It is often said that the terrible terrorist atrocities on 9/11 changed the world. That has been clearly the case; but, in the long term, Osama bin-Laden is likely to be only a footnote in the history of conflicts between the East and the West. The more profound challenge facing the US and the world is whether those terrorist atrocities will create a better world or whether they will result in the radicalisation of 1.2 billion Muslims, which might produce a clash of civilisations much worse than anything that we have so far experienced.
Two Views of 9/11
Sometime ago, Paul Campos, professor of law at the University of Colorado, in a daring article referred to two serious misconceptions about the events of 9/11 (1). One theory is that it was a conspiracy that had nothing to do with Osama Bin-Laden and the Al-Qaida, and the other theory is to blame the whole Islamic world for those atrocities. It is worth exploring these ideas further.
A. The 9/11 Truthers Version
Seven years after 9/11 there are still many people in the United States and in the world as a whole who doubt the official version of what happened on that day. They believe in "some incredibly elaborate conspiracy theory in which the U.S. government staged the attacks to justify the so-called war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq." Professor Campos dismisses those claims as "invariably absurd," because "for one thing, they assume a genuinely superhuman level of malevolent competence on the part of the Bush administration." Yet, his detractors respond "Can't you see why men with boxcutters hijacking planes is much easier to believe in terms of operational planning?"(2)
They point out that it is inconceivable that a group of Arab youths, most of them with little knowledge of English, some of them complete newcomers to the United States, and none of them with sufficient flying experience could outsmart American defences, airport security, and a short time after take-off could overpower the pilots and the crew and then calmly fly jumbo jets so accurately into the twin towers and the Pentagon. One has to look through the Internet and the YouTube to see how widespread these conspiracy theories are. Emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and theology David Ray Griffin has already written seven books refuting the official 9/11 Commission's report and has come on lecture tours to Europe speaking to large audiences.
One reason for this scepticism is the confusion in the minds of the public about the official explanations. The implausible stories about Mohamed Atta's passport being found undamaged on the street after the aeroplane in which he was flying exploded into a mass of fire, and the silly story about his will and testament forbidding any woman to touch his corpse, etc, added to the suspicion that the whole thing was a hoax in order to intensify anti-Islamic feeling. Regardless of how absurd the conspiracy theories are, it is very disturbing to learn that a large minority of Americans do not trust their government and are prepared to believe that it conspired to kill thousands of its own citizens for the sake of foreign adventure and access to oil.
B. The respectable Version
While it is easy to dismiss these conspiracy theories as the product of various paranoid delusions, the irony is that the second, more 'respectable version' of what happened on 9/11 is based on another conspiracy theory. To quote Professor Campos again: "The respectable version -- the version that was more or less accepted by all Very Serious People at the time of the invasion of Iraq -- goes like this: The 9/11 attacks were merely an early strike in a war against the United States. This war is being carried out by something called Radical Islam, of which the al-Qaida terrorist network is only one small branch." (3)
According to this version, the 9/11 attack was not the work of terrorists, similar to the atrocities of the IRA (that incidentally received some of its funds from its American sympathisers), which killed more than 3,000 people, the vast majority of them innocent civilians, in Britain. It was not like the bombing of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which claimed 168 lives and left over 800 people injured. That attack was carried out by Timothy McWeigh, a religious fanatic and a follower of David Koresh, on the anniversary of the destruction of the Branch Davidian camp in Waco by federal forces, as the result of which Koresh, 54 other adults and 21 children were burnt alive. 9/11 was different from the massacre of 8,000 Muslims out of a small population in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serbs in July 1995, when they separated men and boys from women and shot them in cold blood. It was unlike the massacre of close to a million Tutsis in Rwanda. A Human Rights Watch analysis estimated that 77% of the Tutsi population of Rwanda was slaughtered in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. 9/11 was different from terrorist attacks by radical Palestinian groups against Israel that has killed thousands of innocent Israelis. It was different from Sabra and Shatila massacre when as many as 3,500 Palestinian refugees were slaughtered by the Phallangists between the 15 and 16 September 1982, under the supervision of the invading Israeli forces led by Ariel Sharon. Incidentally, all the above terrorist events also had a religious dimension or excuse too.
No, this 'war' that started on 9/11 was carried out by something called Radical Islam. It represents a global conspiracy, representing a significant minority if not the majority of the world’s more than 1.2 billion Muslims. This version of the conspiracy theory has been so widely marketed by some interest groups that the majority of people in the United States of America, if not in the rest of the world, have come to believe it as an undeniable fact. That terrorist atrocity was seen as the best manifestation of what Professor Samuel Huntington had termed 'a clash of civilisations'. This theory pits the 'West', whatever it means, against 'the Islamic world' or 'Islamists' or 'Islamo-fascists', whatever they mean. Already dozens of books and literally thousands of articles have been written about radical Islam, Islamic fundamentalists, Islamic terrorists, etc, most of them propagating the above conspiracy theory.
I would like to suggest that both versions of these conspiracy theories are false, misguided and dangerous. While some people in the West demonise Islam, there is a mirror image on the other side. Many people in the Middle East and beyond sympathise with Osama bin-Laden's paranoid view that the 'Crusaders and the Zionists' are out to destroy Islam. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the attacks on Somalia, the threat of attacks on Iran, the continued occupation of Palestinian lands, etc, have provided ammunition for the extremist Muslims who wish to portray the West as the intractable enemy of Islam.
What some have said about them...
Sadly, the remarks of some commentators and religious and political leaders in the West too have given the extremist Muslims further reason to believe in that dangerous myth. We have often heard about Osama bin-Laden's outrageous remarks about the West – not against Christianity, because Islam of course believes in the truth of Christianity. But we often seem to ignore the remarks made by some influential people in the West about Islam, which seem as harsh and outrageous to Muslims as the remarks of Muslim fanatics seem to us. Here are just a few examples:
Influential columnist Ann Coulter wrote: "We should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." (4)
Senator Clarence Saxby Chambliss, former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland security, in a speech to Georgia law officers, November 2001, said: "Just turn [the sheriff] loose and have him arrest every Muslim that crosses the state line." He later apologised for those remarks.
Rev. Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said on November 2001: "(Islam) is a very evil and wicked religion; wicked, violent and not of the same god (as Christianity)." (5)
Reverend John Hagee, the founder of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio who also heads Christians United for Israel, remarked: “The Third World War has begun.” He went on: “Ladies and gentlemen, America is at war with radical Islam. If we lose the war to Islamic fascism, it will change the world as we know it.” (6)
John Hagee endorsed McCain's candidacy for president and his endorsement was eagerly accepted until the accounts of some of his more outrageous remarks about the Jews and Holocaust came to light. Hagee thinks that the Holocaust was simply God's means to an end, a horrific but effective and necessary method for impelling to the Holy Land those Jews who survived. But there's more.
"Now that Israel has been established as a Jewish state, the stage is set for another impending horror: the cataclysmic battle of Armageddon (in which countless Jews and other nonbelievers will die), followed by Jesus' triumphal return, with salvation for those who accept him, and perdition for the rest." (7)
Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo called for the bombing of Mecca, if Muslim terrorists attacked America again. (8)
Televangelist Rod Parsley, a key ally of presidential candidate Senator John McCain in Ohio, goes even further and calls for the total eradication of Islam, the "false religion." In a chapter of his book Silent No More, titled "Islam: The Deception of Allah," Parsley warns there is a "war between Islam and Christian civilization." He continues: "The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore." (9)
Referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ralph Peters, informal National Security Adviser to McCain, wrote: “If we can’t leave a democracy behind, we should at least leave the corpses of our enemies. The holier-than-thou response to this proposal is predictable: ‘We can’t kill our way out of this situation!’ Well, boo-hoo. Friendly persuasion and billions of dollars haven’t done the job. Give therapeutic violence a chance.” (10)
One comes across similar statements by some radical Jewish leaders. According to Israeli press, Rabbi Eliyahu "ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings." In a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Eliyahu cited as justification "the biblical story of the Shechem massacre (Genesis 34) and Maimonides' commentary (Laws of Kings 9, 14) on the story as proof for his legal decision." The report added: "According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets." (11)
Based on Talmudic halacha (law), a group of 14 prominent rabbis, led by Haim Druckman, who are considered authorities by the religious public, declared on Sept. 7, 2004 that "killing enemy civilians during war is normal." (12) They have asked the Israeli army not to flinch from killing Palestinian civilians in the context of the ongoing military campaign against armed groups resisting the occupation.
These are just a few examples out of far too many similar pronouncements by some Christian and Jewish leaders, who condone violence against Muslims, even civilians. We can see that radicalism is not limited to Islam, and what we have at the moment is a battle of fundamentalists. Western readers may not be offended when they hear or read such remarks, but to Muslim ears, or for that matter to many impartial observers, they are as extreme and intolerant as the remarks of Osama bin-Laden and other Muslim fanatics.
Instead of dwelling upon the remarks of the extremists and exaggerating them, it is better to preach tolerance and forgiveness. The fact is that after the terrible tragedy of 9/11 many people throughout the world, including in many Islamic countries, even those that do not have friendly relations with Washington, condemned those atrocities and showed solidarity with the Americans.
From Tunisia to Indonesia, from Cairo to Tehran, all Muslim leaders condemned the terrorist atrocities. It is also worth remembering that in the days after Sep. 11, 2001, Iran was one of the first nations to express compassion for American pain, as thousands of Iranians took part in spontaneous candle-lit vigils in Tehran and other Iranian cities. Iran's President Mohammed Khatami, in an interview with CNN, expressed his “deepest condolences to the American nation and . . . sorrow for the tragic event of September 11. What occurred was a disaster . . . the ugliest form of terrorism ever seen.” He made some of the most eloquent remarks in condemnation of the terrorists, by saying: "They have self-mutilated their hearts, minds, tongues, eyes and ears and can only communicate in the language of violence."
What is even more remarkable is that, contrary to public perception, even some extremist religious leaders also condemned those atrocities. Sheik Hussein Fadlallah, the religious leader of Hizbullah, one of the terrorist organisations according to Muslim conspiracy theorists, has been relentless in his condemnation of the attacks in America. After 9/11, in a sermon he said that those attacks were "not compatible with Shariah law," nor with the Islamic concept of jihad, and that the perpetrators were not martyrs as bin-Laden has claimed, but "merely suicides." In an interview with a Beirut newspaper, Al Safir, Sheik Fadlallah again accused bin-Laden of having ignored Koranic texts. Quoting some verses of the Koran on Jihad, he said: "There is no concept of jihad as aggressive combat. In misreading these texts, he said, bin-Laden had relied on "personal psychological needs," including a "tribal urge for revenge." (13)
One of the most prominent Sunni theologians, the Egyptian-born Sheik Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, a leading scholar from al-Azhar University and not often friendly towards America, also condemned those attacks and said that they had nothing to do with the Islamic concept of Jihad. Speaking about Sept. 11 attacks, he said: "Islam, the religion of tolerance, holds the human soul in high esteem, and considers the attack on innocent human beings a grave sin. Even in times of war, Muslims are not allowed to kill anybody save the one who is engaged in face-to-face confrontation with them." He added: "Killing hundreds of helpless civilians is a heinous crime in Islam." (14)
Olivier Roy, a French scholar, the author of The Failure of Political Islam, rightly says: "Osama bin-Laden is not a theologian, or a jihadist in the traditional sense of the term; he's a political activist." "He has Islamized the traditional discourse of Western anti-imperialism. So a lot of Muslims support him, not because they see him as a true warrior for Islam, but because they hate America, and he's the only man in the Islamic world that they see fighting the Americans. He's like Carlos the Jackal converted to Islam." (15)
Afghanistan - terrorism is of our own making: Najibullah was prohetic...
Another leading French scholar of Islamic militancy, Gilles Kepel, has pointed out that Bin-Laden drew his views from a deadly mixture of the fundamentalist, aggressive form of Islam known as Salafism that he knew as a student in Saudi Arabia and the heady, but misleading, experience he had when he arrived in Afghanistan in the 1980's to join the last stages of the jihad against Soviet occupation troops.
"By 1989, the jihadists thought that they had destroyed the Soviet Union, and that militant Islam was a force that could prevail against any enemy, forgetting that what really drove the Russians out of Afghanistan was the Stinger antiaircraft missiles given to them by the United States, which neutralized Soviet air power," Dr. Kepel said. "This led them to believe that they could triumph everywhere." (16)
While rightly condemning Osama bin-Laden and other Muslim terrorists, many people seem to have forgotten that the West was partly responsible for creating these terrible monsters. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States provided massive military and financial assistance to many religious fanatics, the Mujahedin (the Holy Warriors), in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Osama bin-Laden's group and his so-called Arab-Afghans were some of those who were recruited to fight the Soviet forces.
Between 1982 and 1992, some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would join the ranks of the Afghan Mujahedin. Tens of thousands more foreign Muslim radicals came to study in the hundreds of new madrassas that General Zia ul-Haq's military government had built with Saudi funds in Pakistan and along the Afghan border. Eventually more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the 'jihad' against the USSR.
President Najibullah, the last Afghan president before the Mujahedin came to power, made the following prophetic statement to reporters: "If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will turn into a centre of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into a centre for terrorism." His prediction proved all too accurate. On September 26, 1996, the Taleban conquered Kabul. The first thing they did was to drag President Najibullah and his brother from the UN compound where he had taken refuge and hanged them in public. The next day they expelled 8,000 female undergraduates from Kabul University and fired a similar number of women schoolteachers.
"This is an insane instance of the chickens coming home to roost," one U.S. diplomat in Pakistan told the Los Angeles Times. "You can't plug billions of dollars into an anti-Communist jihad, accept participation from all over the world and ignore the consequences. But we did."
The Taleban's brand of extreme Islam had no historical roots in Afghanistan. The roots of the Taleban's success lay in 20 years of "jihad" against the Russians and further devastation wrought by years of internal fighting between the warlord factions. When the Taleban took power, State Department spokesperson Glyn Davies said that he saw "nothing objectionable" in the Taleban's plans to impose strict Islamic law. Senator Hank Brown, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia, welcomed the new regime: "The good part of what has happened is that one of the factions at last seems capable of developing a new government in Afghanistan." "The Taleban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that," said another U.S. diplomat in 1997. (17)
But as the Economist magazine noted soon after September 11, "[U.S.] policies in Afghanistan a decade and more ago helped to create both Osama bin-Laden and the fundamentalist Taleban regime that shelters him."
The oil companies are back again
It is ironic that after so much bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan the oil companies are back again. Five major Western oil companies, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, BP and Total are about to sign U.S.-brokered no-bid contracts to begin exploiting Iraq’s oil, which Saddam Hussein had nationalised in 1972. The U.S.-installed Baghdad regime is now welcoming them back. Afghanistan recently signed a major deal to launch a long-planned, 1,680-km pipeline project expected to cost $8 billion. If completed, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) will export gas and later oil from the Caspian basin to Pakistan’s coast where tankers will transport it to the West. (18)
The Caspian basin located under the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, holds an estimated 300 trillion cubic feet of gas and 100-200 billion barrels of oil. The West wishes to block Iran and Russia as access routes to those resources, so the only route to get them out is through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Georgia, and we have just witnessed the result of those policies in Georgia.
The main lesson that we should learn from all this is that the response to 9/11 atrocities were totally wrong. Instead of treating that atrocity as the most heinous terrorist act that it was, we turned it into a 'war on terror', which not only is meaningless, but is counter-productive. The present 'war on terror', far from isolating and defeating the terrorists, has isolated moderate Muslims and strengthened the extremists and the terrorists. The war has given respectability to the terrorists in the eyes of many Muslims by portraying them as warriors, and has silenced the moderates. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have killed thousands of Coalition forces and hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghans and Iraqis. What is worse is that they have become recruiting grounds for terrorism. The response to 9/11 has also undermined the rule of law, freedom and democracy in the West.
The enemy is not Islam, or even radical Islam, but a bunch of terrorists. Trying to fight against a religion with military means is futile and only results in greater fanaticism and militancy. We need to change direction.
Just after the war in Afghanistan started, Osama bin-Laden knew that he could not appear in public as often as he did before. But he had this ominous message for his followers: "I am not going to appear as much as I have been appearing. First of all, by dint of circumstance, I am going to have to be less available to foreigners." He also said: "I am not going to become engaged in a tit-for-tat response in a dialogue with the Americans or anyone else." More importantly, he said: "I don't need to be on the television to terrorise the Americans. All I need to do is to make the statement and carry out an attack once again because the Americans will terrorise themselves. They will eventually constrict their own civil liberties. They will eventually bring their society to a state that is not recognisable with what it was before 9/11." (19)
We should not allow him to have this victory. What is needed is a public admission that the response to 9/11 has been wrong. The next US administration must try to make amends by ending these illegal wars and must extend a hand of friendship to Muslims. In return, Muslims all over the world must give the next US Administration the benefit of the doubt. They must realise that the vast majority of Americans are generous, peace loving and law-abiding individuals who feel no hatred towards Muslims but only towards terrorists. Hostility and bloodshed must end and we all must move forward together towards a better world of peace and reconciliation.
* Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, and a senior Fulbright Research Scholar at Harvard. For the past 22 years he has been a part-time tutor at the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford.
Notes and references
(4) National Review Online, Sept. 13, 2001
(5) Melanie Eversley, "Chambliss apologizes for remark on Muslims", Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 21, 2001.
(10) New York Post, 26th October 2006
(11) The Jerusalem Post, On 30 May 2007
(13) See: "A Nation Challenged: A Fighter's Tale; Bin-Laden Stirs Struggle on Meaning of Jihad", by John F. Burns, New York Times, January 27, 2002.
(18) See: "These Wars Are About Oil, Not Democracy", by Eric Margolis, the Toronto Sun, June 22, 2008
(19) Michael Sheur in Al Qaeda Now, ed. By Karen J Greenberg, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p 69