Osama bin Laden justified 9/11's great evil on the basis of fixing blame for the Islamic world's cultural and political decline. He was angry with the last seven centuries of history -- history gone wrong for Arab Muslims in particular.
Modernity was at fault, so he despised it. Modernity is a fuzzy notion, but it is definitely an earthly condition that rewards creativity unchecked by clerics and ayatollahs. America is this unbridled modernity's boldest experiment, this modernity al-Qaida approved Islam does not dominate. So in the name of blame he murdered 3,000 people in New York and Washington.
In the decade since 9/11, al-Qaida has lost hundreds of battles (largely at the hands of the U.S. military), but if Arab Spring 2011 is any indication, it is also losing The Battle of Blame. This bodes well for the rest of the 21st century.
Al-Qaida is first and foremost an information power whose dark political genius connected the Muslim world's angry, humiliated and isolated young men with a utopian fantasy preaching the virtue of violence.
Al-Qaida propagandists explained the centuries of Muslim decline to its high testosterone audience in two ways. Today's Muslims lacked sufficient faith. They had been corrupted by materialism and the devil appeal of modernity. Moreover, the propagandists asserted that the God-directed, unified political-spiritual structure that existed in the era of the Prophet Muhammad and the inspired caliphs who ruled in immediate wake of his death no longer existed. To rectify history, to recreate modernity on God's terms, the caliphate had to be restored.
Bin Laden made this clear in a videotaped tirade delivered after 9/11, in which he fiercely complained of "80 years" of Muslim humiliation and disgrace. He was indicting World War I's Western European victors, who divided the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire's Arab Muslim villayets into economic satrapies and dared to call it peace. But his outrage also targeted a fellow Muslim, a man who was also arguably the 20th century's greatest revolutionary: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
In 1924 (eight decades before 9/11), Ataturk eliminated the Islamic caliphate and began systematically separating mosque from state. Ataturk and his fellow nationalists were pragmatists who believed the caliphate was one of several fossilized Ottoman institutions that stifled creativity and thus condemned Turks to economic and political backwardness.
Railroads had made physical isolation increasingly difficult -- the telegraph had made ideological isolation impossible. Remaining modern requires creatively adapting to new circumstances. Ataturk believed no nation can adapt effectively if it political mechanisms are obstructed by clerics claiming the terms of political, social and spiritual perfection were unequivocally settled centuries ago.
The Turkish nationalists concede the spiritual realm to the clerics. However, the pragmatic and empirical modernizers would take responsibility for managing the effects of the railroad and telegraph, then the airplane and telephone, and now, ubiquitous digital communications. Taking responsibility meant expanding education to defeat the devil of illiteracy and expanding the economy to battle the dismal evil of poverty.
Al-Qaida's prescription for correcting history clashed head-on with Ataturk's creative modernity and his separation of mosque and state. Little wonder he remains al-Qaida's most hated man.
The battlefield defeats al-Qaida suffered between fall 2001 and fall 2007 (Iraq surge) undercut the terror gang's claim to possess God's sanction. The mass murder of Iraqi Muslims utterly tarnished its reputation. Now, Arab Spring's pragmatic demands for jobs, education and individual rights -- demands for the fruits of the modernity bin Laden despised -- challenge al-Qaida's violent and utterly unproductive utopianism. Al-Qaida has so little to say about expanding and sustaining an economy in a world where every teenager wants a cellphone.
Where the Arab Spring revolutions will lead no one knows, and violent Islamist utopians definitely intend to undermine them. But we are witnessing more than a drastic change in rhetoric. Instead of playing the blame-someone-else game, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians are taking responsibility for changing their political and social conditions.
This marks the emergence of a gritty realism based on self-critique and correction, and a willingness to productively engage the modern world instead of destroy it. What a defeat for al-Qaida.