A recent poll by the Pew Trust showed that virtually every American can remember where they were on the morning of 11 September 2001. Most recognize the profound changes that 9/11 has wrought to the nation. But America is divided down the middle on the question of whether the USA brought the attack upon itself. Forty-three percent of those polled thought that 9/11 was caused by US ‘wrongdoing’; 45% disagreed. Perhaps no set of statistics better expresses the confusions and ambiguities that still surround 9/11, the chasm between an acknowledgement of the significance of the event and the uncertainties about what it signifies. The Pew poll figures are particularly striking given the fear and suspicion of Muslims revealed in other polls and by the furore over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’.
Such ambiguity and unclarity is perhaps inevitable given that we still live in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Tower and continue to feel the reverberations, both of the event and of the West’s response to it. But the uncertainty also derives from the way that the very nature of the narratives we weave around historical events has changed. During the Cold War, the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological. Today, as the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes in his book The Fear of Barbarians, the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. Anti-Western sentiment results from a sense of ‘humiliation, real or imaginary’ which has bred a sense of resentment, particularly within Muslim communities, towards Europe and the United States, which are ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness.’ And in the West, public attitudes and political policy have been shaped by fear of terrorism, of immigration and of the ‘other’, and resentment about the loss of power and prestige abroad, and of the supposed erosion of ‘Western’ culture at home. The result has been a series of narratives about 9/11 that have combined a yearning for certainty with a profound sense of ambiguity.
For many the story of 9/11 is the story of a West under siege from the barbarian hordes, of a global struggle between good and evil. The idea of the ‘clash of civilizations’, first popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington a decade before 9/11, has, in this view, come to define the decade after. It has become a means through which to express the sense of fear and resentment of which Todorov has written, a way of understanding notions of belongingness and enmity in emotional rather than ideological terms.
The argument for a clash of civilizations might provide the certainty of a world divided by sharp lines. It is nevertheless a deeply ambiguous claim, not least because it is a worldview shared with Islamists, for whom too it provides a sense of identity and belonging by setting up a cartoon enemy. ‘There is no doubt that the clash of civilizations exists’, Osama bin Laden told an Al Jazeera journalist a month after 9/11. ‘No true believer would doubt these truths.’
It is also a worldview at odds with reality. Atrocities such as 9/11, 7/7, or the Madrid train bombings are viscerally shocking and haunt our memories. They are also relatively rare. ‘Why is it so difficult to find a suicide bomber these days?’ was the provocative headline to a recent article in the journal Foreign Policy. The headline might have been glib, but the article, by sociologist Charles Kurzman, raised important issues. The real question we need to address, Kurzman observed, is not why there is so much terrorism but why there is so little. Given how easy it is to sow terror it is striking how infrequent terrorist attacks really are. ‘If terrorist methods are as widely available as automobiles, why are there so few Islamist terrorists?’, he asked. ‘If there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom, why don’t we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?’ Even in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where terrorist attacks have become woven into the fabric of life, the devastation has not matched the levels of slaughter experienced, say, during the 1990s in Rwanda, Sudan, the Congo and Yugoslavia.
When US Navy Seals tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden earlier this year, there was great jubilation. His death, however, has had barely an impact upon the war on terror, largely because he was already a marginal figure. We have come to imagine al-Qaeda as the monstrous spider at the centre of an international web of terrorism, the grand orchestrator of the worldwide jihad. In fact, al-Qaeda barely exists as an organization and has not orchestrated a major successful terrorist attack for more than five years. Phillip Zelikow is professor of history at the University of Virginia and the executive director of the National Commission on Terrorists Attacks Upon the United States (the ‘9/11 Commission’), the bipartisan committee created by the US Congress to investigate the 9/11 attack. ‘The most serious threats’, he observes in an afterword to the original report, ‘are posed by a relatively tiny number of people, fewer in number and less well organized than the production crew of any one of Hollywood’s larger films.’
None of this is to diminish the historic significance of 9/11, nor to underplay the barbarism of jihadi attacks from Kabul to Casablanca, from Mumbai to Mombasa, nor yet to deny the need robustly to challenge such terror. It is however, to put such horrors into context. Terrorists derive their power not just from the carnage they cause, but also from the response of others to that carnage. In transforming the activities of a ragtag band of Islamists into a ‘global jihad’ and a ‘clash of civilizations’, the Western response to 9/11 has helped give credibility to jihadist groups and to sustain them.
Over the past decade conflicts, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Chechnya to the Yemen, and attacks, from 9/11 to 7/7, from Bali to Stockholm, have all become packaged together as different expressions of a ‘global jihad’. In fact these various clashes and conflicts constitute not a single war but a loose collection of local struggles and resentments, ‘a matrix of ongoing, overlaid, interlinked and overlapping conflicts’ as British writer Jason Burke, one of the more perceptive observers of contemporary jihadism, puts it in his new book The 9/11 Wars. These are conflicts with myriad different causes, myriad different actors. But they have come to be seen as part of a single struggle largely because of the narrative of ‘global jihad’ and ‘clash of civilizations’ promoted by both sides.
One key consequence of all this, as the historian Stephen Howe recently observed, has been the ‘reinvention of Islam’, both ‘by many of its adherents and by those who view it from outside, and often with fear and hostility’. Where once people might have seen themselves – and been seen – as Indians or Pakistanis or Bangladeshis or Turks, today they are more likely to see themselves, and be seen, simply as ‘Muslim’. And where once it was accepted that Islam comprised a myriad different beliefs and practices, now there is an increasingly insistence that there can only be one way of being ‘authentically’ Muslim.
This process had begun in the 1980s, well before 9/11, and was driven by many factors including the erosion of secularism, the rise of the politics of identity and the institutionalization of multicultural policies. Over the past decade, however, as Howe observes, the process ‘seemed suddenly to accelerate, to become global and ubiquitous’, to establish the idea of a worldwide Islamic ummah as a new kind of identity and attachment, and one ‘essentially uniform… across both time and space.’ The myth of the ‘clash of civilizations’ has helped transform the reality and make it more like the myth. Or, rather, it has transformed people’s perceptions of reality and in so doing transformed their actions too.
The myths of the global jihad and the clash of civilizations have helped fuel wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, destabilize Pakistan, and reinforce autocracies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. They have eroded rights and liberties, at home and abroad, from the imposition of draconian domestic anti-terror laws to the use of torture, from the obscenity of extraordinary rendition to the affront that is Guantanamo Bay. The recent revelations that the CIA and MI6 both made use of Colonel Gaddafi’s security forces to interrogate and torture supposed jihadis (including Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, military commander of rebel forces in Tripoli, and a member of the Transitional National Council) should have come as no surprise to those who have recognized the depths to which Western governments have already sunk in their prosecution of the war on terror. The very principles that the war on terror is supposed to defend are the very principles that the war terror has trampled upon.
If one narrative portrays 9/11 as an act in a global conflict to bring down Western civilization, another views it as an expression of a global struggle against Western imperialism. In an infamous piece for the London Review of Books, the Cambridge classicist and historian Mary Beard wrote of ‘the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming.’ 9/11, she suggested, was wages of sin for the West’s ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists” had to say’. Almost every Islamist attack has been met with similar kinds of ‘explanations’. Terrorist attacks may be unpalatable, runs the argument, but they are merely perverted responses to Western imperialism.‘The principal cause of this violence’, as the radical writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali put it after the 7/7 bombings in London, ‘is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world.’
The idea that there is anything ‘political’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ about such terror is to degrade the meaning of the real struggles people have fought – and are still fighting – to free themselves from imperialism. It is also belied by the actions of the terrorists themselves. The terrorists who, in July 2007, parked two car bombs outside Tiger Tiger, a central London nightclub, or Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the suicide bomber who attempt last year to blow himself up in the midst of Christmas shoppers in Stockholm, or the Islamist who set off a remote-controlled bomb in a Marrakesh café earlier this year – all were acting not as political soldiers driven to fury by Western policy, but as political nihilists motivated by a hatred for the world around them and a deep indifference to the consequences of their actions. However far one might stretch the concept of ‘political’, it is still impossible to imagine how flying planes into an office block, or blowing up commuters, or targeting Christmas shoppers or coffee drinkers could be any kind of political response. They are no more a response to Muslim grievances (real or perceived) than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in America was a response to the perceived evils of the US government. Those who pretend otherwise are both demeaning real anti-imperialist struggles and providing spurious moral cover for vicious, nihilistic violence.
The uncertainties and insecurities now felt by Western societies, the ease with which politicians have been willing to betray basic liberal values, the emergence of fear and resentment as dominant sentiments – all have made Islamists appear more potent than they are. They have also generated mindless, shocking responses – such as Anders Breivik’s homicidal rampage through Oslo and Utoya in the name of defending ‘Christian Europe’ from Muslims and ‘cultural Marxists’. As I wrote in Bergens Tidende shortly after the massacre, Breivik, like jihadists, was ‘driven not so much by political ideology as by a desperate and perverted search for identity, a search shaped by a sense of cultural paranoia, a cloying self-pity and a claustrophobic victimhood’. He was shaped by the same myths that produced both 9/11 and much of the response to it.
In the decade since 9/11 politicians and intellectuals have not only exaggerated the threat facing our societies but have also lacked the moral and political resources to respond to it. That is why the real challenge of 9/11 comes not from without but from within.
(This is a longer version of an essay published in the Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende)