What We Have Learned from 9/11

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is upon us. The tragedy surely changed the global political landscape forever. The shockwaves it sent throughout the world, most notably through the United States, raised hopes that the tragedy would encourage probing of the causes of the event and help change Western governments’ foreign and military policies and adventures in the interest of reducing global tensions.

That has hardly happened. If anything, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and more recently Libya have escalated tensions, conflicts, and lawlessness in parts of that region. The policies of the so-called war on terror, the extensive buildup of intelligence and surveillance apparatuses and security measures in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other Western countries, have also proved tension-inducing. Racial profiling, severe restrictions on the liberties of ordinary citizens, and the widespread interrogation and detention of individuals of Middle Eastern and North African origin have harmed a sense of belonging and instigated destructive radicalism among youth of Muslim origin.

All these have opened an ever-deepening psychological, emotional, and increasingly, cognitive gulf between Western and Muslim-majority nations and by extension between citizens of European ancestry and diasporas of Muslim origin in the West. This is one of the most tragic and perhaps lasting calamities caused by 9/11, as a live-and-let-live attitude that prevailed among citizens in these societies has now been replaced by a mutual sense of resentment and distrust, fear, anxiety, and psychological insecurity. The celebrated national narratives of Western democracies about human rights, the rule of law, equality before the law, civil liberties, and democratic rights have also been discredited and mocked. The climate of fear and more fear on the part of the larger society and the out-of-proportion reactions by Muslim populations have made life more insecure than ever before. Hence, from country to country, security-driven immigration and settlement policies focus on how to watch, contain, and control Muslims and thus protect their societies from cultural contamination.

To be sure, 9/11 did infuse interest in Islam and Muslims. It instigated more curiosity as to the distinctive qualities of Islam that so powerfully define the life choices of so many people within and without the Muslim-majority countries. Tons of scholarly and pseudo-scholarly materials have tried to analyze whether Islam promotes violence and, if so, what the implications are for the societies that receive sizable numbers of Muslim immigrants. This curiosity could be applauded as a search for knowledge and understanding about such huge sections of the global population. Political literacy may have convinced and comforted some people that Islam, like any other religion, can be both mercilessly violent and mercifully compassionate, depending on who represents it and for what purpose, and that the blind, brutal terror that we watch daily on television screens, which primarily victimizes other Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia, is committed by a tiny minority of self-appointed defenders of Islamic values who are propelled by objectives other than faith.

But in the post-9/11 world, there seems limited space for political sensibility and reasoning and an appreciation of the fact that the politics of oil and geopolitical colonial interests in the Middle East bear the blame for the rise of Muslim zealots and the appeal of their messages for disgruntled Muslim youth. In fact, Western governments and the media seem determined to promote the punishing, unforgiving, and violent voices of Islam. Worse, taking them as the authentic and representative voices of Muslims worldwide, they are made legitimate partners at negotiation tables whenever there is a need to address the interests and grievances of Muslim populations. By making religion the guiding principle in their foreign policy and in dealing with their own ethnic minorities, these governments follow, in a sense, the agenda of conservative Muslims, rather than stressing and protecting the hard-won secular political values and practices of their societies. From my perspective, it is hard not to worry about some ill-advised government policies, such as allowing Friday prayers in publicly funded middle schools in Toronto, which includes hiring an imam to lead the prayers for thirteen- and fourteen-year-old students. Many people see such policies as the irresponsible participation of popularity-driven politicians in the process of radicalization of Muslim youth.

The idea might be to bring Muslims on board and reduce tension. But in a narrow focus on Islamic cultural beliefs and practices that are radically disconnected from the social and economic conditions and self-perceptions of the larger section of nominally Muslim populations, the quality of life of Muslims, in practical terms, is negatively affected, and their sense of being outsiders and not belonging is accentuated. At the same time, the freedom awarded to police and security forces to control citizens’ democratic rights heightens the embedded sense of insecurity, indignation, and anxiety over identity that has dominated Muslims’ political culture and unconscious since the colonization of their lands and their encounter with modernity through colonial powers. Surely 9/11 has increased these emotions and become a ploy to manipulate and mobilize hysterical reactions whenever Muslims feel the slightest threat to their faith and identity. This is a vicious circle that further complicates and harms relations between Muslims and the rest of the world, regardless of where they live.

Sadly, the anxiety over identity, often expressed through “hyper-Islamization,” infects sections of the Muslim youth who, unlike their parents, have not experienced the internal corruption, hypocrisy, and abuse of power in their ancestral homelands and who do not know the secular and often apolitical Islam of their parents. It is perhaps within this context that we can understand the reasons behind the growth of self-contained religious spaces and networks, exclusive Muslim associations and mosques, and demands for religious schools in Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, the changing demography of these countries granted. These institutions, which are active promoters of sex and age hierarchies, now attract a large population of youth and reborn Muslims. The imported conservative imams who represent Islam to youth as the only political force capable of standing up to imperialist bullies feed their anger over the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the siege of Gaza, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the atrocities exemplified in Abu Ghraib and this summer’s flottila raid. This reality was manifestly revealed in the Canadian trial of Fahim Ahmad, a so-called ringleader of the eighteen youth identified as homegrown terrorists and arrested for plotting terrorism in Toronto in June 2006. We heard that Ahmad was not a practicing Muslim at all and in fact barely remembered his homeland Afghanistan. But after 9/11, he began going to the mosque out of frustration, and this changed his life.

To end on a positive note, the ever-growing protests and powerful uprisings against dictatorship and corruption in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Yeman, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, with the full participation of Arab/Muslim women, should do much to challenge perceptions in the West about the aspirations and expectations of people in the Middle East and North Africa regarding democracy, human rights, and accountability of political leaders in the region. Neither in Tunisia nor in Egypt, nor in any other rebelling society, have popular protests been waged by religious forces or in support of religious programs. One wonders if 9/11 and its aftermath have taught world politicians who have vested interests in the region that interfering in these revolutionary moments in the name of promoting democracy only helps Sunni and Shia fundamentalists gain more ground and push back secular democratic forces. It is to be hoped that the tide of democratic movements and the remarkable courage and resistance of women and youth will succeed in weakening authoritarian and patriarchal rules in these societies and transform the global political landscape, albeit in the opposite direction of what those who planned 9/11 had in mind.


Haideh Moghissi is professor of sociology and a Truduea Fellow at York University, Toronto.