The Struggle Within Islam

Terrorists get the headlines, but most Muslims want to reclaim their religion from extremists

The Arab Spring uprisings tell only part of the story. (Moises Saman / Magnum Photos)
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The job-hungry young are a decisive majority in most Muslim countries. The median age in Egypt is 24. It is 22 or younger in Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan, Sudan and Syria. It is 18 in Gaza and Yemen. One hundred million Arabs—a third of the population in 22 Arab countries—are between ages 15 and 29. Tech-savvy and better-educated than their parents, they want a bright future—from jobs and health care to a free press and a political voice. The majority recognizes that Al Qaeda can’t provide any of that.

The youth-inspired upheavals of the euphoric Arab Spring have stunned Al Qaeda as much as the autocrats who were ousted. In Egypt and Tunisia, peaceful protests achieved in days what extremists failed to do in more than a decade. A week after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned in February, Al Qaeda released a new videotape from bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri on which he rambled for 34 minutes and made no mention of Mubarak’s exit. After a covert U.S. raid killed bin Laden on May 2, Al Qaeda released a tape on which he congratulated his restive brethren. “We are watching with you this great historic event and share with you the joy and happiness.” The operative word was “watching”—as in from afar. Both men seemed out of the loop.

At the same time, the counter-jihad will be traumatic and, at times, troubling. The Arab Spring quickly gave way to a long, hot summer. Change in the last bloc of countries to hold out against the democratic tide may well take longer than in other parts of the world (where change is still far from complete). And Al Qaeda is not dead; its core will certainly seek retribution for the killing of bin Laden. But ten years after 9/11, extremism in its many forms is increasingly passé.

“Today, Al Qaeda is as significant to the Islamic world as the Ku Klux Klan is to the Americans—not much at all,” Ghada Shahbender, an Egyptian poet and activist, told me recently. “They’re violent, ugly, operate underground and are unacceptable to the majority of Muslims. They exist, but they’re freaks.

“Do I look at the Ku Klux Klan and draw conclusions about America from their behavior? Of course not,” she went on. “The KKK hasn’t been a story for many years for Americans. Al Qaeda is still a story, but it is headed in the same direction as the Klan.”

Adapted from Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World, by Robin Wright. Copyright © 2011. With the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Robin Wright is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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