But having spent months exploring the roots causes and future impact of the Arab Spring, I believe the two events—coming at the same moment—will always be intertwined. The coming of age of a new generation of Muslim youth and the dramatic death of Osama bin Laden will be the Twin Towers of 2011. And for the one billion people around the world who are Muslims under the age of thirty, these two towers represent opposing life choices.
One path—the jihadist—offers a better life through religious conformity, violence, and self-annihilation. The other offers a better life through activism, voting booths, and job opportunities. Both of these paths have had people on them. But at this moment, one appeared headed toward the bottom of the sea and the other toward the Nobel Peace Prize. This year would be remembered as the moment those two paths crossed.
Hours later, after the crowd began to disband, I spotted a young man narrating a letter to his family in Arabic into his cell phone's video camera. His name was Nadir Bashir. He was twenty-eight-years-old, from Sudan, and he worked at the General Assembly of the United Nations. Dark-skinned and animated, he was eager to show me his ID card to prove he had such a prestigious job.
"Young people in the Arabic world were the first victims of the terrorists," he said. "Osama bin Laden and other leaders of terrorist organizations brainwashed these people and made them focus on something other than spreading freedom in their own countries. The men who flew those planes on September 11 were nineteen young people from the Muslim world.
"But this year," he continued, "those young people woke up from a long dream and focused like young people everywhere not on attacking others but on building their own countries. They made revolutions from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Yemen, to elsewhere."
"Why was that other path so appealing?" I asked.
"I will tell you honestly," he said. "Young people in the Muslim world were thinking that the path the terrorists offered them was the easy path to happiness. If you choose that direction, you will go to heaven very quickly. This is Door No. 1. But if you choose the long way, you will have to go to college, study hard, suffer for a while, and then after seven or eight years still not find a job. This is Door No. 2."
"So which will be more popular going forward?"
"Today, Door No. 1 has been closed by the United States. Some people might slip through, but that door has lost much of its appeal. And Door No. 2, because young people across the Arabic world are creating such exciting opportunities for change, has just opened a little wider."
To me, this was the heart of the question I had been exploring for months. Are the changes transforming the Middle East potent enough to undo a generation of stagnation, resignation, and blame—a morass so powerful they helped make Door No. 1 so appealing in the first place? Are the calls for freedom coming from Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, and other capitals—along with the extraordinary display of interreligious, intergender, intergenerational cooperation they ignited—unifying enough to make the changes necessary to allow Door No. 2 to become a viable option again? The youth uprisings in the Middle East set the stage for this choice. The death of bin Laden brought it into sharper relief. One population. Two doors. Which will they choose? And what will their choice mean for us?
The answers to these questions lie in the hands of one group of people: Generation Freedom. Now that bin Laden's passing allows us to close our own door on 9/11, maybe we're finally ready to open a second door ourselves and find out who this generation is. Our future clearly depends on it.