May 2nd, 2011
04:59 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – Though large swaths of the Muslim world cheered Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there has been relatively little sympathy expressed for him from those quarters since his killing Sunday - a testament to the dramatic falloff in global Muslim support for the al Qaeda leader in the last decade.
While the spontaneous street celebrations that broke out in American cities like New York and Washington over the news of bin Laden’s killing by U.S. Special Forces have not been repeated in the Muslim world, there has been praise for his death from some Muslim political leaders.
In Yemen, which has been racked by unrest in recent months as hundreds of thousands have demanded the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, bin Laden’s killing has yielded a rare moment of political unity, with both Saleh’s government and the opposition praising the development.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, meanwhile, hailed the killing as a “mega-landmark event.” Certain quarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s newly emboldened opposition party, have also voiced support, even as the party released a statement opposing assassinations of any kind and asking the U.S. to "stop intervening in the affairs of Muslim and Arab nations."
And while many other leaders from the Muslim world have so far been mum on bin Laden’s death, virtually none have voiced overt criticism of the U.S.-led operation. Experts say that’s largely because even Muslims in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere who were once supportive of bin Laden soured on him years ago.
“When 9/11 first happened, people in the Muslim world weren’t entirely sure it was bin Laden who was behind it,” says Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan. “He’d had this reputation of a freedom fighter who’d gotten the Soviets out of Afghanistan. He was a hero.”
But as al Qaeda established affiliates throughout the Muslim world after the September 11 attacks - leading to deadly attacks that claimed Muslim lives in countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Morocco - Muslim support waned.
“Terrorism went from being seen as something that happened ‘over there’ to something that affected Muslims themselves,” says Cole.
A major turning point was Iraq war, during which the group al Qaeda in Iraq staged attacks that killed huge numbers of civilians, tarnishing the al Qaeda brand in eyes of Muslims who had expressed at least tacit support for the organization.
A report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project showed support for bin Laden has dropped considerably in six predominantly Muslim countries since 2003.
The report, which drew on surveys conducted last month, found that confidence in bin Laden among Muslims in Jordan had fallen to 13% last month, compared to 56% in 2003.
In Indonesia, 26% of Muslims said they were confident in bin Laden, down from 59% in 2003.
Even in the Palestinian territories, where support for bin Laden last month was highest among all six majority Muslim nations surveyed, confidence in the terrorist leader stood at 34%, down from 72% in 2003.
In many countries, a steep falloff in Muslim support for bin Laden correlates to the time period when that country experienced major terrorist attacks, said Richard Wike, associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
In Jordan, support for bin Laden remained strong until 2005, when a trio of suicide bombings for which al Qaeda claimed responsibility killed dozens in the nation’s capital. Since then, support for bin Laden has plummeted.
“Exposure to terrorism really changes opinions,” Wike says.
The uprisings that have swept through the Middle East and North Africa this year - resulting in government overthrows in Tunisia and Egypt - have been largely peaceful, offering a powerful alternative to al Qaeda's message of violent revolution.
"Osama bin Laden has lost relevance among the majority of Muslims around the world," said Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. "The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt dealt a final blow to the group’s narrative by accomplishing peacefully in a matter of weeks what all of Al Qaeda’s bombs failed to do in decades.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, for his part, has gone out of his way to avoid inflaming Muslims over bin Laden’s killing.
"I've made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam," Obama said in a televised address Sunday night announcing bin Laden’s death. "Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader. He was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries including our own."
Wike notes that Obama’s efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world has not led to more support for the U.S. in public opinion polls.
A Pew survey last year showed that just 17% of those in Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey - all countries where support for bin Laden had plummeted - had a positive opinion of the United States.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.