Tens of thousands of people may have died in the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11. The identities of those responsible for what was clearly a carefully-planned and expertly-executed operation remain unknown, although the FBI and other American officials are claiming to have identified Arab contacts of Osama bin Laden as involved. With most of America now baying for blood and vengeance, sufficient evidence is likely to be found to justify retaliatory attacks against convenient targets, for example in Afghanistan. Whether this evidence is any more substantial or genuine than the intelligence that identified the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan as a chemical weapons plant, and was used to justify America’s bombing of it in August 1998, may never be known.
The first question on everybody’s minds is the obvious one: who on earth could possibly be responsible for such an atrocity? The answer to this, too, may never be known. The world is assuming that the perpetrators were Muslims, be they Afghani, Palestinian, Iraqi, even Chechens. That is perhaps understandable, considering that Islamic movements now constitute the main opposition to American and Western global hegemony, and considering also the number of areas in the world in which Muslims have been victims of atrocities and brutalities committed by the US and its allies and puppets. It may seem totally impossible that any God-fearing person would commit such horrendous acts; but we know from past experience that people who feel themselves and their peoples to be under sustained and unrelenting attack can react in the most unbelievable ways. If Muslims were involved, it goes without saying that there can be no possible sanction for their actions, whatever a misguided few may suggest. Indeed, in view of the teachings on the protection of innocents in time of war, Muslims should probably be even more condemnatory of other Muslims committing such crimes than of non-Muslims.
We should also note that there are plenty of other enemies of the West who could just as well be responsible, ranging from domestic American dissidents like Timothy McVeigh (who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma in 1995), the traditional European and Japanese terrorist groups, the anti-globalization movement (for whom the World Trade Centre would be a prime target), and Latin-American left-wing groups and drug cartels. When considering such a totally unprecedented attack, the prior records of such groups are no guide to who may be responsible.
Unfortunately, uncertainty about the identity of the perpetrators is unlikely to prevent Muslims from being blamed. Within two days of the Oklahoma bombing, there were over 200 cases of hate crimes against Muslims in America. Following the catastrophic destruction of TWA flight 800 off New York in July 1996, special security measures aimed at Muslims were instituted and kept in place even when it was discovered that the crash had been caused by mechanical failure. In the immediate aftermath of this latest horror, there has been a similar rush to judgement against Islam and Muslims. Groups such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission, London, are already receiving stories of Muslims in the US and other countries being abused and attacked. Expecting the Western media and commentators not to contribute to a mood of Islamophobic paranoia is unrealistic; Muslims must be aware of the dangers they now face and take precautions against them.
So, if we cannot know who was responsible, what can we know? Well, it seems clear that the attacks were intended to strike at the most potent available symbols of American power. The Pentagon is the nerve-centre of the US military machine that projects American power around the world, and the World Trade Centre was a symbol of the capitalist system and elites whose interests that power is harnessed to serve: legitimate targets, some might say, in view of the West’s global record. In the case of the Pentagon, the argument may be valid, in which case those killed would probably be viewed by the perpetrators as — to use a phrase coined by the US military itself — "collateral damage". But however legitimate a target might be, a hijacked airliner full of women and children can never be a legitimate weapon.
However unjustifiable and indefensible the attacks may be, they are by no means inexplicable. The problem is that the American people (and Westerners generally) are ill-equipped to understand the probable motives behind them, the reasons for so many people in the world hating America. Of course, in the immediate aftermath of these horrific events, a hysterical reaction among Americans is understandable. The problem is that, once the initial shock has worn off, the reaction is unlikely to be tempered. Numerous commentators, newspapers and politicians have described the attacks as "declarations of war," comparable to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The problem is that none of these people seem to realise that America has long been at war with numerous peoples all over the world. This is not the opening salvo of a new war; it was most likely a successful attempt by one of America’s many victims to hit back — very, very hard.
Ideally, this would be an opportunity for some reflective self-analysis on the part of Americans — why, they might ask, do so many people hate America so much? Is this what others feel when the US takes military action against them? If this is how one hard, sudden, massive strike feels, how must the constant pressure of a brutal foreign occupation, or of genocidal economic sanctions combined with near-daily air attacks, feel? Is our intense desire for revenge today precisely the same emotion that motivates other people to attack us? In which case, might this not be a good time for us to reconsider our role in the world?
Perhaps a few people will be cool-headed and honest enough to think like that. In Britain, the Guardian carried some mature and reflective op-ed pieces this morning (September 12). But already those whose interests depend on maintaining America’s global hegemony — 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 — are taking advantage of this latest tragedy to demand harsh measures against those who oppose American/Western interests. Their argument is that democracy, freedom and civilization are under attack and must be forcefully defended; such words ring hollow from Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Tony Blair, each of whom has been responsible for far, far more death and suffering than seen in the US yesterday. That, however, will not prevent the CNN generation from swallowing their line and supporting whatever actions they choose to take.
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. 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. Whoever may have been responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, it is Muslims the world over who are likely to face the consequences.