Tremors of attacks still reverberate for Muslims
The September 11th atrocities convulsed the Muslim world but also left it more energised, writes MARY FITZGERALD,Foreign Affairs Correspondent
IN THE days that followed the September 11th attacks, media images of Palestinians apparently celebrating the strikes on New York and Washington helped bolster the unfolding “Why do they hate us?” narrative in the US.
While there were pockets within the world’s 1.4 billion-strong Muslim population where the attacks were cheered, or at least quietly condoned as vengeance for American policies in the Middle East and other predominantly Muslim regions, there was also much horror and confusion. This manifested itself in different ways.
One was the extent to which 9/11 conspiracy theories gained traction in Muslim-majority countries. Polling has shown that significant numbers in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nations, including Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey, do not believe Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Another was the then little noticed fact that within the highly diverse geographical, ethnic and cultural strands that together make up what is often – and problematically, given its absence of homogeneity – referred to as the Islamic world, many influential scholars, televangelists, politicians and civil society activists spoke out to condemn the huge loss of life, and argued that the attacks ran contrary to Islam.
“The people who do this kind of thing have given the West a bad idea about Islam. Now, if you say you are Muslim in many western countries, it means you are a terrorist,” Huthaifa Azzam, son of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian cleric who mentored Osama bin Laden during the battle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s told me some years ago in Jordan. “That is the last thing my father would have wanted. What is happening today with al-Qaeda is not his way.”
The soul-searching the attacks triggered in the US was mirrored in many Muslim-majority countries as Muslims struggled to come to terms with the fact that those responsible for 9/11 claimed to be acting according to the faith they hold dear. The fallout from that day affected millions of Muslims worldwide, from the thousands of Muslim men detained or deported after civil liberties were curtailed in the US to the countless others, including many in Ireland, who experienced higher levels of suspicion and Islamophobia.
Apart from the anger many Muslims felt over the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq; Guantanamo Bay; and the practice of what became known as extraordinary rendition, there was the sense that their religion was under siege, as then US president George Bush and Osama bin Laden each adopted an uncompromising “us versus them” narrative, in which one ended up buttressing the other.
While reactionaries on both sides talked of a “clash of civilisations”, other, cooler heads began the painstaking work of dialogue and self-examination. The once-plodding process of reforming an ancient religion to fit contemporary times has accelerated in the decade since 9/11, taking on an increasing sense of urgency.
Often overlooked or ignored by those who rush to condemn Islam is the fact that the ideology that drove the 9/11 attackers, and the al-Qaeda affiliates that followed, does not just divide the world into Muslim and non-Muslim, it also differentiates between those held to be “real” or “proper” Muslims and those considered to fall short. Over the past decade more Muslims than non-Muslims have died as a result of this obscurantist ideology.
As al-Qaeda offshoots sprang up throughout the Middle East and Asia after 9/11 – resulting in attacks that claimed Muslim lives in countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia – whatever support it once had among Muslim publics began to fall off. “Terrorism went from being seen as something that happened ‘over there’ to something that affected Muslims themselves,” says Juan Cole, a US academic specialising in the Middle East.
Before bin Laden died in a US raid earlier this year, a survey by the Pew Research Centre showed support for him had decreased significantly in six predominantly Muslim countries since 2003.
It found that in Jordan, confidence in the al-Qaeda founder and figurehead had fallen to 13 per cent, compared with 56 per cent in 2003. In Indonesia, 26 per cent of Muslims professed confidence in bin Laden, down from 59 per cent in 2003. Even in the Palestinian territories, where support for bin Laden was highest among the six nations surveyed, 34 per cent said they had confidence in him, down from 72 per cent in 2003. Researchers noted that in many countries the plummeting of support correlated with the time period in which that country experienced major terrorist attacks.
In Jordan, for example, support for bin Laden remained high until 2005, when three suicide bombings, for which al-Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate claimed responsibility, killed more than 60 people in one night in the capital, Amman. Attacks such as this appeared, in the eyes of former supporters, to have little to do with grievances including western support for Israel and Arab dictators or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, they pointed more towards a nihilistic, Manichean world view that glorified violence and preached intolerance of those who did not adhere to a particular reading of Islam.
Muslim clerics and intellectuals, including some of al-Qaeda’s former fellow travellers, began to unpick the flimsy theological basis of its ideology, serving to isolate it even further. Last year, for example, a group of prominent clerics recast a famous fatwa on jihad by the 14th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who was regularly quoted by bin Laden and his followers, arguing that it did not apply in the modern context. Powerful critics, including several with strong credentials within the jihadist milieu, have denounced al-Qaeda in recent years.
In September 2007, one such person, Salman al-Awda, a Saudi cleric once hailed by bin Laden, caused a sensation when he chose the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to broadcast an open letter to bin Laden in which he railed against al-Qaeda, accusing it of “making terror a synonym for Islam”.
“My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt?” the letter said. “How many innocent people, women, children and the elderly have been killed or displaced in the name of al-Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions on your back?”
What happened on September 11th, 2001, shook the world’s Muslims more than any other event since the Iranian revolution in 1979. It is not unusual, however, to hear Muslims argue that the attacks had, in some respects, an oddly positive impact. Several Islamists have told me that while they abhorred the deaths of thousands of civilians, they appreciate the fact that 9/11 stirred an unprecedented interest in Islam across the world. I have met many people who, compelled by curiosity in the months and years after the attacks, ending up converting to Islam.
Many have welcomed another legacy of 9/11: the fact that Muslims have begun looking at their faith more critically, and asking which tenets can be changed or reformed to fit the modern age. The debate about the meaning and significance of sharia law has become more pronounced, as has the question of who should interpret the Koran and other texts for the 21st century. Many have begun to query the power of religious scholars, arguing that Islam has remained calcified in their hands, and perhaps ordinary Muslims should be able to reinterpret their faith for the world in which they live. These debates now hum not just among Muslims in Europe and the US but across the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
“Osama bin Laden and Co did the Muslim world a favour. They shook it free of the defensiveness and denial that for decades had overshadowed an essential conversation about our religion and what had become of it,” wrote Egyptian commentator Mona Eltahawy on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2005. “September 11 and subsequent attacks in Europe and the Middle East put into starkly horrific relief ideas such as ‘jihad’ and ‘infidel’ which for too long were too meekly challenged in the Muslim world.”
Radical ideas – from al-Qaeda’s toxic ideology to the ultra-conservative Salafist interpretation of Islam, from pragmatic Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood to those who dream of establishing a modern version of the caliphate – still draw support, but the silent majority of Muslims is finding its voice, and shows an increasing willingness to take on the radicals. I have met many Muslim women who, after 9/11, decided to wear hijab for the first time. They explained that they wanted to reclaim Islam from those who commit terrorism in its name. “I wanted to show people that this is what a Muslim looks like,” one Egyptian woman living in the US told me.
The impact of the revolutionary fervour that has swept the Middle East and toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt this year cannot be overstated. Al-Qaeda’s message that change can come only through violence and terror has been undercut by the victories of young Arabs seeking freedom, justice and dignity through peaceful protest.
Mindful of the new paradigm, Islamists across the region now talk approvingly of the example offered by Turkey’s ruling AKP, a party with Islamist roots that has helped challenge the notion that democracy is inimical to Islam.
Ten years ago, the attacks of 9/11 set off tremors among the world’s Muslims that are still being felt today. The struggle between radicals and reformers, a battle that is almost as old as Islam itself, continues, but 9/11 and all that followed has ensured it is more energised and participatory than ever before.