Osama bin Laden and the United States may have been interlocked in a secretive and incestuous relationship that started in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but ten years after 9/11 the rest of us refuse to be drawn into their ungodly affair. We remain spectators as (in a repeat of the pattern) the ex-emir of jihad, Abdal-Hakim Belhadj - who fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s under the banner of al-Qaida, founded the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1990s, was captured by the CIA in 2004 and returned to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya - now becomes the beneficiary of a supportive Nato umbrella of bombs.
Yes, America and jihadis may occasionally fall out with each other; but each time it seems that they can mend their relationship and renew collaboration. For the majority of Muslims who have been victims of this dubious partnership, the memory of 9/11 will remain a testimony of how far political violence, cynicism, opportunism, and treachery can go.
To forget can be blissful, whereas a persistent uncomfortable memory refuses to retreat into the deep wells of the human psyche. When fifteen of the hijackers who hit New York on that sunny Tuesday morning belong to your own nation, the retreat is unlikely to be easily accomplished. A spectacle of violence that was to kill more than 3,000 people, followed by a decade of punishing innocent Muslims by precision-bombing from the sky and invasions of two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, is bound to leave an enduring memory.
The disturbing truth
9/11 came at a time when the ruling wisdom spoke of an emerging world of cosmopolitan citizens with multiple fluid identities that transcend family, tribe, ethnicity, religion and nation. Its effect, the joint creation of bin Laden and George W Bush’s America, was an imaginary polarisation between “the west and the rest” (and by the latter was meant mainly the Muslim world) - with each camp reinforced in its illusion of internal moral cohesion, common values, shared mission, and single destiny.
9/11 succeeded in exaggerating difference. Muslims are fanatic, violent, and radical; westerners are bastions of tolerance, liberty, and humanity. Muslims need to be born again, delivered from their fundamentalism, rescued from their own evil religion by hard and soft power to become like us here in the west. With us or against us: as a Muslim you had no third way. If you are with us, you have the added burden of assisting in the rebirth of your co-religionists, delivering them from the gripping memory of 7th-century Arabia when God spoke to his chosen man.
The polarisation concealed a more complex, and disturbing, reality: that victims and perpetrators spoke the same language, used the same technology, lived in the same cities, and shared the same dreams. The perpetrators were not puritanical cave-dwellers but cosmopolitan and aspirational young men: they surprised us because they were like us. They committed an atrocious crime only to assert their own imagined difference and drag the rest of the Muslim world into becoming the other, at a time when we all were losing our otherness.
The real winners
Osama bin Laden and the United States were alike unable to win an endless cosmic war. The real winners of their decade’s conflict are the crowds of peaceful protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who refused to be drawn into the cycles of violence and counter-violence that both these combatants perpetuated for a decade. They and their fellow-citizens across the Arab world regained their humanity and entered history not as the exotic, fanatic other but as people with familiar, intimate yet universal dreams.
Against the two powers who elevated and absolutised difference, shabab al-midan (the youth of the city square) became the vanguard of a peaceful revolution that bridged the gap between us and the rest of the world. Their story is yet to be fully told; but already they have succeeded in transforming us Arabs from a people without a meaningful place in modern history to a people able to inscribe on the world maps of the future the art of defying without bloodshed.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it must never be forgotten that grand political designs serve only the interests of those who draw them, and that innocent people are always the victims.