The 9/11 Syndrome: Europe, Islam, and Muslims

The rest of the world should be grateful to Western civilization for having given it the concept of human rights. There are some things we cannot do to others, not because it is God’s command, because we will go to hell or earn spiritual demerit, but because of certain capacities that people possess. We cannot harm others because this is what we minimally owe them. This realization does not entail the idea of human rights as supreme, something over and above all other values in every context and at all times. It simply means that rights must always count as one of the most important considerations in our dealings with others.

But how much easier it would be to make this claim more widely acceptable if it were made with humility, with better knowledge that other civilizations have given the West equally valuable ideas, and accompanied by an acknowledgment that the West has given us some horrible ideas—ethnic cleansing; general epistemic superiority; ethno-nationalism; large, oppressive, totalizing institutions, such as the state and church. The vigorous opposition to the idea of human rights in some parts of the world may be due less to the unacceptability of its content and more to its association with power and privilege. Bizarre? Perhaps. Still, it is sobering to think how much more could be learned—by all—in a climate of humility and mutual respect.

I say this because accompanying the rapaciousness and greed that was unleashed by the West in Iraq, amidst all the bombings and massacres, was an unstated claim to superiority, an arrogance that facilitates wrongdoing and the violation of human rights. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, some of us had hoped that the United States would listen, in time, to the whispers of the oppressed, private murmurs that America may, more or less, have invited the cataclysmic event upon itself, “damnable yet understandable payback . . . reaping what empire had sown”1—not only listen, but do some soul searching, identify the deeper causes of widespread resentment against America, seriously and responsibly rework its foreign policy.

The offensive against Al-Qaeda, the deployment of excessive force for a limited purpose, was justified, we thought—something that might help track Osama down. But surely wise people with sound moral sense would capture him, level charges of crimes against humanity in an international court, and help set new standards of retributive justice. And then a wider process of reconciliation would be initiated, one that would give everyone an opportunity to eventually shed at least some mutual prejudices and misgivings. The principal actors might then realize the futility of playing out the warped logic of alternating claims to superiority in a competitive struggle for standing. As messages of marginalized groups, hidden under the gruesome rubble of destruction, are finally decoded, greater mutual understanding would prevail. So some of us dreamt.

The trajectory followed by the principal actors could not have verged further from what we had hoped. Yes, some good things did happen. The truth about weapons of mass destruction is out; Bush left office with, if not a shoe, certainly egg on his face; Obama won; and Osama was finally nabbed. Alas, it does not come as a surprise to anyone that the wars meant to come to swift ends continue, the numbers of casualties mount, and innocents die routinely. American corporations are flush with funds even as the economy implodes, another recession may be round the corner, and unemployment in America and several European countries shows no sign of abating. And in Europe, the home of human rights and the welfare state, Angela Merkel and David Cameron threaten to withdraw multicultural policies even before they have been properly introduced.

I cannot hope to cover all the major issues that have emerged since 9/11, not even all those I discussed in my essay published by the SSRC a few months after the catastrophe. In this short piece, I restrict myself mostly to the condition of Muslims in Europe after 9/11 and then make some general remarks that are never voiced in our public and academic discourse. It helps that I am neither Christian nor Muslim, though I would like to think that I have embraced something of value from both. I have the advantage of being an outsider, which offers me the distance from which I might be able to say things that “insiders” may not even notice.

One of the most conspicuous outcomes of 9/11 is the relentless securitization of states and the tightening of immigration controls. Closer surveillance of a few suspects and stricter security checks at points of entry is not the issue. The truth is that all these policies smack of cultural racism, to use Tariq Modood’s term.2 For instance, immigrants to Holland are given absurd citizenship tests, such as viewing a clip of homosexuals kissing or nudes on the beach, intended to gauge the levels of their social tolerance. In the state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany, parents are asked whether they are willing to allow swimming lessons for their daughters in order to determine their own fitness for citizenship. France appears to have gone one step further, passing an immigration bill that approves DNA testing and quizzing immigrants on whether or not they respect French values. As Jocelyne Cesari puts it, “These new measures circumvent the logic of immigration preceding integration by requiring that immigrants show signs of integration before even entering the European Union.”3

Restrictions extend beyond new entrants to existing citizens. Thus, in Britain, where a third of all primary-school children are educated by religious communities, applications for state funding made by schools run by Muslims are repeatedly turned down. I believe there are only three to five Muslim schools there currently, compared to two thousand run by Roman Catholics and forty-seven hundred by the Church of England.4 Similar problems persist in other European countries.5 The problems with these restrictions are manifest in the failure of many western European states to deal with the issue of headscarves (France) and demands by Muslims to build mosques and thereby properly practice their own faith (Germany, Italy) or to have proper burial grounds of their own (Denmark, Austria). In recent times, as Islamophobia has gripped the imagination of several Western societies (exemplified by the cartoon controversy in Denmark), it has become very likely that their Muslim citizens will continue to face disadvantages merely on account of their religious community.6

The fact is that migration from former colonies and an intensified globalization have thrown pre-Christian faiths, Christianity, and Islam together in public spaces,7 the cumulative result of which is unprecedented religious diversity, the weakening of the public monopoly of single religions, and the generation of mutual suspicion, distrust, hostility, and conflict. European states are largely clueless as to how to deal with such issues or how to handle the backlash of radical right-wing-leaning citizens and politicians. This has been dramatically highlighted by the headscarf issue in France, the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, the referendum against minarets in Switzerland, and the more recent, horrific murders by Anders Behring Breivik.

Why is this so? Because, despite substantial secularization in several European states, the formal or informal establishment of the dominant religion has done little to bolster intercommunity relations or reduce religious discrimination. As it turns out, the widespread belief in a secular European public sphere is a myth. Under the pressure of the demand for equal citizenship rights for new Muslim, Sikh, and other citizens, the religious bias of European states becomes increasingly visible. European states continue to privilege Christianity in one form or another. They publicly fund religious schools, maintain real estates of churches and clerical salaries, facilitate the control by churches of cemeteries, and train clergy. In short, there has been no impartiality within the domain of religion, and despite formal equality, this continues to have a far-reaching impact on the rest of society.8

This, in turn, is because issues of radical individual freedom and citizenship equality only arose in European societies after religious homogenization had been established. The birth of confessional states was accompanied by the massive expulsion of subject communities whose faith differed from the religion of the ruler. Such states gradually found some place for toleration in their moral space, but as is well known, it was a tolerance consistent with deep inequalities and with humiliating, marginalized, and virtually invisible existences. For instance, Catholic churches in predominantly Protestant countries could not remain on high streets where the church of the majority stood; they were tucked away in bylanes. Moreover, these church buildings could not look like churches (they had to be ordinary residence halls, for instance).

The liberal-democratization and consequent secularization of many European states has helped citizens with non-Christian faiths to acquire most formal rights. But such a scheme of rights neither embodies a regime of interreligious equality nor effectively prevents religion-based discrimination and exclusion. Indeed, it serves to mask majoritarian, ethno-religious biases—evident in the many different kinds of difficulties faced by Muslims today. September 11 brought this out into the open. European societies faced a choice: introduce a new regime of equality in the religious domain, installing radically novel standards of impartiality with respect to all religions or continue with, and even reinforce, existing biased institutional arrangements. It appears they have chosen to go with the latter, and 9/11 has provided them the justification to do so.

When I first heard the term “Islamophobia” used in the European context, I dismissed it as hyperbolic. I am not so sure now. I can understand a xenophobic response from the right wing, but why this prejudice and fear of Muslims among people who are sane, reasonable, and rights sensitive? Why does it rankle so easily? Why are left-leaning liberals so easily alarmed by Muslims? Here I enter a territory where even angels fear to tread! I put my neck on the block and tentatively say the unsayable, ready to take back every word scribbled here, if corrected.

I think it was David Hume who said that animosities are transmitted from one generation to another and that descendants retain a sense of hostility to old enemies long after the original motive for enmity has disappeared. These kinds of judgments, the stuff of which old wives’ tales are made, seem old-fashioned and are in severe disuse in social science, but as I said, I am willing not only to stick my neck out but also to spit out bitter words stuck in my throat. The traditional enmity between Christians and Muslims survives in the collective memory of both and so too does the urge to compete and settle old scores—not everywhere, not in everyone (Muslims and Christians in the East are certainly not part of this), but with sufficient strength to adversely affect us all.

This is a terrible notion—ahistorical, essentializing, and all that. I hope we can work out a version that is less troublesome and more explanatory. But till then, allow me to continue my train of thought. I remember Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s lament in an article he wrote toward the end of his life—he died a year before 9/11, I believe—that few in the West realize how their perpetual reservations about Muslims and the generally negative perception of Islam follow a pattern set during the Crusades and for more than a millennia of animosity. A wise, civilized man, he scrupulously avoided saying that the animus was mutual. Or perhaps he had reason not to. Because for long periods in the twentieth century, Muslim elites cozied up to the West, while Europe and America have returned that favor rarely and only when required by their interests.

The West has been dealing with Islam since the seventh century. The two have shared borders with each other, competed with and fought one another, been each other’s subjects, tried to convert one another—sometimes successfully—traded with one another, and much else. When the West was less powerful than Muslims, it feared, sometimes even hated them. The Prophet was frequently depicted as a fiend with horns—alas, even Danish cartoons have their own historical legacy. In the past two imperialist centuries, however, the West has dominated virtually everyone, including Muslims, arrogantly dismissing their way of life as inferior. Arabs know and immensely resent this. Americans are today fielding a retaliatory sentiment in a conflict that did not originate with them. Before anti-Americanism came into vogue, there already existed a centuries-old negative, competitive relationship, with alternating, egotistical claims to superiority.

Two peoples who have ruled one another in the past continue to be locked in a struggle for power and domination, landing from time to time smack in the middle of a horrible syndrome. I use this term deliberately: In my use, “syndrome” points, at the very least, to the breakdown of basic trust and common understanding between two peoples. And it encompasses something even more dreadful—a diseased network of neurotic relations, so completely poisoned and accompanied by such a vertiginous assortment of negative emotions (envy, malice, jealousy, spite, hatred) that communities are bound to slide down the slope of still deeper hostility and frenzied mutual destruction.

Typically, when in the throes of the syndrome, animosity circulates freely, depositing layer upon layer of mutual grievance. Over time, chronic paranoia develops, intergroup relations are perverted, and the two groups begin to play antagonistic games, often fighting over nothing at all. Groups demand from one another what they cannot really get, conjure up imaginary grievances, insist precisely on just what hurts the other most—at times, obsessively desiring the very thing that the other wants, at others, the exact opposite, always with the sole purpose of negating the claims of the other. It is an abiding feature of a syndrome that, rightly or wrongly, both sides feel persistently humiliated and pushed around.

A syndrome is set in motion by a long chain of closely nested, mutually interlocking actions between small, impatient extremists belonging to both groups—but eventually, horrifically, it engulfs almost everyone. The primary responsibility for the syndrome usually rests with whichever group is currently dominant, but it can also be triggered by the weaker group.

Put the Tehran hostage issue, 9/11, the London and Madrid bombings—large, insane acts of criminality—and the comparatively smaller issues of headscarves and minarets against this historic backdrop and they appear in a starkly different light. I know some readers must be thinking now of one Mr. Huntington. Sorry, folks, but I am not talking of an inevitable clash of two essentially opposed civilizations. I merely refer to the possibility of long-term historically formed dispositions that some people learn and others get sucked into, collective propensities that won’t just go away on their own but must be intentionally dislodged or tamed. How I wish someone would try to break the syndrome! How about wholly disinterested Western help to the peoples of Libya and Syria, to assist them in throwing out dictators and setting democratic institutions in motion, and then a dignified exit, without profit in pocket, demonstrating that material or strategic interests were never the motive for intervention?

I can’t say how long the syndrome will last. To the outsider, it is clear that the many communities of Christians, Muslims, and secularists can scarcely afford to ignore each other. If they don’t learn to deal with one another constructively, the cataclysmic consequences will befall the whole of humanity.


Rajeev Bhargava is director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. His books include the classic collection of essays Secularism and Its Critics (ed.) and The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy, both published by Oxford University Press.

  1. Todd Gitlin, “The Ordinariness of American Feelings,” openDemocracy, October 9, 2001, http://www.opendemocracy.net/conflict-us911/article_105.jsp.
  2. See Tariq Modood, Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
  3. Jocelyne Cesari, Muslims in the West after 9/11(London: Routledge, 2010), 12.
  4. Veit Bader, Secularism or Democracy? (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007).
  5. Tariq Modood, Anna Triandafyllidou, and Ricard Zapata-Barrerro, Multiculturalism, Muslims and Citizenship: A European Approach (London: Routledge, 2006).
  6. Jane Freedman, “Secularism as a Barrier to Integration? The French Dilemma,” International Migration 42, no. 3 (August 2004): 5–27.
  7. Bryan S. Turner, “Cosmopolitan Virtue: On Religion in a Global Age,” European Journal of Social Theory 4, no. 2 (May 2001): 131–52.
  8. Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).