The path from 9/11

A focus on the violence of an Arab and Muslim minority skewed western policy for a decade. The great events of 2011 are a chance to think afresh, says Jane Kinninmont, whose life was altered by witnessing the 9/11 attacks.
Jane Kinninmont
10 September 2011

In the past decade, many in the west have allowed al-Qaida to have far too much influence over the way they think about the Arab and Muslim worlds. Al-Qaida has always been a minority organisation that has portrayed many of their co-religionists as infidels and has carried out plenty of violence against Muslims and other local citizens (notably in Iraq, where the death-toll among Iraqis from local bombs vastly outweighs that of the coalition forces).

It’s true that small groups can wreak immense damage by using high-tech weapons (or other deadly tactics, as on 9/11) in urban centres, as well as by spreading fear through the media. But this capacity should not have distracted western governments so much that they failed to attend to the needs and aspirations of millions of ordinary, peaceable people in the middle east.

The irony is that in their efforts to fight or at least contain this violent minority, western policymakers have worked closely with governments that are perfectly happy to deny basic political rights to the majority of their population. Out of their own fear, western countries have been complicit in torture and repression.

Initially, for all their faults, the United States neo-conservatives emphasised Arabs' right to democracy and saw dictatorship as being at the root of many of the middle-east's problems. The invasion of Iraq may not have been driven by the desire to promote democracy, but it did worry authoritarian rulers around the region, and quite a few took tentative steps to liberalise their political systems in the aftermath.

But the chaos and violence into which Iraq descended soon gave authoritarian rulers the convenient counter-argument that only they could provided stability. The election of Hamas in Gaza further alarmed western policymakers. In comfortable democracies, comfortable academics debated whether there was something in Arab culture or in Muslim beliefs that made Arab and Muslim societies incapable of enjoying or valuing the same rights as “we” had. Indeed, some would go on to say, people there might like living under dictatorships; after all, it was rare to hear them speaking out about their lack of freedom, or to see them protesting (with the implication that there was no desire to do either).

This year is forcing people to change their ideas. Demands for democracy have burst onto the streets. Young Muslims and Christians working together in Cairo, with humour and largely without violence, have won changes (albeit still provisional) far beyond what either al-Qaida - whose chief ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri was originally based in Egypt - or any local militant group could achieve. These movements have succeeded partly by being unifying and anti-sectarian.

At the same time, the events in Libya and Syria have shown that non-violence is not always enough. And although the protests have not particularly focused on attitudes towards the west, there is still plenty of opposition to western policies - and western alliances with autocratic governments - throughout the region. But this is not about people in the region “hating our [i.e. the west’s] freedom” - it is about them wanting their freedom.

Last decade, next decade

I have been wary of the 9/11 anniversary, partly because it means the constant repetition of these almost fetishised images of the towers falling. I was one of thousands of eyewitnesses to 9/11, evacuated from the underground near the World Trade Centre, then pausing with a stunned crowd to stare and - not really knowing what else to do - take photographs or film the flames on mobile-phones. I didn't see the final collapse because by then I was running as hard as I could in the opposite direction.

In the following days you couldn't escape the faces of the dead, on handmade missing-persons posters, everywhere. There were also New Yorkers putting up signs with slogans like “Islam Is Not The Enemy. War Is Not The Answer”. Meanwhile, TV analysts talked endlessly of the clash of civilisations. I was a student and a fledgling music journalist and knew little about Afghanistan, Islamic politics or the middle east, but I knew from growing up in ethnically diverse Glasgow that there was no reason for Muslims and Christians to hate each other, and that Muslim and western weren't mutually exclusive. I also knew from Glasgow's own history of Catholic-Protestant sectarianism that people are good at demonising members of other groups based on false generalisations and a sense of fear, especially when they know very little about each other.

It was after that I went on to study middle-eastern politics. I wrote a masters dissertation on the contradictory impulses in “war on terror” policy, titled Shock and awe vs hearts and minds. But in the years since then I've become more interested in the aspirations of young Arabs, the civil society of the region, the problems of economic development and the people emerging with ideas to change them. All of these have been less familiar in the west than images of masked men, bombed-out cars, and falling towers. A good agenda for the next ten years - for everyone concerned - would be to make them more so. 

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