In late 1948, Sayyid Qutb left the port of Alexandria to travel to the United States, on a scholarship from the Egyptian Ministry of Education. During that trip, he sent three letters which were published in the Egyptian journal “al-Risala”, under the title “The America I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values”. Qutb wrote: “the Americans [may] appear as an eccentric nation in the eyes of foreigners who observe the life of this nation from afar and are at a loss to reconcile such an industrial civilization, with its precise order and organization of labor, with such primitiveness of feeling and manner, a primitiveness that reminds one of the days when man lived in jungles and caves!”
Over five decades later, students of Qutb’s theory conveyed his message regarding moral character to America in the form of suicide planes which slammed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on the 11th of September 2001. It was striking that the discourse of Osama bin Laden was very similar to what Qutb had said about America’s moral decline, the need to address it by force, and the victory of Islam.
There is no doubt that ten years of the “War against terror” has cost the world a lot, whereby wars have been launched, governments have collapsed, criminal terrorist operations have struck many global capitals, and countless innocent lives have been lost. We have begun the first decade of the 21st century with many false perceptions between America and the Middle Eastern societies.
During this period each side has tried to prove its point of view; America felt very shocked by the events of September the 11th, and it soon came to the conclusion that the Middle East and its Arab Muslim population were suffering genuine problems which produced terrorist ideology. Therefore, the solution was a combination of changing governments, or forcing them to reform, and liberation from authoritarian rule to democracy on the one hand, whilst reforming an education curriculum which encourages violence and hatred towards others on the other. As for the majority of Arab societies, they saw nothing in America apart from an arrogant state using its power to defend Israel, and support the regimes which serve its interests. After an arduous journey of conflicts, America succeeded, relatively speaking, in transporting its battle to the enemy ground, but the human and material costs were great on both sides.
America has fought two wars; one in Afghanistan, where it has not been possible to build a state and the Taliban are still an active terrorist group, having branched out to Pakistan. As for the second war, this relates to the democratic experiment in Iraq, where the abhorrent dictator Saddam Hussein was removed, yet the democratic mechanisms have only produced sectarian conflict, culminating in the expansion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s influence – and not that of America – in Iraq.
As for the Arab world, some began to realize that American power is not the mirage they initially suspected it to be, and that the Americans are not necessarily their eternal enemies. In order to indicate this change in mindset, it is suffice to observe the impact of the popular uprisings that have swept through the Arab world, where demonstrations now threaten Arab regimes that were, until recently, “police republics” which were difficult to interpret and analyze. The Obama administration has bucked expectations, abandoned some of its allies, and even began to demand that some heads of state step down, in response to the demands of the masses.
In Libya, American television stations are filming Abdelhakim Belhadj – formerly a leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – who is now leading the rebels to liberate Tripoli. This is the same man who had previously been detained by the United States in Malaysia, before being extradited to Libya, where he was released from prison after the LIFG’s “ideological revisions”, led by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. After the fall of Tripoli, Belhadj came out on the television channel “France 24” to thank the French efforts in facilitating the campaign against Tripoli, and to say that he was not opposed to Libya establishing good relations with both Europe and America. I wonder, did Belhadj change, or did America change? The truth – which is relative after all – is somewhere between the two. Some of the priorities and visions of each party have changed, but the general cultural frameworks of each party remain the same.
The “Arab Spring”, relatively speaking, has impacted upon the ability of the ideology and discourse of terrorist organizations to attract groups of young people. However, we must not forget the intellectual causes and political and economic conditions that led to the emergence of these terrorist organizations, many of which still exist. The shock of September the 11th was strong on both sides, because it touched a narcissistic nerve within each of them. America, with its strength and progress, could not resolve the battle with the suicide bombers, whom large segments of Arab and Islamic societies sympathized with – for some time – because they felt anger towards America.
As for the Arabs and Muslims, who have been unable for more than 200 years to understand “why have the others progressed whilst we lag behind them?”, some of them found that the answers from Islamic fundamentalist movements were not true, but instead cost them the loss of lives and property, and a decent standard of living.
Perhaps the biggest lesson from the “terrorism decade” is that many on both sides have moved on from a state of shock and denial towards a state of acceptance and adaptation. Terrorism will not go away, because cultural, religious and political differences will not go away. However, what is required is that each party must endeavor to correct its mistakes; America must learn that power has its limits and responsibilities, and Arabs and Muslims must be aware that correction begins at home, and they should review their religious, political and intellectual situations in order to overcome their problems.
The Sunday Times Magazine (4th September) published a lengthy investigative piece entitled “Remember the fallen”. The article claims that many in America still refuse to talk about those who jumped from the windows of the World Trade Center Twin Towers, after being engulfed by flames. This is a thorny issue in terms of morality and religion, as well as being hurtful on a personal level. So far, evidence has proved that scores of victims opted to jump instead of being burnt to death. A number of journalists documented and enlarged the images revealing this terrible tragedy, to the extent that some of the victims’ families identified the clothing of their relatives whilst standing on the windowsills. There is even a picture of two victims who held each other’s hands whilst making the jump. Needless to say, the story of those who jumped to their death is tragic, and vividly expressive of the cruelty of terrorism. There are other examples in the Arab and Muslim World, as well as in Europe, of innocent victims who found themselves with no option amidst a terrorist operation.
I wonder, did Sayyid Qutb, Bin Laden, the hundreds of other theorists of violence and hatred, and the terror muftis think about those innocent victims who jumped from the windows to their death, or about the thousands who have died all over the world as a result of this war? Extremists and radicals have justified their heinous acts by claiming that the Americans were morally corrupt and that their values were materialistic and secular. The mindset in the Arab and Muslim World won’t change until people here realize that the Americans, like other nationalities, possess high and esteemed values just like Muslims and Arabs, and have flaws and failings just like all humans.
Arabs and Muslims have lagged behind because they thought they were better than others morally and spiritually, and they won’t advance unless they appreciate the values, thought and morals of others, and benefit from them intellectually, culturally and spiritually. Victims on both sides need a moment of salvation, they need to forget the pain of that period and look beyond the past and into the future.
When asked about his opinion of the 9/11 Attacks, the author of the Clash of Civilizations thesis Samuel P. Huntington said: “Clearly, Osama bin Laden wants it to be a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The first priority for our government is to try to prevent it from becoming one.”