9/11: the identity-politics trap

The reaction to the attacks of 11 September 2001 included an instinctive veneration of their chief architect. Its deeper foundation is a regressive and widespread ethno-religious view of the world, says Sami Zubaida.

A few days after the 9/11 attacks I was at a dinner-party at the house of middle-eastern friends. Most of the guests were exiled veteran communists. The discussion turned, inevitably, to the recent cataclysmic event. I was soon astonished and dismayed by the tone of veneration of Osama bin Laden, whom my companions clearly saw as a hero - even as they simultaneously cast doubt on whether it was the jihadists under his command who really were responsible.

This was, of course, the contradictory position taken by many admirers at the time and subsequently: bin Laden didn’t do it, it was the work of the CIA and the Jews, and yet it was still deeply gratifying - an event that lifted those who were not even responsible to the ranks of heroes and prophets.

The depressing ethos of that dinner-party was widely shared. In that particular case it was a phenomenon of the bankruptcy of a particular section of the left which, at the collapse of the Soviet world and its affective associations, had turned to various narrow nationalisms and a third-worldist anti-west stance.

In other cases, 9/11 satisfied (well-earned) anti-American sentiment in many corners of the world. There were reported street-parties in Argentina, Chile and elsewhere; some Palestinians in their occupied land and camps distributed sweets; rich, smart Saudis sported wrist-watches with flashing images of their hero (who didn’t do it); Nigerian babies were named after him (who didn’t do it); and “Shaykh Usama” was for a while revered in the Muslim world.

The raid in Pakistan which killed bin Laden raised echoes of this earlier veneration, a reaction partly occasioned by the way it was conducted. These sentiments continue to be toxic in many parts, notably in troubled Pakistan and among the Pakistani diaspora in the west.

It’s true that in the intervening years, the many atrocities of al-Qaida which targeted Muslim populations weaned most people away from any sympathy with the organisation. Yet the reactions generated at the original moment survived as a layer of identity politics for many Muslims and westerners alike; and they were strongly reinforced by the “war on terror” and the military adventurism of the United States and its allies, in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The idea of a universal Muslim umma confronting a hostile west (Christian and Jewish, as well as Hindu) became a standard motif, reciprocated by hostility to Islam in many western quarters.

Such notions of confrontation have the consequence of subordinating geopolitical and economic to ethno-religious formulations. The complex and tragic events of Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, are simplified into America “killing Muslims” (ignoring the fact that most Muslims there and elsewhere have been killed by co-religionists). Israelis and their supporters can wash their hands of any efforts towards peace or settlement on the grounds that “Muslims hate us”, and no amount of negotiation or concession can alter that. Again, issues of land and settlement and military occupation are all subordinated to an essential ethno-religious conflict.

The Arab uprisings appear to have brought a new political generation onto the field, one that eschews the old paradigms of nationalism and religion in favour of what has been called “constitutional patriotism”: liberty, democracy, economic reforms and jobs. There are fears, however, that this generation lacks the cohesion, the institutional or organisational base, and thus the potential for mobilisation that will be needed to turn its initial momentum into the lasting change that would amount to “revolution”.

Moreover, other forces are far better positioned to benefit from “democracy” (read elections): elements of the ancien regime (notably the military top-brass in Egypt), regional bosses and religious authorities (though not necessarily the Muslim Brotherhood, which is divided by generation and includes elements of the new politics). Ethno-religious slogans and symbols are part of the armoury of these groups. The atmosphere of the bleak post-9/11 days casts a shadow that is still to lift. 

About the author

Sami Zubaida is emeritus professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. He is the author of Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2011)

His earlier books include Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 1993); A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2001); and Law and Power in the Islamic World  (IB Tauris, 2005)

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Sami Zubaida is emeritus professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. Among his books are Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 1993) and Law and Power in the Islamic World (IB Tauris, 2003)