Engaging the Islamic World After Osama
On the plains of Jordan
I cut my bow from the wood
Of this tree of evil
Of this tree of good
I want a kiss from your lips
I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning to an empty sky
—Bruce Springsteen, "Empty Sky," The Rising (RCA, 2002)
I remember turning on BBC just as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I was in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, having just interviewed the Uzbek Defense Minister. We had discussed how the U.S. and Uzbekistan might work more closely on terrorism, since Osama bin Laden lived across Uzbekistan's southern border in Afghanistan.
My wife soon called from the States as we experienced together the full scope of our humanity: from tears to rage. As the above lyrics lament, our sorrow wanted Old Testament justice.
This weekend, the perpetrator of 9/11 learned that there are consequences for sin. Those consequences are sometimes delivered by governments whose responsibility is justice (Rom. 13:3-5; 1Pet. 2:14)—even if their bows, according to their condition, may yield evil with the good.
Indeed, since it is a "dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31), we are also humbly reminded of and hopefully repent of our own sin.
And we remember anew that God's Son lived, died, and today teaches a New Testament, calling each of his believers to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:44-45).
I didn't love bin Laden. And I can count on one hand the number of times I prayed for him over the past ten years. My heart convicts me—forgive my sin, dear God—but I have no qualms about his death, or how he died.
I do know, however, that it is not a time for celebration.The God of history is quite clear:"As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live" (Ezek. 33:11).
Bin Laden's death, instead, should be a time for somber reflection. We should be grateful for justice, even as we renew our call to live out the message of reconciliation "as though God were making his appeal through us" (2 Cor. 5:19-21).
For example, when I was in Pakistan last week, I spent many hours with a freely-elected Islamist leader that I have come to know over the past five years. His hometown is in the heart of Taliban country, at the divide between North & South Waziristan, along the Afghan border.
There are many things, political and theological, on which we will never agree, including the nature and purpose of Christ. In fact, both of us would like nothing more than to see the other choose our faith. In the meantime, however, we have learned that there are many things we hold in common, especially a belief in justice, mercy, compassion, and peace.
My friend has taught me to see the world through his eyes. In doing so, he has made me a better Christian. I no longer understand him as an enemy but as a neighbor that Jesus commands me to love.
During one of our conversations, he asked how important Osama bin Laden was to America. I replied that emotionally, the death or capture of bin Laden was critical to bringing as much closure as possible to Americans, especially those who had lost loved ones because of his terrorist attacks; e.g., the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998), or the Pentagon and the World Trade Center (2001).
Strategically, however, bin Laden was irrelevant, I continued. Al Qaeda's influence is waning throughout the Muslim majority world—how many bin Laden pictures did you see in Egypt's Tahrir Square?—and al Qaeda's approval rating in Pakistan has been below 20% for a couple of years now.