take power there appear interested in working with this foreign Arab movement again. And, most significantly, al-Qaeda failed to take any role, even an inspirational one, in the Arab revolutions that swept across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.

This has led to a crucial question of the moment: What is the authentic voice of Muslim frustration? In the early weeks of the revolutions, it was popular to exclaim that the movements in the city squares had rendered al-Qaeda obsolete. "Osama bin Laden died in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, months before he died in Abbottabad," several scholars said this week.

"The demand for freedom and democracy in a national context has displaced the imaginary umma, the world community of Muslims, in its struggle with the West," Olivier Roy, the French scholar who's probably the world's most reliable chronicler of Islamic politics, writes in an essay to be published this weekend. "Charismatic authoritarian personalities such as bin Laden no longer exert any fascination on an individualistic and rather pragmatic younger generation."

Al-Qaeda was a post-colonial movement: It spoke to the anger of communities that had won their national independence in the years after the Second World War but that still had a relationship of dependence and ugly subordination to their former colonial masters in the West. The African and Arab dictatorships, with their attempts to withdraw from the world into a closed economy of one man's personality, were one post-colonial response. A retreat to a mythic past of theocratic purity, and a grandiose theatre of martyrdom, were another.

Al-Qaeda, according to studies of its membership, was almost exclusively a movement of disenchanted Muslim men from the educated upper-middle classes. Osama bin Laden's warriors were the angry children of prosperous Muslim families who found themselves without the opportunities or hopes of their fathers, forced to the periphery or to foreign migration by the corrupt regimes and growth-starved closed economies of post-colonial countries that had fallen into the shadow of the West.

But what we're seeing this year is the emergence of post-post-colonial movements: members of a new generation trying to unseat the people, institutions and classes born of the post-colonial era. The results of these movements are hard to guess - they could certainly incorporate religion or anti-Western sentiment into their vocabulary - but it's clear that al-Qaeda is part of what they're relegating to the past.

"There is an element of morbid and narcissistic elitism in al-Qaeda's terrorism," Mr. Roy writes, "which explains both its appeal for the ardent young and its political failure."

The mistake for many of us was believing that "Muslim" had become the sole identity of the angry Middle Easterner. People everywhere are capable of having multiple identities and loyalties, often contradictory in nature. Osama bin Laden, in his efforts to fit the world into a single identity, was a man of a previous era.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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