Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Misunderstanding 9/11

Waleed Aly ABC Religion and Ethics 11 Sep 2012

From the very beginning, we failed to understand what happened on 11 September 2001. The story of the past eleven years is how this failure led us to dark places with terrible consequences.

From the very beginning, we failed to understand what happened on 11 September 2001. The story of the past eleven years is how this failure led us to dark places with terrible consequences.

The fact that every mainstream media outlet continues to mark the terrible anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks is a victory for the perpetrators. Terrorism is least successful when it is ignored, when it is denied what Margaret Thatcher called the "oxygen of publicity."

Still, it is impossible to ignore what took place. It was more than merely symbolic or spectacular. It was cinematic. When the first plane struck the north tower, the cameras of the world rushed to film the carnage. Al-Qaeda gave them seventeen minutes to set up. With lenses now trained on the World Trade Center, images of the second plane smashing into the south tower were beamed live across the globe. You've seen them a thousand times since. Their presence is permanent.

But beneath its cataclysmic appearances, the component parts of this attack were surprisingly modest. This was not the product of expensive, high-tech weaponry. It was the work of nineteen men with box cutters. In fact, this was their greatest asset. It is difficult to imagine a nation being able to destroy the World Trade Center. Its weapons are too detectable, its visibility too obvious and the political consequences too grave. The sheer size of this attack conjured up the image of a colossus that could strike anywhere at will, but it was misleading; a vast overstatement.

There was always a danger of misreading these attacks, and we did. From the beginning, we failed to understand what we were confronting. The story of the past eleven years is how this misreading led us to dark places with some lamentable consequences. In the process, hundreds of thousands died, and societies became divided. No doubt much of this pleased Osama bin Laden, whose guilt is plain. But it is worth considering how we got sucked into contributing to the process.
The clash of civilisations?

It begins with ideas. Events like September 11 demands a narrative to explain it. But narratives are tricky, and frequently self-serving. For Western political elites, September 11 quickly became a story about our own virtue. You will be familiar with the lines: it was an attack on the very idea of freedom; we were attacked, not for anything we did, but for nothing more than who we are; because we're, in George Bush's phrase, "the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world." The consequences of this are profound. If the attack has nothing to do with us, then there is nothing to be done in response except bomb the problem out of existence. It cannot be managed, contained, or in any other way ameliorated.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda offered an equal and opposite explanation, which we largely ignored. "Why did we not attack Sweden?" retorted bin Laden, rejecting the suggestion this had anything to do with the Western way of life. "We fought with you because ... we want to reclaim our nation. As you spoil our security, we will do so to you." In bin Laden's mind, this was a story of decades of American oppression, of the world's great bully getting a bloodied nose.

Samuel Huntington's famous thesis in The Clash of Civilisations looms large here. No other idea dominated the public conversation quite like it. Indeed, bin Laden was an unabashed fan. But no other idea was also so relentlessly misunderstood - something to which Huntington himself objected. So much of what happened after September 11 reflects an ability to adopt the worst possibilities of Huntington's theory, while ignoring its most useful insights.

Huntington didn't argue that the world was built on irreconcilable fault lines of culture and religion. He never assumed that humanity was doomed to an irrevocable cycle of civilisational conflict and that it had ever been thus. It is true that he noted the inherent rivalry of Islam and Christianity as expansionist world religions. But Huntington's "clash of civilisations" was not thousands of years old. It came out of the Cold War - where much of the Muslim world was on the American side. Huntington was responding to the idea that since liberal democracy defeated communism, we had reached "the end of history" where the world would cohere around agreed politics. His principal point was that conflict would continue but that it would cease to be driven by ideology, instead being expressed through culture and religion.

There are, of course, flaws in the theory. It greatly underestimates the continuing importance of conflict within civilisations, perhaps the most galling example of which is the Rwandan genocide, or more recently the conflict in Darfur. Nonetheless, Huntington was on to something. You don't need to be a fan of his theory to recognise that ours is an age of heightened identity politics. This is as visible in America's Christian Right or Europe's ultra-nationalists as it is in the Muslim world.

But this sort of nuance quickly went missing in a deluge of commentary focused on the incompatibility of Islam with democracy, with secularism, with human rights, with women's rights. If these attacks were about a conflict of values (where the West's were naturally superior), then they certainly weren't about the more mundane stuff of political conflict like land and liberation.

The result was that the attacks became effectively denuded of politics. There were no grievances at play other than a general grievance that we exist. And this despite the fact the attacks were dripping in symbolism. The targets - the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and either the White House or Capitol Hill - are not symbols of contrasting value systems. They are symbols of domination.

And yet, when Bush declared you were "with us or with the terrorists," Osama bin Laden would have agreed heartily. There's a frightening symmetry here. For both protagonists, this was a struggle against an incorrigible global evil with which there is no prospect of negotiation. It is worth pausing to consider this fact. Each is telling us that the problem is with the other. Neither talks in terms of seeking world domination. "Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked," declared Bin Laden, making clear that at least in his mind, these attacks were an act of defence. And yet, each talks as though their foes are purely concerned with conquest and subjugation. Each is in a fight to the death they claim the other started.
Multiculturalism on trial

This brings us to a further misunderstanding of what happened on 11 September 2001. Despite frequent assertions that the world had changed forever, those who prosecuted and supported the war on terrorism behaved in strikingly conventional ways. They fought two conventional wars that took unconventional turns. To the extent they adopted new thinking, it seemed to involve little more than regarding the Geneva Conventions as quaint and outdated, and redefining torture.

That folly was clearest in the case of the invasion of Iraq under constantly shifting (but always false) pretences. President Bush's argument that we were taking the fight to the front line of terrorism was misguided in more than just the obvious ways. It did not just create a front line where there wasn't one. It also revealed a fundamental mistaken assumption that the terrorists are finite, capable of excision. Terrorists don't grow significantly in number, and certainly not as a result of anything we do. Better, then, to fight them in Baghdad than Boston.

That kind of reasoning ran aground horrifically in London. The bombings in July 2005 are often obscured by September 11's shadow, but in some ways these were the most important attacks of the decade. The perpetrators were not al-Qaeda. They were not veterans of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. They were four British lads radicalised at a distance. September 11 was shocking and spectacular, but it was also something that came from without. Until London, terrorism was an external problem. Now it became domestic. London announced the radical separation of identity and geography.

This was always a possibility of Huntington's insights. If politics are becoming more identity-driven, and the identities within a society are becoming more diverse, more globalised, then the clash of civilisations would never respect any geographical boundaries. These young men carried the clash of civilisations within them: Britons, most born in England, most of Pakistani extraction and radicalised in no small part by events in Iraq. The world that created them is a different place, where there is no clear distinction between domestic and foreign.

London set the decade on a new course. In Australia, as in Europe, the conversation quickly put multiculturalism on trial. The Howard government headed the prosecution, repeatedly demanding the integration of migrants whose failure to integrate had never been demonstrated, dreaming up citizenship tests and canning the ministerial portfolio of multicultural affairs. A public culture of surveillance was quickly established. Governments, with popular backing, took to the profoundly illiberal task of interrogating the values of their citizens, telling them what they should be. The result for Western Muslims was particularly devastating. After September 11 they were defending their faith from associations with terrorism. After London they were defending themselves.

Terrorism became a vortex into which any social issue could be sucked. If Muslim women hired a public swimming pool so they could avoid the gaze of men, it was evidence of a plot for the domination of our societies. If they displayed attitudes deemed too misogynist or intolerant, they were not merely rejected, but constructed as some kind of existential threat. Yes, there were genuine threats to be confronted, evidenced by the fact that terrorist groups were found and prosecuted throughout the West. We should not forget this. But the point is that the genuinely threatening became part of the same meta-narrative as the plainly innocuous. This is what happens when the clash of civilisations - or a distortion of it - becomes the prism through which the world is viewed. Any Muslim misdemeanour becomes exponentially more sinister.

When a story broke that a handful of Somalian taxi drivers in Minnesota were refusing to take passengers from the airport with alcohol in their luggage, The Australian ran the story on page one, and an accompanying editorial warning that this is what happens "when a culture allows immigrants to behave as conquerors." That's heavy stuff. This was an Australian story, even though it wasn't. That same weekend someone fired a bullet into a Perth mosque while it was full, narrowly missing a woman. It barely got reported.

The language of conquest here is no coincidence. Indeed, that language had been brewing for quite some time in Europe where the "Eurabia" thesis had emerged to complement the clash of civilisations. This is the idea that through policies like multiculturalism and the immigration of Muslims, who apparently breed like rabbits, Europe was undergoing a new kind of Islamic conquest that would render it a Muslim continent. In this context, everything becomes an act of war. Terrorism is where this began, but it is not where it ends.

Indeed, terrorism itself was being conscripted into a broader war of culture, much in the way Huntington might have predicted. A study of British print media reports by Cardiff University found that, by this stage, reports about the cultural and religious issues surrounding Muslims were now outnumbering reports about Muslims and terrorism. Yet, they would not have been possible without September 11.
The future of terrorism

All this delivers us to the terrorist attack which, along with September 11, bookended the decade: Oslo. We cannot simply quarantine that attack from the analysis because Anders Breivik is so clearly a creature of the post-September 11 era. The Eurabia thesis, with its Huntingtonian overtones drips from every pore of his manifesto. Breivik embodies the worst possibilities of the ideas that have so animated the world since September 11.

As with bin Laden, Breivik sees himself not as an aggressor, but as a defender of a besieged people. If September 11 made London possible, then London made Oslo possible. These attacks are certainly not the same, but they are not isolated, either. They are a continuity - an evolution. London showed that the intent of September 11 is not contained by nationality. Oslo showed it is not contained by culture or religion.

It would be rash to predict a spate of Oslo-style attacks, and if you squint you can see the possibility of hard times ahead for Islamist terrorism. The lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that today's terrorism cannot simply be crushed by military force. Ultimately, it must be delegitimised. And that is exactly what is happening as terrorism kills thousands of the Muslims it is promising to liberate, and as the Arab world begins the task of liberating itself from its dictators without resorting to mass violence.

A successful Arab Spring, while far from a certainty, will do more to diminish Islamist terrorism than any counter-terrorism policy we can dream up because it will expose al-Qaeda's prescription for change as sham.

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