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After Bin Laden: Duke Faculty React

After Bin Laden: Duke Faculty React

Faculty, students discuss Bin Laden's death and the expected aftermath

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Durham, NC - The death of Osama bin Laden is a historic moment for the United States, but it does not mean the world is a much safer place today, Duke faculty experts agreed Monday.

Faculty from political science, public policy, religion, Islamic studies, law and other academic fields spent much of the day sharing their views in media interviews, on blog postings and through Tweets and Facebook messages. They addressed issues ranging from the raid's military effectiveness and likely political impact on the 2012 presidential election to the implications for Muslims in the United States and worldwide.

"We may well expect a wave of terrorism in response to this," said public policy professor Bruce W. Jentleson, who served on the Obama administration policy planning staff and wrote "The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas."

"It doesn't make the threat go away," Jentleson said. "Americans have a habit of focusing on a really bad guy. Taking him out of the foreign policy scene will help us to understand there are a whole bunch of other issues that affect our interests and values."

Political science professor Peter Feaver, who served in the George W. Bush White House as special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform on the National Security Council, commended the U.S. military and intelligence communities as well as the Obama administration for successfully carrying out the mission.

"Two things in particular struck me as praiseworthy," Feaver wrote in the foreign policy blog Shadow Government. "First, the administration managed to keep this operation secret despite months of lead time and internal deliberations; and second, the decision to bury Bin Laden at sea (assuming that they have otherwise secured indisputable evidence that they got the right man) deftly dealt with the problem of a martyrdom shrine.

"... Yet, as President Obama rightly emphasized, killing bin Laden does not mean that the war against terrorists inspired by militant Islamism to wage war against the United States and our allies is over.  

"Indeed, in some ways the details of this operation remind us that we still face daunting challenges. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire affair is the news that Bin Laden was not hiding out in a cave in the remote parts of ungoverned areas but in an affluent Pakistani neighborhood close to an Army base. This fact raises inevitable questions about the degree to which some Pakistani authorities might have helped bin Laden to elude us, whether by acts of omission or commission."

Feaver also cautioned that "the aspects that unite the country -- the success of this tactical mission -- will soon enough give way to the aspects that do not. What does this mean for the larger war against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Will Americans, understandably tired of the costs of a lengthy war, rush to declare victory and demand a premature end to operations there and elsewhere?"

Political science professor Chris Gelpi agreed, saying the impact of bin Laden's death "on American foreign and domestic politics is likely to be mostly transitory -- just as the killing of [Saddam] Hussein was."

"Killing bin Laden seems to do little in terms of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has no impact on the Taliban," Gelpi said. "If Obama was looking for an excuse to get out of Afghanistan regardless of the situation on the ground, this would be it. But I find that unlikely."

Gelpi and fellow political science professor Kerry Haynie think bin Laden's death will help Obama in the polls and could be a factor in the 2012 election, "but it is much too early to know precisely how it will play," Haynie said. "The next six to 12 months may be tricky, given the heightened possibility of retaliation against U.S. interests and targets by al Qaeda. How President Obama handles any retaliatory actions, the outcome of hostilities in Libya and the amount of progress we make in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan will help determine the effect the death of bin Laden will have on the election."

Added Gelpi: "In terms of domestic politics, I would bet that Obama gets a 5-point bounce in approval for a while, but if Obama stays in Afghanistan, then the reality on the ground will erode that bounce fairly soon.

"The killing of bin Laden may chip away slightly at the public perception of Democrats as weak on defense and the war on terror," Gelpi said, "but unless it is followed up with similar successes -- say in Libya and Afghanistan -- it seems unlikely to reverse this longstanding public perception."

One group with reason to celebrate bin Laden's death is the Muslim American community, said Jen'nan Read, an associate professor of sociology.

In an op-ed scheduled to run in Tuesday's Seattle Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Read wrote, "The mass murderer who died this week never spoke for Muslim Americans, too many of whom have nonetheless been forced to live in his shadow for something they didn't want or believe in. It is past time for them to join their fellow citizens in the sunlight as full members of the American community."

Abdullah Antepli, Duke's Muslim chaplain, was a bit more cautious, saying this "could potentially be a defining moment for U.S.-Muslim relations and rising anti-Muslim sentiment in American society for better or worse. It all depends on how the American people and government react to the news.

"If bin Laden's killing fuels the fire of growing exclusive patriotism and reinforces the distorted and troubling images of Islam and Muslims in this country, it will only make things worse for everyone. However, if Americans follow President Obama's on-target statements and exhibit similar maturity and level headedness, we may be able to open many helpful doors for us as Americans and for the global community. I hope we will not lose sight of common sense and compassion."

Ebrahim Moosa, being interviewed in the Duke studios
Ebrahim Moosa, being interviewed Monday in Duke Studios about Bin Laden's death. To watch video of the interview, click here. Photo by Les Todd.

Bin Laden's killing raised many questions for Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religion and Islamic studies, including "the use of unconventional means to apprehend terrorists. The violation of Pakistani sovereignty and taking out a target on that country's territory will also be of concern to human rights groups and those concerned about setting bad precedents in international law. The U.S. will, of course, justify this operation as an extraordinary measure given the nature of the target and that the mounting tensions with Pakistani intelligence communities in the past few months made cooperation between the two countries unlikely. ... Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan are bound to explode and it remains to be seen what the public reaction would be."

Religion professor Bruce Lawrence, who wrote a translation of bin Laden's writings in the book "Messages to the World -- The Statements of Osama bin Laden," also speculated on Pakistan's role in locating bin Laden nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. "My guess is that Pakistan realized they need to give us something to continue our aid and support for the region. I think Pakistani intelligence has known about bin Laden's whereabouts for awhile, but it was a strategic decision on their part to share the specific information now. Pakistan was motivated by fear and this was a calculated decision in terms of aid and American support.

"I also think there is a strong possibility for anti-American backlash as the story spreads across the globe. There is a real danger for backlash, and we should remain aware." (Lawrence discusses Bin Laden's death in the video tab of this story.)

Visiting law professor Charles Dunlap said the raid "should send a chilling message through terrorist ranks: 'you are not safe anywhere'. Al Qaeda leaders may have thought that burrowing into large cities and surrounding themselves with civilians was the perfect defense, but this operation proves otherwise. 

"Apparently the decision was made to put American troops at extraordinary risk in order to minimize the potential for civilian casualties," said Dunlap, a former deputy judge advocate general of the U.S. Air Force. "It may have been more than the law would have required in this instance, but doing so denied the terrorists the opportunity to diminish the success by pointing to the deaths of innocents."

Duke students joined faculty members in commenting on bin Laden's death Monday. Erica Nagi, an Arabic and French major scheduled to go to Cairo with DukeEngage this summer, said, "My first reaction was I was overwhelmed by a sense of pride because I remember where I was on Sept. 11. I live just north of New York City. For me and my friends the attacks were very real. I understood what was happening even as an 11-year-old. One of my friend's parents passed away."

While at Duke, Nagi has taken a class with assistant professor Mbaye Lo that focused on bin Laden's speeches and scholarly commentary.

"His Arabic was some of the most eloquent Arabic," said Nagi, who is finishing her junior year at Duke. "He spoke modern, standard Arabic which is what we study in school, the language of scholars. His speech had rhythm and any Arabic speaker gave him respect for his ability. All other speakers speak in a dialect.

"He was the antithesis of a hero for us here in the West, but for his followers he was most certainly a hero. He stood up against the most powerful nation in the world. However backwards I think his moral principles were, they were certainly strong. He killed many more Muslims than non-Muslims. To many scholars Osama bin Laden was not a Muslim."

While many cheered Bin Laden's death, Duke Chapel Dean Samuel Wells cautioned, "This is not a day for celebration.

"A celebration would be due if the perpetrators of those crimes had expressed remorse, regret, and repentance," Wells said. "They have not. A celebration would be due if there had been a conversion of Bin Laden or his followers to a truer practice of Islam. There has been none. A celebration would be due if the overwhelming response from Christians in America had been one that embodied the commandments to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. There has been no such overwhelming response."

After Bin Laden

After Bin Laden

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