Americans marked the first anniversary of the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon on September 11. While the Americans and their allies were suitably solemn, there was also surprise that in many places, such as Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the anniversary was virtually unnoticed, except for the ceremonies that governments felt obliged to put on and the disruption caused by increased security for Westerners. The American attitude seemed to be one of outrage that the anniversary of the deaths of almost 3,000 people in America could be treated so lightly in so many parts of the world. To some commentators this suggested that people do not understand the depth of America’s suffering and loss, or that they to some extent support the perpetrators. “The reality is,” one commentator wrote, “that in many parts of the world, American lives are cheap. We are regarded as legitimate targets. Killing us is a virtuous act. This is an attitude to human life that Americans simply cannot understand. For Americans all lives are sacred.”
The reality is, of course, rather different. For one thing, in almost every part of the Muslim world the events of September 11 last year were greeted with shock, horror and massive sympathy for the victims and their families. The vast majority of Muslims also recognize that there can be no justification for such attacks. Why, then, do we not mourn with Americans? Well, violent death at the hands of political enemies is not new and unusual for most Muslims, as it is for most Americans. Nor is the slow, tortuous death of life under occupation, deprivation and harassment. Well over two million people have died in Iraq in 11 years as a result of Western policies; 90,000 have died in Kashmir since 1989; tens of thousands have died in Chechnya; thousands in Palestine in the last two years alone (this month also marks the second anniversary of the beginning of the al-Aqsa Intifada); and thousands also in Gujrat a few months ago. These are just a few of the many countries where Muslims continue to die daily. And for each death many more are injured, maimed, bereaved, imprisoned, rendered homeless and forced to live in unbearable, inhuman conditions. These tragedies are as close to the hearts of Muslims all over the world as that of September 11 last year is to Americans in Los Angeles, Britain, the Middle East and elsewhere (Americans, like Muslims, are now a global ummah). So we understand the grief because we share it.
If there are people who hold the lives of others cheap, it is not Muslims but Americans and other Westerners, including Western settlers in other parts of the world, such as occupied Palestine. Looking over the tragedies listed, it is notable how many of them are perpetrated by America and its allies. Nor is it only the American state that is responsible for such crimes. How often do Americans think of the 16,000 Indians in Bhopal who died on December 2, 1984, when poison gas leaked from the factory built by Union Carbide, a US company, with scant regard for local safety regulations? James Anderson, the head of the company, is wanted in India for trial, but is living in luxurious retirement in the US. It appears to be unacceptable to America that an American should be called to account for the deaths of 16,000 poor brown people in a distant land.
September 11 was described by one American commentator as the worst crime against humanity since the holocaust. Many Americans seem to demand that the rest of the world recognise that attacks on America and the taking of American lives are greater crimes than the taking of other lives. This we cannot do. Victims cannot be blamed for the injuries suffered by the criminals as a result of their crimes. The sympathy that so many Muslims feel for individuals who suffered losses on September 11 is far greater than anything most Americans feel for Muslims anywhere, and is a sign of the differences between us. We cannot agree that American lives are worth more than our own.
We live today in a world characterised by political violence and the casual taking of life in pursuit of selfish political objectives. This is a world created by the West in its own image. For a year Americans have suffered the harsh reality of this world; they seem to have learnt nothing. Let us hope that if they suffer again — which seems inevitable, considering their responses to September 11, 2001 — they will learn rather more and respond rather differently next time.