The broadly based peaceful Arab uprisings have demolished al Qaeda’s claim that the Islamist vanguard will spearhead revolutionary change in Muslim societies. On the whole, the revolts are peaceful, non-ideological, and led by the embattled middle class, including a coalition of men and women of all ages and political persuasions: liberal-leaning centrists, democrats, leftists, nationalists, and Islamists who accept the rules of the political game.
What the Arab revolts have shown is al Qaeda’s deepening crisis of legitimacy and authority, a crisis more detrimental to its future than the military defeat that it has suffered. Bin Laden and his successor, Zawahiri, neither speak for the umma nor exercise influence over Arab public opinion. More than his subordinates, in his last dying days, the documents released by American authorities show that bin Laden recognized the gravity of the loss of Muslim opinion, though he was powerless and sidelined to halt the decline.
Nevertheless, the Arab revolts have left bin Laden’s vanguard behind. The terrorism narrative has suffered an equally hard blow. The question is not why Muslims hate America so much, as the conventional wisdom would have it after the September 11 attacks, but why Western pundits and policymakers underestimated the millions of Arabs and Muslims yearning for universal values such as human rights, the rule of law, effective citizenship, and open and pluralistic societies?