DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – In life, Osama bin Laden was burned into the Muslim consciousness in countless ways: the lion of holy warriors, the untouchable nemesis of the West, the evil zealot who soiled their faith with blood and intolerance.
In death, however, the voices across the Islamic world are now relatively muted in sharp counterpoint to the rage and shame – or hero-worship – that he long inspired.
For some, the account of bin Laden’s death during a U.S. raid early Monday on his Pakistan compound is still too much to accept. One post on a militant website asks: “Has the sheik really died?”
But a more complex explanation for the relative quiet on the Muslim streets lies, in fact, on those same streets.
The pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world suggest to many that al-Qaida’s clenched-fist ideology has little place for a new generation seeking Western-style political reforms and freedoms – even though al-Qaida offshoots still hold ground in places such as Yemen and Pakistan.
“Bin Laden died in Egypt before he was killed in Pakistan,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at Emirates University. “The young people who successfully challenged the status quo with peaceful means proved change the bin Laden way – the violent way, the jihad way – did not come.”
Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri – who took office after his father Rafik Hariri was killed in a 2005 truck bombing in Beirut – said bin Laden’s death serves as something of a moment of silence for those killed by al-Qaida or groups that borrowed their violence creed.
“Any Arab or Muslim who believes that terrorism is destructive and harmful to Arabism and Islam, cannot but receive the news of the fate of Osama bin Laden with feelings of sympathy toward the family of thousands of victims who died in different areas of the world because of him or by his orders,” said a statement by Saad Hariri.
Even in Iraq, there have been few public outpourings of happiness or grief in a country that has suffered years of relentless bombings and attacks by al-Qaida-linked groups targeting American forces or supporters of the U.S.-backed government.
A Baghdad-based political analyst, Hadi Jalo, said it appears to reflect a shift in Sunni insurgent groups that once called for a medieval-style Islamic caliphate in Iraq. They now are increasingly plotting ways to influence Iraq’s political world with U.S. troops scheduled to leave by the end of the year.
“Iraq today is different from Iraq in 2004, 2005 and 2006,” Jalo said. “If the death news came at that period, we would see mourning ceremonies in different areas where al-Qaida insurgents were active.”
In neighboring Iran – which backed the Shiite militant foes of Iraq’s al-Qaida militants – bin Laden’s death brought little public reaction, but was used by the Islamic rulers to jab at Washington. A commentary Wednesday by Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency mocked the epic costs of the near decade-long hunt for America’s most-wanted figure and its wars in the region.
“American lives are being lost. Innocent civilians are being killed. Several of the conflicts appear to be primed to go on for a long time,” said the agency, which is closely aligned with Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard.
The lack of major public outpourings or declarations from al-Qaida also add another layer of guesswork about its future. Most assume that bin Laden’s top aide, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri, is the apparent al-Qaida heir. There have been only isolated calls for quick revenge against the United States from protesters or on jihadist websites.
Just hours after bin Laden’s death was announced, however, CIA director Leon Panetta warned that “terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge” the killing of the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Bin Laden is dead,” Panetta wrote in a memo to CIA staff. “Al-Qaida is not.”
In Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi on Wednesday, about 1,000 mourners joined prayers for bin Laden arranged by a militant-linked charity. But there have been few other protests in the country that bin Laden may have used as his fugitive base for years.
In bin Laden’s pre-9/11 stronghold, Afghanistan, many people still refused to believe that he was dead despite Washington’s assertions of positive DNA tests. On Wednesday, President Obama said the U.S. will not release the photo of bin Laden’s body that was taken after he was killed.
“I don’t think he’s dead,” said Salam Jan Rishtania, a 26-year-old student in Kandahar. “I don’t trust the Americans because they are playing games over here. This may be part of their game.”
Still, there were some acts of homage in other parts of the Muslim world.
About 25 people in the Gaza Strip held pictures and posters of bin Laden on Tuesday. On the podcast channel of the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, some messages praised bin Laden among many others denouncing him.
“You are the sheik of the mujahedeen (holy warriors). God may grant you heaven,” said one post. Another read: “You are in heaven, Sheik Osama.”
Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Hamas-controlled Gaza, portrayed bin Laden as the victim of a state-sponsored “terrorist act.”
“We disagree with the vision of holy warrior Osama bin Laden, but we condemn this terrorist act,” Haniyeh told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “What the U.S. did is not a heroic action, but a targeted killing. … To pursue and kill him in Pakistan, which is Muslim land, means for us a further intervention in the land of Islam.”
But in Somalia, where a hard-line Islamist group holds sway over large parts of the country, demonstrators marched defiantly through government-held parts of the capital, Mogadishu, and burned a flag they said represented al-Qaida.
“Terror, terror go away,” they chanted. “Little kids want to play.”