9/11 from Arab Shores

Ten years after the World Trade Center attacks, is 9/11 still a seminal moment or a historical footnote for the Middle East?


BEIRUT – The 9/11 attacks 10 years ago and the subsequent response led by the United States made deep, far-reaching changes to the Middle East, defining the contours of a conflict between Muslims and the West that continues to shape public perceptions in both parts of the globe.

And yet many in the Arab world describe the attacks themselves as a mere historical footnote, eclipsed by democratic-leaning revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East as well as the more ominous conflict between Shiite and Sunni sects playing out from the Indus River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Ask an ordinary person smoking a water pipe at a cafe or riding a minibus about 9/11, and you’re far more likely to be told with absolute conviction that it was carried out by Israeli spies or was the work of isolated madmen rather than symptomatic of a broader malaise in the Arab world and among Muslims in general. A 2008 poll by World Public Opinion found that only 4 percent of Pakistanis and 11 percent of Jordanians believed al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks, and 23 percent of Pakistanis and 48 percent of Jordanians blamed the United States or Israel for the attack. (Most people surveyed in the poll simply said they didn’t know who was behind it.)

But 10 years on, it’s apparent that the 9/11 attackers partially succeeded in their goal of pitting Islam against the West. Because the West began seeing Muslims as one audience, so too did Muslims — from the bleak suburbs of Paris to the alleyways of Cairo to the high-rises of Jakarta — begin viewing themselves as one, battling Western powers that were inclined to reject, stereotype, and, on occasion, bomb them. It’s not that 9/11 caused Muslim countries to band together. Major tensions continue to divide countries, governments, and sects. But since the attacks, a sort of global Muslim identity has arisen, with Muslims tuned into similar issues such as the donning of the hijab, adherence to Islamic banking principles, and discrimination by Westerners.

"Sept. 11 turned the notion of a clash of civilizations into a self-fulfilling prophecy," argues Joost Hiltermann, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "There wasn’t a clash, but, hey, you could create one by taking all the wrong steps. I think it was an unmitigated disaster for the United States and the Arab world because of the number of polarizations it created. Trust is gone. It’s very dangerous."

Immediately after 9/11, most Arabs and Muslims decried the attack, with even leaders of countries at odds with the United States joining in a chorus of sympathy for Americans. A few Arabs and Muslims in scattered places cheered the attack. For once, they said, America was getting a taste of its own medicine.

But as President George W. Bush’s administration pursued unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden became a folk hero. His portraits appeared on T-shirts; his voice on crinkly audiotapes would cause people to stop and listen. Meanwhile, the sympathy for the United States dissipated amid angry denunciations of U.S. foreign policy and burning flags.

Hiltermann likens the U.S. reaction to the 9/11 attacks to a "blinded Cyclops throwing rocks left and right," giving al Qaeda’s rhetoric a boost. "You are helping al Qaeda create this Muslim sense of community where they’re all under attack," he says.

Much of that is gone now, in part because the uprisings sweeping the Arab world have changed the region’s political and cultural dynamics.

None but a few misguided extremists view the 9/11 attacks as some kind of great victory. Thanks to the Arab revolutions, new ideas are percolating in the region, even among the followers of the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam that inspired bin Laden and his deputies.

"The ground on which that sort of movement fed has been changed," says Ilter Turan, a social scientist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. "The terrorist part of the Salafist movement has not brought any benefit, it hasn’t solved problems, and it hasn’t advanced their agenda. It has, in fact, generated more hardship and authoritarian responses and deprivation."

It’s not that violent Islamic extremism has disappeared from the Middle East and South Asia. Explosions by presumed al Qaeda extremists regularly rock Iraq and Pakistan while the Egyptian Army mounts fresh offensives against suspected Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula, where al Qaeda branches are seeking to establish themselves. In Algeria, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has carried out a dozen major attacks since 2002; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen and Saudi Arabia over the last decade, attempts ambitious attacks on the West.

"The Arab world is still an ongoing war," cautions Riad Kahwaji, a security analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a think tank with offices in Dubai and Beirut. "They’re reminded day in and day out of al Qaeda and terrorism. Sept. 11 happened 10 years ago. Since that day we didn’t have a single successful terrorist operation in the U.S. Meanwhile, in the Arab world every other week we have a major successful al Qaeda attack."

The tensions that were dragged into the open by the 9/11 attacks also still persist, especially those regarding Washington’s staunch support for Israel and its perceived double standards on issues such as nuclear weapons, selective support for democratic movements, and its indulgence of tyrants who oversee regimes characterized by terrible educational systems, torture in prisons, and rampant corruption.

"Factors that caused 9/11 are still glaringly present today," warns Nadim Zaazaa, a political analyst and instructor at the American University of Beirut. "The lack of stability and democracy in the Arab world coupled with American support of autocratic regimes are just some examples. Arabs still feel a sense of injustice."

For at least some in the intelligentsia of the Arab world, 9/11 served as a wake-up call, a vivid illustration of how dangerous one tiny violent strain of a religion could tarnish an entire people.

Several analysts suggested that shame was the reason many in the Muslim world dismiss the 9/11 attacks as a conspiracy or the work of a few rogues.

"It showed that there are elements out there, extreme evil elements, that are trying to distort Islam and use it as a pretext to support individual and narrow agendas, and that these people cannot be left on their own because they will harm large numbers of Muslims," says Kahwaji. "That the actions of one or two can have an impact on the livelihoods of 1.5 billion Muslims."

In part because of 9/11 and in part because of the coinciding rise of pan-Arab satellite news channels, a regional conversation began in the Arab world, one that may have carved out the intellectual space for the uprisings now under way. On Arab talk shows, even some that are the regional equivalent of Oprah Winfrey Show, guests began speaking about everything from child-rearing to religious extremism and began to compare themselves unfavorably not just to the West, but to rising Muslim powerhouses like Turkey and Malaysia.

"After 9/11 people began pointing out and showcasing the problems in Arab societies: terrible education, high unemployment, lack of democracy, the fact it didn’t contribute to science and technology," says Issandr El Amrani, the Cairo-based author of the popular blog The Arabist. "What was tolerable in the 1990s became less tolerable."

Borzou Daragahi is an Istanbul-based journalist who has covered the Middle East for more than 16 years. Twitter: @borzou

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