For more than a decade, Osama bin Laden has been Exhibit A in the contemporary manifestations of the lethal mix of religion and politics. As the leading symbol of al Qaeda, he not only facilitated murderous attacks on thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Muslims worldwide, he encouraged many smaller, clandestine terrorist groups claiming inspiration from Islam. In the short term, the death of this cult-like leader may both diminish his movement and embolden other extremists to lash out.
This dramatic development highlights many critically important factors that converge at the intersection of religion and politics today. Two connected issues stand out for all of us who seek a more healthy and hopeful future. First, we must recognize that the conditions that helped create and sustain Osama bin Laden's extremism continue to exist: unrepresentative, autocratic rulers in many predominantly Islamic lands, perceived heavy-handed and predatory U.S. political, military, and economic involvement in many of these same countries, and the deep frustrations with the plight of Palestinians after more than 40 years of military occupation. While the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims have rejected Bin Laden's violent extremism, the "Arab spring" upheavals throughout the Middle East and the urgent need for real progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict underscore the sources of frustration that must be addressed constructively. It is important to remember that Bin Laden's movement took root when Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan and gained strength when U.S. troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia.
President Obama correctly emphasized a crucial, related issue: Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader and the ongoing conflict is not with Islam. Osama bin Laden used religion to recruit, incite, and justify murder. His lethal corruption of religion must be named and rejected without indicting Islam and the 1.5 billion Muslims.
Now, more than ever, it is essential that people of faith and goodwill transcend the temptations of triumphalism and redouble efforts at education, dialogue, and cooperation across religious lines. While some media attention will undoubtedly be focused on the very small percentage of Muslims who support violent extremism, the vast majority of Muslims share the same hopes and aspirations as Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others. Bin Laden did not represent Islam; Mubarak did not represent all Egyptians; Ahmadinejad does not represent all Iranians.
This is a teachable moment when it is both possible and necessary to break down the simplistic stereotypes about Islam and challenge those who fuel Islamophobia. The ways in which Americans respond to the opportunities presented by the death of bin Laden, the aspirations evident in the "Arab spring" uprisings, and the rising tide of Islamophobia in the West will have profound global consequences for the next two decades.
Charles Kimball, a Baptist minister, is director of the religious studies program at the University of Oklahoma, and author of When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.