From 9/11 to the Arab Revolutions

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    From 9/11 to the Present – Looking Back and Looking Ahead

    Ten years have passed since the terrible event and we are still groping in the dark. The facts that have become known up to now are insufficient for us to reach a conclusive judgement. We are still dependent on speculation.

    A phone call from a colleague in my office brought me the appalling news. I switched on the television: horrific scenes, huge sheets of flame, people jumping out of windows to certain death, the high towers collapsing like a house of cards – eerie, like a never-ending nightmare. Those images will probably remain in my memory for ever.
    No matter what the origins of those pulling the strings, the people behind the scenes, their go-betweens, and the perpetrators may have been, and irrespective of their beliefs and nationality, it is at least certain that they were people who obviously devoted months or even years to preparing these assaults, people who could endure the enormous stress involved in simultaneously leading a normal and a clandestine existence, who tolerated the nerve-racking fear of discovery so that ultimately, on a specific day and at a pre-arranged time, they could kill not only thousands of others but also themselves. This is incomprehensible; this is a contradiction of human nature. How is it possible, I ask myself, that among these obviously young human beings there was not a single one who allowed himself to be enticed by the attractions of life, who pursued longings for love, friendship, playfulness, and fun? That not a single one renounced the murderous plan and chose life over death? Whatever the answer is, concepts such as martyrdom, fanaticism, and fundamentalism are insufficient explanations for this phenomenon.
    Why did the inconceivable have to happen? What lies behind this limitless contempt for life? Feelings of hatred and revenge; political calculation; a mafia-like strategy with which someone, whoever it might be, hoped to gain money and power?

    Evil versus Good?

    Immediately after that shocking attack there were influential commentators who professed to supply an answer to so many questions in just one word: Islam. Politicians and supposed Middle East experts and authorities on Islam, who astonishingly and suddenly thronged the media (though no one knows whence they came) explained to us that, beyond the limits of the civilised world, darkness prevails and demons are at work. They spoke of a clash of civilisations, of a war of Evil against Good. On the one side civilisation and on the other barbarism; here freedom and there servitude; here progress and there stagnation.
    On the first day, US President George W. Bush already spoke of a crusade against barbarism and contemplated bombing several countries. A few days later his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, followed suit, bluntly expressing what many were thinking: ‘We must be aware of our supremacy and the superiority of Western civilisation,’ he said, while on a visit to Berlin. Western civilisation, continued Berlusconi, is superior to Islam ,and the world must be Westernised. ‘The West will continue to conquer other peoples, just as it succeeded in conquering Communism and part of the Islamic world.’ He saw Western society as being characterised by ‘love of liberty, and the freedom of both nations and individuals, which are certainly not part of the heritage of other civilisations such as Islam. Those civilisations are capable of acts that make me shudder.’
    I am not a fanatical believer, and I certainly know what crimes have been and still are committed in the name of Islam. Suffice it to mention almost thirty years of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the thousands who have been executed there in the name of God. Of course, any crime can be presented in a religious guise if belief is transformed into ideology and put to political use. As history shows, any religion – and not just Islam – can be deployed in that way, including Christianity and Judaism. That is also true of any idea or utopia which becomes an ideology. Just think of Stalinism or National Socialism. Even the idea of democracy can – as we have seen in recent years – be manipulated on behalf of dubious political objectives serving such interests as the acquisition of power. It is also ideologists who want to make us believe that current disputes threatening world peace entail a clash of cultures and religions, or, more precisely, a struggle between Islam and the rest of the world. In a speech to the nation in January 2007, President Bush said that Shiite and Sunni extremists were only two faces of ‘the same totalitarian threat’ to the free civilised world. They wanted ‘to kill Americans and destroy democracies in the Middle East’. The war against terror was thus much more than a clash of arms: ‘It is the decisive ideological battle of the century.’

    A modern crusade

    The attacks on September 11th 2001 supplied a carte blanche to launch the ‘battle of the century’. A few weeks after 9/11 the war against Afghanistan began, and after that the assault on Iraq. The September attacks also gave powerful encouragement to a change in strategy already under way, namely to redirect hatred of Communism, cultivated for many decades, against Islam as the new focus of hostility. 11th September really does mark the start of a new age, which one could call either a modern crusade, or a crusade of the Modern Age. For some groups 9/11 offered a welcome opportunity for disturbing psychological warfare against Islam. Morally, religiously, and ideologically loaded concepts and slogans such as ‘renegade states’, ‘axis of evil’, ‘Islamic terrorism’, and ‘clash of civilisations’ became part of daily linguistic usage. No one would think of characterising groups such as the IRA in Ireland, the Basque separatists in Spain, the Red Brigades in Italy, or the RAF in Germany as Christian terrorists, but terrorists from Islamic countries, constituting a tiny minority of the people, were sufficient grounds to declare terrorism to be a component part of a religion with more than a billion adherents.
    In this hate-charged atmosphere, no special justification was required for the war against Afghanistan, especially as the ruling Taliban’s own actions provided ample arguments to use in favour of the preachers of hatred, justify the war, and make it look like a war of liberation. Nonetheless, neither the attackers nor the media seemed to think it worth mentioning that during the struggle against Soviet occupation in the 1990s the Taliban had received large-scale financial and military support from the US and Saudi Arabia. This was also true of Bin Laden, who worked for the CIA, the American Secret Service, for many years.
    The war against Afghanistan marked the start of an attempt to create a new order in the Middle East. Scarcely a year and a half later it was the turn of Iraq. Here, people even accepted a breach of international law. Live television transmission of the attack gave millions of viewers the sense of being directly involved in the invasion. The scenes that went around the world were shocking. American pilots, sounding gleeful and enthusiastic about images of the night over Baghdad, described what they were seeing and dropped bombs, knowing full well that every time they pressed a button hundreds of people might die. Up in the air everything was technically perfect, hygienic, flawless. What happened on the ground remained unseen. Towering flames and the spectacle of showers of rockets and bombs aestheticised the operation. One pilot compared the scene before him to an illuminated Christmas tree. That description was deliberately chosen. The tree was intended to symbolise Christianity, which was conducting a successful campaign against Islam. A modern crusade, at the beginning of the twenty-first century! It was an arrogant demonstration of power, and at the same time a staging of total humiliation, as if the bottled-up rage of millions against the Islamic world was being discharged in a single blow.
    We citizens of Islamic countries living in the West also came to feel the hatred thus discharged. Long-established citizens who had worked here for years, decades even, and led a middle-class existence were suddenly suspected of being ‘sleepers’ – in other words, terrorists who were outwardly above suspicion but would show their true face upon the arrival of some ominous order.
    The attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this apocalyptic event, set off an earthquake the impact of which shook people all over the world. Just one question was to be read in their distraught, horrified faces: in what kind of world are we actually living?
    In my opinion, not in a divided world but rather in a globalised world, at least from an economic point of view. For large companies, banks, and stock exchanges borders have long since ceased to exist, nor are there any regions beyond their sphere of influence. From their perspective any division of the world into civilised and barbarian, or Christians, Muslims and Jews, is anachronistic. There are innumerable people living outside the Western hemisphere today whose way of life is outwardly identical to that of a European or a North American. 
    However, within our unified world there are still many serious differences that shouldn’t be overlooked or played down. When one considers that every day more people die in Africa than in the attacks on Washington and New York, and when it is taken into account how many millions of children and adults are victims of poverty, hunger and epidemics, then one must anticipate that conflicts will continue to intensify if necessary changes do not occur. Terrorist attacks on a larger scale cannot be excluded in the future. They cannot be prevented by violence and war or by stirring up dislike and hatred. On the contrary: the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the caricatures of Mohammed, bans on minarets, attacks on mosques, and the establishment of racist restrictions supply terrorist groups and radical Islamists with even more adherents.

    Global inequality

    In reality our world is not affected by any clash of civilisations or religions. What does affect it are the circumstances which have led to part of the world living in affluence, enjoying the privileges of modern technological society, while the other part is far removed from that objective. The attempt by countries of the so-called Third World, in the struggle against colonialism, to catch up by way of liberation movements has failed. In the majority of cases, the attempt to follow in Europe’s footsteps or to link up with the industrial countries by way of socialism has also not produced the desired outcome. What we see happening now, particularly in Islamic states, is an attempt to find solutions for development within their own national history and religion, in conjunction with the achievements and experiences of the advanced countries. Anyone who is familiar with the critical discussion intellectuals and enlightened clerics are conducting with Islamic traditionalists knows how profound and also how painful this process is. Here, there is no hostility against the West or Christianity, but rather fascinated curiosity and pleasure in learning. People in the West should accommodate this desire instead of fostering hostility and ongoing hatred. In doing so, it is important for those in the West to know that these seekers from the East will not be enthusiastic about everything they find here. They will ask how the social coldness and loneliness prevalent here came about. They will once again raise the question of the relationship between individual and community. They don’t come with empty hands; they too have something to communicate and something of value to present. This encounter is an opportunity – by way of dialogue and exchange, criticism and self-criticism – for removing the basis for radicalism on both sides.

    Bahman Nirumand
    comes from Iran and has lived in Germany since the 1960s. He was one of the protagonists of the student movement, and today works as an author and journalist.

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2011

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