BEIRUT (Reuters) - Some Arabs mourned him as a holy warrior and martyr, while others saw him as a “pillar of evil” whose deadly attacks on the United States unleashed a backlash against Muslims across the world.
From his Saudi birthplace to the Gulf Arab shores and Palestinian territories, the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden highlighted the sharp divide between subjects and rulers, radicals and moderates across the Arab world.
The U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority welcomed bin Laden’s killing as “good for the cause of peace.” Its rival and prospective power-sharing partner, Islamist Hamas, deplored his death.
“We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior,” said Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas administration in Gaza, which faces a challenge from al Qaeda-inspired groups that consider it too moderate.
“We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood.”
Those who revered bin Laden were still in denial about his death but many in the Arab world felt it was long overdue.
Some said the killing of bin Laden in a raid by U.S. forces in Pakistan was scarcely relevant in an Arab world fired by popular revolt against oppressive leaders who had resisted violent Islamist efforts to weaken their grip on power.
“Bin Laden is just a bad memory,” said Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch in Beirut. “The region has moved way beyond that, with massive broad-based upheavals that are game-changers.”
The al Qaeda leader’s bloody attacks, especially those of September 11, 2001, once resonated among some Arabs who saw them as just vengeance for perceived indignities heaped upon them by the United States, Israel and their own American-backed leaders.
He called for jihad against foreign “infidel” forces in Muslim lands — the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the Americans in Saudi Arabia from the time of the 1990 Gulf crisis, or the Israelis in Palestine.
But al Qaeda’s indiscriminate violence never galvanized Arab masses. On the contrary, it generated anger at Muslim casualties inflicted by suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and elsewhere.
Many believe bin Laden and al Qaeda brought catastrophe on the Muslim world as the United States retaliated with two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the word “Islam” became associated with “terrorism.”
“The damage bin Laden had caused Islam is beyond appalling and a collective shame,” said Mahmoud Sabbagh, a Saudi, on Twitter.
Ahmed Saleh, a 58-year-old retired Palestinian, said: “The world is better without bin Laden. It has removed a pillar of evil from the world. His heinous actions were exploited to allow hostile policies toward the Arabs and Muslims.”
A rival view sees bin Laden as the only Muslim leader to take the fight against Western dominance to the heart of the enemy — in the form of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
“Bin Laden defended the dignity of Muslims and now the U.S. and the West will answer for their occupation,” said Egyptian Abdullah Ali, a Salafist taxi driver in his 60s.
Abdel-Qader Abu Shaaban, a 53-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, described bin Laden’s killing as “a very criminal act.”
Tareq al-Zumar of Egypt’s Islamist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, which took up arms against the state in the 1990s said: “Bin Laden will become a symbol of resistance to occupation... The U.S. killing of bin Laden will undoubtedly galvanize reaction and retaliation attempts.”
Saudi Arabia, the scene of al Qaeda attacks to oust what bin Laden called the “godless” Saudi royal family, said it hoped his killing would help the international fight against terrorism and stamp out the “misguided thought” behind it.
But there was disbelief and sorrow among many Saudis.
“He would be a loss to all Muslims because he had good qualities. He portrayed Muslims in a good and strong way... He is the person that left the worldly riches for jihad,” said one man taking a cigarette break outside his office in Riyadh.”
In Yemen, the base for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been behind recent foiled anti-American attacks, some believed bin Laden’s death would cause his group to lose heart.
“Al Qaeda is finished without bin Laden. Al Qaeda members will not be able to continue,” said Ali Mubarak, a Yemeni man in his 50s as he sipped tea in a cafe in Sanaa.
For many Arabs, inspired by the popular upheavals of the past few months, the news of bin Laden’s death had less significance than it once might have.
“The death of Osama is coming at a very interesting time. The perfect time, when al Qaeda is in eclipse and the sentiments of freedom are rising,” said Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi.
Recalling the mass demonstrations in Cairo that toppled Egypt’s president, he added: “The people at Tahrir Square had shut down the ideas and concepts of bin Laden.”
Egyptian Karim Shafei, 37, head of a real estate firm, said: “A lot of the sympathy toward bin Laden from the Middle East in the past came from the fact that people were oppressed. The removal of their dictators could signal a greater move away from radicalism or symbols of radicalism.”
But while some hoped bin Laden’s death may terminate al Qaeda, many others believe that al Qaeda franchises across the world will continue campaigns against the United States.
Omar Bakri, a Lebanese Sunni cleric, mourned bin Laden as a martyr: “His martyrdom will give momentum to a large generation of believers and jihadists. Al Qaeda is not a political party, it is a jihadist movement. Al Qaeda does not end with the death of a leader.”
Egypt’s influential Muslim Brotherhood said U.S. troops should now quit Iraq and Afghanistan.
“With bin Laden’s death, one of the reasons for which violence has been practiced in the world has been removed,” said Essam al-Erian, a senior member of the Brotherhood which renounced violence to achieve change in Egypt decades ago.
Other Islamists in Egypt, whose thinkers have inspired Islamic movements and activists around the world, said bin Laden’s followers should review their methods because their actions had only made the “enemy” more aggressive.
Additional reporting by Middle East bureau; editing by Mark Trevelyan