Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Day the Earth stood still was ten years ago

I was in Princeton, New Jersey just coming back for my sophomore year at college. We hadn't yet begun classes and I was planning to go to Walmart later that day to buy some much needed supplies. Just another day in the life of a student. As I slept, I was awaken on that fateful Tuesday by loud knocking on my dorm room door, followed by a classmate entering with frantic panic (yes I left my door unlocked) and jolting me out of my slumber, exhorting, "somebody's bombed the World Trade Center." I quickly ran into the adjacent room and watched with perplexed pause what was unfolding on the television screens. It was around 9:30 a.m. and we still did not know what was truly happening. The two WTC buildings were on fire and soon the Pentagon was just hit. Then all of a sudden news broke that a plane had gone down in Pennsylvania. It was a fast-moving story with many shifting headlines. Were there more attacks to come? Was this a full-scale war? One of the earliest thoughts that went through my head was 'I hope this isn't the work of Muslims.' At the time I was the (acting) Vice President of the Muslim Students Association at Princeton and I feared the consequences. Immediately, it was clear this was a transformative event and things would not be the same after. It was the day the Earth stood still.

Yet, as momentous as those events were, the subsequent apocalyptic jihad versus crusade vision never fully materialized. The decade that followed was indeed tumultuous and characterized by deadly violence, suspension of human rights, and a climate of fear. However, it is clear on the tenth anniversary of that moving moment (or moments), that the 9/11 era has come to a close and is fading in relevance to describe the world around us. The rise of China. The Arab awakening. The new globalized world. That is what we are now faced with.

Certainly, the 9/11 attacks were a historic event and at the time were not just central but essential to almost every policy-making decision being made in the following years. At Princeton one of the most energetic groups during my time was the Princeton Committee Against Terrorism (although there was no Committee for Terrorism). That narrative of 'with us or against us' became pervasive as well. I recall the climate of hostility, that in many ways persists even more today, against things and persons Muslim. Once after writing an article in the Daily Princetonian on Columbus and the history of Native Americans (without any reference to the Middle East) I received the following letter (redacted) from a trustee of a nearby university:
"Judging from your name you are probably muslim from a godforsaken Islamic country. When you are a guest in our country, it is not courteous to defame our heros especially when you don't have true heros of your own. If you can't handle this analysis, I suggest you consider going back to your deprived country and stick your head in your koran for the rest of your life."
Recent reports have shown that Islamophobia is not just extant but on the rise -- and well-funded. The bifurcation of the world by neoconservatives and binladenists alike contributed to a rise in endemic violence and competing mini-crusades and jihads. Attacks in Madrid, London and Bali caused hundreds of casualties. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused thousands. Seemingly every country enacted anti-terror legislation (sometimes with more sinister anti-democratic motives). Mini Al-Qaedas popped up in countries ranging from the Philippines to Nigeria and everything in-between -- many of them persisting until today. In fact the toll of Islamic radicalist attacks within Muslim countries in the last decade dwarfs that of those on America itself. A decade after September 11 we see that these problems (multifaceted and not all of the same nature) have not been solved by any means. The Shabbab movement is influential in Somalia. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are robustly shaping events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nigeria just suffered a deadly attack. Threats against the American homeland still continue. Yet, the overall post-9/11 struggle is declining in relative significance and relevance in the changing world.

This year has seen historic events that have started to shape the post- post-9/11 era. Of course there was the assassination of Osama bin Ladin that parted a symbolic defeat to Al Qaeda. Yet, more influential was the flight of Ben Ali in Tunisia and the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. Al Qaeda's number 2 had advocated the overthrow of Arab regimes by violent means and here was a direct example of success by different tactics; Al Qaeda terrorists were shown to be not-needed and ineffective by comparison. The Arab awakening that has jolted 300 million people is only just beginning but we can already see many examples of why we are in a different time. Just look at Libya where the commander of the National Transitional Council in Tripoli supported by Britain and the U.S. had in fact been 'extraordinarily renditioned' by the CIA and tortured in a Libyan prison at their behest.

More fundamentally it is clear that in most Muslim and Arab societies it is hard to find a plurality that believes their central concern is the United States. Even more poignantly the U.S.-Muslim divide is hardly seen as the defining relationship in the world; even in the Muslim 'world' the defining issue seemingly is across Shiite-Sunni lines rather than Muslim-Christian. The global landscape overall is much more complex and diffuse today as well. The rise of China has assured that. It was in the past decade that BRIC has entered our everyday lexicon. How the world will address the economic malaise besetting the West transposed with rise of the East and South is the dominant question.

Surely there will be localized expressions internalized by a sense of tradition of the 9/11 landscape that still permeate and often dominate. We won't be seeing the end anytime soon of anti-Western slogans in Peshawar. Cartoons may still inflame a populist march in Jakarta. Europe will still have to come to terms with immigrant integration. Anti-Shari'a legislation will be a convenient agenda in the American South. Wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere will take time to wind down. Islamic radicals may still seek to attack symbols of Western influence. Yet the notion of 'us versus them' has not just dissipated from its omnipresence (whether it should have been so or not in the first place is another discussion) but it is now almost stale as if part of a bygone past.

Today we are in a different world - and especially a different Arab and Muslim world. Policymakers are concerned about the 100 million Arab youth (many unemployed) less for becoming radical anti-Western militants but more about their penchant for revolutionary overthrow of their own Arab and Muslim governments. In Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. would be unable to sustain financially another decade of conflict even if it wanted to. In fact 'American' money itself is trumped by the cash flows of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia. Where there is so-called 'radical' violence its targets are far more local (and perhaps the internationalization was only a blip).

The fact that the so-called 9/11 decade has come to a close and the nature of the world has shifted does not mean that we can wear rose-tinted glasses. Conversely the challenges have simply changed and may in fact be even greater and more complex. I'm sure the Fukuyamas and Huntingtons of the world are already prognosticating (inevitably incorrectly) what will happen. Whatever does happen it will happen in the post-post 9/11 world. Ahlan wa sahlan!

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