Later this month, the US and its allies will mark the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11 of last year. IQBAL SIDDIQUI discusses some of the implications of the events of the last year for Muslims and the global Islamic movement
Later this month the US and its allies will mark the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11 last year. We will have to put up with much anguished breast-beating from American politicians and commentators, although we should not underestimate the genuine loss and grief felt by many Americans and others affected by those crimes. For us, the occasion is an opportunity to reflect on the events of the last year from the perspective of the Islamic movement.
It has become a cliche to say that the world changed on September 11. This can be considered to be true at two distinct levels. For Americans brought up with the myth that they represent all that is good in the world, and that everyone else loves them for their embodiment of universal ideals of love, freedom, peace and justice, the fact that someone hated America enough to perpetrate such crimes was a massive shock; just as shocking was the fact that many people in other parts of the world were not as surprised as the Americans were, and in fact often expressed understanding of why the US might be targeted, although they condemned the acts. It is perhaps understandable that in the US the events of September 11 are often perceived as marking a loss of innocence, even if the expression of such sentiments is frequently nauseating in its mawkishness and self-absorption.
At a much more concrete level, the world is also said to have changed in geopolitical terms. America’s assertion of power on the pretext of a "war against terrorism" is widely seen as marking a transformation in the structure and nature of international relations. After the fall of the communist bloc, and the end of the bipolar Cold War world system, there was much talk of the potential of a unipolar world order in which American power would be unchallengeable and the US would be in a position to impose its version of universal human values on the world. This sort of vision gave rise to such arguments as Francis Fukuyama’s Hegelian ‘End of History’, which some think is unfolding now. For other Americans, such legitimising devices are an unnecessary indulgence; they speak openly of the material opportunities of American imperialism. Either way, September 11 is regarded as the point at which America came out of its shell and recognised that its destiny lay in assertive global leadership.
The unfolding of events after September 11 was far from unforeseeable, however. In fact no more than a broadly realistic understanding of the contemporary historical situation was required to see what would happen once such an event as the attacks of September 11 had taken place. Of course, such an understanding was unlikely to be found among commentators steeped in the West’s carefully constructed and assiduously maintained self-image. But, for those willing to consider the situation sceptically and critically, much of what has happened in the last year was entirely predictable.
Crescent International was among such commentators. When the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon took place, the September 16-30, 2001, issue of the paper (vol. 30, no. 13) was just going to press. It was too late for coverage to be included in the paper, but a special editorial was included as a supplement to the paper when it was mailed to subscribers the next day. (It was also included in the next issue of the paper for those who did not see the supplement when it was originally published, and can now be seen on the Crescent International website,www.muslimedia.com.) This special editorial, most of which was written within a few hours of the attack, was headed "Whoever committed the crime, Muslims face the consequences," and stands up remarkably well a year later.
The editorial began by predicting that Afghanistan would be attacked in retaliation for the attacks, despite uncertainty about the identity of those responsible for the attacks. It also sought to highlight the reasons why many people in the world might regard the Pentagon, "the nerve centre of the US military machine," and the World Trade Centre, which had been "a symbol of the capitalist system and elites whose interests that power is harnessed to serve," as legitimate targets. It concluded this section by pointing out that "however legitimate a target might be, a hijacked airliner full of women and children can never be a legitimate weapon."
It then went on to consider the probable events that would follow September 11:
But already those whose interests depend on maintaining America’s global hegemony ó whatever level of war that may require against those people in various parts of the world who would really prefer to control their own affairs for their own benefit ó are taking advantage of this latest tragedy to demand harsh measures against those who oppose American/Western interests...
What form this American war against its perceived enemies will take remains to be seen. But it will undoubtedly be waged against Islam and Muslims, because the Islamic movement is the West’s greatest challenge and this is an irresistibly tempting opportunity for them to attack it. Muslims should be prepared for military attacks on our countries that may reach unprecedented levels and massive crackdowns on Islamic opposition movements in Muslim countries. And Muslims living in the US and Western countries can expect restrictions on their civil and political rights, as well as even greater Islamophobia, discrimination and hostility.
These predictions have clearly proved correct. All over the world, Muslims and Islamic movements have come under intense attack since last year on the pretext of "fighting terrorism". In Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, Central Asia and Mindanao, long-established Islamic struggles have suddenly been tied to al-Qa’ida and become targets of the West’s coalition against terror; in virtually every Muslim country, Islamic movements struggling against oppressive and dictatorial pro-Western regimes have been tarred with the same brush. In virtually every Western country, Muslim activists have been accused of al-Qa’ida associations and of being supporters of or implicated in terrorism. All this is, of course, a natural progression of the attitudes and policies that were already being pursued against Muslims and Islamic movements. It is also consistent with the understanding of the West, and of relations between the West and Islam, that many Muslims have long held. All September 11 did, therefore, was provide an opportunity for the extension of these policies.
It follows, therefore, that the events of September 11 and of the year since call for no great change in the outlook of the Islamic movement; it is largely the circumstances in which the movement’s same objectives must be pursued, and the obstacles put in our way, that have changed. It is important that we see the current heightened tension in this light, and not let ourselves be diverted from our key tasks.
These can be regarded as being broadly twofold: rolling back the West’s hegemony over virtually the whole world of Islam, in economic, social and cultural terms, as well as political; and the establishment of Islamic states and social orders in Muslim countries and societies, in place of the unIslamic and anti-Islamic orders that presently control our lands and people. These two objectives are linked, of course: the West is implacably imposed to the establishment of Islamic States that must oppose Western hegemony, and supports most of the oppressive, anti-Islamic governments that prevail in our countries and will have to be rooted out; and Western-influenced ideologies are also among the local obstacles to the success of Islamic movements. But they are also quite distinct: successful opposition to the West is only part of the process, and will do little to improve the situations in Muslim countries if Islamic movements do not achieve the historical and political maturity and understanding needed to develop and establish workable models of Islamic institutions.
With the West on the rampage, it would be easy for us to be distracted from the task of repairing the damage done to Muslim political and social thought by the failures of our past history and the impact of the West’s destructive domination. This is, however, the greater task facing the Islamic movement, without which no amount of military or political success against our external or internal enemies will succeed in bringing about meaningful changes to the social and moral conditions of our people. It is this task that the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui (ra) called the generation of an "intellectual revolution" in Islamic thought.
The Islamic movement is not a simple, uniform, single-faceted, single-issue entity; no movement reflecting the faith and concerns of a billion-strong Ummah can possibly be that. It includes within it groups with different understandings, different histories and trajectories, emphasising different aspects of Islam, and operating in different circumstances and conditions in their particular parts of the world. This has led some Western observers to claim that the interests, concerns and understandings of various Islamic movements are so different and diverse that there is in fact no single global Islamic movement. This claim is often politically motivated — a case of wishful thinking as much as objective analysis — but it is also encouraged by the narrow, exclusivist understandings of some Muslims and Islamic movements. Such exclusivism can be based on sectarian or theological grounds or on grounds of political understanding or methodology; in any case, it is among the greatest and most damaging obstacles to the Islamic movement’s work today.
What all Muslims must remember is the breadth and unity of the Islamic movement. At times like this, when the Ummah is under intense attack from the West, it is easy to adopt a limited understanding of the movement, focusing entirely on some one aspect of its work, for example military jihad in Afghanistan or Chechnya, or the situation of one sector of the Ummah, such as the Muslim community in Britain or the US. Other aspects of the movement’s struggle, in distant parts of the world, can then be forgotten, ignored, devalued or disparaged, be they academic and intellectual pursuits, community activities, or even jihad. This is especially so when the effects of those struggles can be to make our own work more difficult. Thus we have Muslims trying to counter Islamophobia, and to promote the interests of Muslim communities in Western countries, who are losing touch with the realities of jihad movements in other countries, and being critical of other Muslims in their own communities who support such movements, because it is politically controversial; and vice versa.
The ability to see the work of different parts of the Islamic movement in context, both within contemporary history and within the breadth of the global Ummah and the different situations facing different parts of it, depends on a sense of historical perspective. This is perhaps hardest to maintain at times such as these, when the Ummah is under intense attack from a powerful enemy using weapons ranging from military power to cultural dominance, and millions of Muslims are suffering appalling hardships and damage of different kinds in so many parts of the world. Fracturing the unity of the Ummah and the Islamic movement in this way is one of the West’s prime objectives in escalating its war against Islamic opposition. The condemnation of some Muslims as "terrorists", and the demand that other Muslims join in denouncing them and in the West’s "war against terrorism", is aimed precisely at such perceived fault lines in the Ummah. The fact that the movement has not fractured significantly under this attack — bar a few splinters — in this year is proof that the unity of the Ummah is good against what the West has so far thrown at it.
We must be prepared for more to come, however, and improve our ability to operate at all levels simultaneously despite attacks of every kind. The challenges we face in future will be even greater than they have been so far. But the experience of the Ummah in the past year must suggest, to Western and Muslim observers alike, that the Islamic movement is good for the challenge, insha’Allah.