When Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the world’s most-wanted men, was killed in an air-raid Wednesday evening, the U.S. military finally celebrated the accomplishment of a major goal. But what does his death mean for the war? How will it affect the escalating violence between Shi’as and Sunnis in Iraq or the emergence of a stable national government? And should it matter to Americans on the home front? Beliefnet Islam editor Dilshad D. Ali spoke about this with religion scholar Richard C. Martin, a professor of Islamic studies and the history of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. and editor of Macmillan Reference USA Encyclopedia’s “Islam and the Muslim World.”

What does the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi mean for the U.S. war in Iraq, and for the war on terror?
Take the example of Saddam Hussein’s two sons. Common sense tells us that when Saddam Hussein’s two sons were found killed; it didn’t really affect the progress of the war or the resistance to the American presence there. So I think it’s really hard to say how [the death of al-Zarqawi] is going to affect the war. He is certainly a central figure. He represented the presence of Al-Qaeda--or a branch of it--in Iraq. Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden say they will go forth and be stronger even after this, but it’s all talk at this point.< p> We really don’t know what’s going to happen with the resistance movement in Iraq and the various organizations and networks that operate within it. And sometimes what you see on the surface isn’t the way it works underneath.

So it remains to be seen. It’s certainly a significant event. It means a lot in Washington, D.C. to have gotten him out. But probably far more important is going to be the other people involved in the network that were also killed, and the material that is left behind. It’s going to be very important to the military to learn all they can from that material.

Why should al-Zarqawi’s death matter to Americans?
I’m not sure that it will matter. In a day or so, ordinary readers, consumers of the news—will forget about al-Zarqawi. With the people in this country, the focus is on the buzzword of “terrorism.” There’s very little focus on the resistance, and what’s happening in Iraq and elsewhere as resistance to occupation. That slant just doesn’t get told. So long as the story is about terrorism, it’ll be a blip. Ordinary consumers of the news will take an interest and believe that al-Zarqawi’s death will be a turning point in the war. But a week from now we’ll have forgotten about it.

But this has to be good for the morale of the troops--something tangible has been accomplished.
Absolutely. But the conflict with Iraq will wage on. I think the homegrown resistance may lessen. Zarqawi was an outsider. He came to represent those freedom fighters that went into Iraq to conduct their vision of Islam, and his death will benefit homegrown resistance. But far more important to Iraqis will be the civil war that is developing between the Shi’as and the Sunnis. And of course Zarqawi represented this. It’s been interesting to see that the strongest reaction has come from the Shi’as.

Why would his death be important to the Shi’a faction in Iraq?
Al-Zarqawi made several strong anti-Shi’a statements along the way. He’s been a major player, both in terms of operations and in terms of his leaders and public statements in fomenting that strife between Shi’as and Sunnis. By exacerbating secretarian strife, it was a way of destabilizing any attempt to form a government.

So when a figure like him who wielded such a power is killed, is it going to give fuel to more civil war between Shi’as and Sunnis?
I think that’s very possible. But if we look back historically at such jagged and rugged moments of conflict like this, they don’t last forever. They have their trajectory. If we take a longer look at the capture of Saddam Hussein and the decapitation of this group that Zarqawi represents in Iraq, we may be seeing a turning of the tide.

Whether that’s going to lead to support for the current government that’s trying to form in Iraq, it’s very hard to say at this time. But I don’t expect that the current situation will continue on and on and on indefinitely in the future. The question that many Americans and the government are asking is, “What role can we play in this?” and “Has the role played by the government thus far been productive?” I think the answer is no.

How is al-Zarqawi’s death going to reverberate in the Muslim world?
Some will lionize him, certainly, and already have. But there will be those among progressive Muslims, secular Muslims, and those Western-educated Muslims who may have already come to the conclusion that al-Zarqawi didn’t represent the best of Iraqis, even if one takes the position that the U.S. has no business being there. He represented a very negative force, a destructive force.

A tradition as rich and complex and historical as Islam is not about a set of doctrines that blew out of the desert winds of Saudi Arabia. It’s really about a set of issues that arose, just as Islam itself arose. Islam is really about the things that Muslims argue about. And so I would say that what is going on in the Middle East are very radical forms of Islam. That is to say those more extreme Muslims who take a very strong stand on the consequences of violating the tenets of Islam, and what should be done about it—these are the people who are strong-arming the religion and all other Muslims.

And so al-Zarqawi’s death is of course a good thing. We have to create a safe, stable world to live in. We cannot let those who are moved to militancy to have their way. But we can also ask whether there are good ways and bad ways to diffuse their power.

Zarqawi’s death is not going to be important after this week. But what else might have come into the hands of the U.S. military and the intelligence services could be significant.

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