The contrast between the words and actions of the West’s leaders, and the remarkable ability of most Westerners to believe their politicians, and to accept uncritically a totally West-centric view of world affairs, despite the mass of contrary evidence before them, is frustrating at any time. During the Christmas and New Year period, when many Western countries go into a frenzy of righteous self-congratulation and pseudo-religiosity, they can become all but unbearable. Even for Muslims living and operating in the West, and thus well aware of the establishment and media presentation of events and information that determines public opinion and attitudes, the skewed perception of the world held by so many apparently intelligent westerners defies understanding.
Seasonal Western reflections on the world this year have been dominated by the impact of the attack on the US on September 11. That is understandable to an extent. The shock of the attack was clearly massive, and the results personally tragic for those bereaved, injured or otherwise directly involved; their loss must not be minimised in any way. The effect on Americans of an attack on major symbols of the power and standing of their country must also be recognised, particularly given their habitual self-confidence and complacency. A hysterical immediate reaction was understandable. But little moderation of hysteria has occurred with the passage of time, even in those more distant from the event.
Seen broadly, the events of September 11 were simply another act of violence, distinguished only slightly by their scale, their method and their target, in a world in which violence, loss, tragedy and hardship are the norm for the vast majority of people. September 11 was perhaps a stinging slap in the face for Americans, in a world in which other people have come to regard living in a state of permanent suffering, indeed slow, relentless, callous and unavoidable torture, as routine. In Iraq, bombed "into the stone age" a decade ago, and since subjected to brutal economic sanctions, resulting in the deaths of about 1.5 million people in 10 years, America’s direct responsibility is clear. In places like Palestine, Sudan, Chechnya, Egypt and Algeria, and in non-Muslim areas such as Latin America, the West’s responsibility may be more widely distributed, but is recognizable nonetheless.
Awareness of one’s own weaknesses and sins, and of their impact on others, and atonement for those errors, are among the major themes of Christianity generally, and of Christmas in particular. Such redemption is often achieved, in parables such as Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol, through personal experience of suffering. Unfortunately the events of September 11 have had no such impact on the West. In the immediate aftermath of September 11 some Western commentators, mainly outside the US, pointed out why the US was hated in much of the world, and it seemed possible that the attacks might indeed open some eyes and some minds. Such awareness seems not to have penetrated America at all, and to have been overwhelmed elsewhere by the fervour generated by the West’s subsequent "war on terrorism."
A conservative study by an American academic last month documented 3,767 civilian deaths in Afghanistan by December 6 as a direct result of the US’s bombing (see p. 4). The real figure is likely to be much higher. As in Iraq in 1991, Afghanistan’s infrastructure — ie. economic and social life-support systems — have been deliberately destroyed, and millions driven from their homes into refugee camps. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US (and the West generally) claims to be acting in the interests of ordinary people; incredibly, most Americans, and a lot of westerners elsewhere, continue to believe this.
In hindsight, hopes that experiences like those of September 11 might make Westerners aware of the suffering others appear naive. We have ample proof that the West is impervious to appeals to reason, and attempts to point out the reality of the state of the world. Unless this changes, rhetoric about peace, tolerance and goodwill to all men can do nothing to avert more conflict in the future. If a "clash of civilizations" does indeed prove inevitable, it will not be because of the nature of Islam, but because of the inability of the West to tolerate the survival of any people, culture or value-system that refuses to accept absolute Western domination, and bow to Western hegemony. Four months after September 11, that prospect seems more inevitable than ever.