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The Lingering Questions - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The events of 9/11 have become central to conspiracy theorists and those enduring enemies of America who believe the attacks were a false flag operation conducted by the USA itself so that it could make political and strategic world gains. Their proof is based on the idea that had it not been for the so-called ‘war on terror’, to which America has subjected the world in the wake of 9/11, then Uncle Sam would not have been granted the opportunities to occupy Iraq, silence the Taliban in Afghanistan, and threaten other ‘rogue’ states in Bush’s infamous ‘axis of evil’, including Syria, despite the efforts of President Bashar al Assad to shake off this affiliation.

However one must look beyond the limited outlook of conspiracy theorists to sufficiently understand what really happened that fateful day on September 11, 2001, and the ramifications, not to mention the events that paved the way for this insane attack in the first place.

9/11 cannot be viewed merely as a terrorist attack or as a breach of national security, or even as an act of political retribution; rather 9/11 was a world event related to ‘civilization’ and the clash of one civilization with another. Let us not misunderstand what is meant by ‘civilization’. What is meant here is the element of tension which has terrorized, killed and set off explosions in New York, London, Madrid, Istanbul, Bali, Kuwait, Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Sharm el Sheikh, Cairo, Djerba, Algiers and Casablanca; in other words ‘Islamic terrorism’ which is the festering wound of our Islam, and the greatest cause of tension in our society. On the other hand, following the events of 9/11, the West also revealed its dark side with the release of the Dutch film ‘Fitna’, the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed, the writings of right-wing extremists, the torture that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison, and other events. Combined, this has caused a mutual strain in relations.

Since 9/11, as we confront the West on the media, political and military levels, the American airports no longer welcome us with open arms and we find ourselves under the full glare of the media spotlight. Absent-minded extremist fatwas that once would have been ignored now find themselves pushed to centre stage, reported on by news agencies and international channels and commented on in newspapers from Singapore to California. When will this international tension end? Will there be a day when talk of terrorism and the dilemma of the extremist ideology and the lack of trust between us and them is a thing of the past?

The truth is that it is too early to be asking these questions; answering such questions in a timely fashion is next to impossible as they are rooted in matters of history and long-lasting wars between the Christian West and Islamic East, or even the wealthy north, and poverty-stricken south. They are questions that cannot be answered by an ordinary PR spin doctor whose only concern is to spout sugar-coated words and propaganda about the goodness and beauty of his society, and the bonds of goodwill that we share with each other. This would solve nothing. On the other hand a visionary politician seeking to solve the current problems and realize rapid gains might be able to answer such questions. The real problem is related to the self and deals with self-assessment. We will remain trapped in the shadow of these questions until we can reach an answer and reach the truth. The world cannot rest easy, until we are at ease with ourselves. Just as the contemporary French Orientalist Gilles Kepel hypothesised, Islamic terrorism is but a product of an internal crisis and it is directed at the Islamic interior even if attacks are aimed at an external target. There appears to be some truth in this approach in some cases, despite reservations about some of Kepel’s other arguments.

The world is subjected to our campaign of terror because we have yet to resolve the issue of our identity. What future do we want? Where does our constitutional legitimacy lie? What kind of socio-political contract do we want? Some of our Arab societies and states have witnessed periods of social and political stability but this does not mean that the thirst for violence has vanished from within many of us. We only need to look at the swift and enthusiastic response to militant calls and violent fatwas from certain sectors of our society who are not actually terrorists or fundamentalists in the conventional senses of the terms. In fact you would find that they are people who have received their education at American, British and French universities and are well trained. However, they are the first to rush to support any position or statement that claims to reinstate religious legitimacy that has been lost. In other words, there is ‘lack of immunity’ against the blight of extremist ideologies. All they need is someone to rally behind; a fanatic to raise the flag and all different kinds of people will be there to applaud in support.

This is the real and profound crisis from which our society is suffering; a complete crisis of civilization and disposition and a crisis of our collective identity that affects us more than it does the West. What is meant here is the crisis of identity and lack of vision for the present and the future and the need to get over the past since we are neither living in the past nor are we completely cut off from it. It is true that the West has always had its fair share of extremists and fanatics both in the past and the present, and there is no doubt that it will have in the future too. But the fundamental policies of Western society are far less influenced by those kinds of people and their significance waxes and wanes depending on the circumstances. Following 9/11 these people wrote many books and films but they are “the first to wake up after a nap,” in the words of the Prophet’s companion, Amr Ibn al Aas, in reference to the early Byzantines.

Therefore, we ask the same question posed by the Oriental master Bernard Lewis who asked, ‘What went wrong?’ This was the title of his book [What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, 2002], the central question of which is did we make some kind of mistake that led to the creation of Al Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations? Are we somehow responsible for the radicalization of fanatics and terrorist all over the world? We have the Saudi Interior Ministry that continues to discover information on internet cells that finance or coordinate with Al Qaeda and then we have Morocco that washed its hands of [Abdul Kader] Belliraj’s terrorist cell only to discover that another had been established called Fath al Andalous. Are we vulnerable to the temptation of politicized-religious intolerance? Where does the fault lie? Why do they hate us? On what basis should we coexist? All of these are questions raised by 9/11 and are still waiting to be answered even sevens years after the “mini-Armageddon” raged in New York and Washington after “Al Qaeda” launched its attack.

This is the seventh question that remains unanswered at the time of writing…

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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