The inspiring Arab protesters of 2011 bring hope that the tragic cycle of animosity opened by 9/11 can end.
The events of 11 September 2001 occasioned many memorials. For me, the one who best conveyed the truth of the moment was written by the film critic Roger Ebert: that what happened “is not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world”.
Ebert’s tribute spoke of landscapes that elevate the human spirit: parks, and ponds, a green field with trees and flowers. Alas, ten years on, there is precious little evidence of these being the principal physical legacy of 9/11. Instead, the landscape is littered with battered metal, broken glass, and bodily scars.
The thousands of dead and wounded are of every kind: combatants and civilians from dozens of nationalities, countless Afghans and Iraqis as well as the American and other soldiers sent to their countries, victims of urban terrorism and remote drone-bombing alike. “War begets war” is a painful lesson that it has taken a decade to relearn.
The day after 9/11, the world’s reaction was pithily expressed in the phrase: “We are all Americans”. It did not last: for soon after the fall of the twin towers, the ideologically ascendant neo-conservatives in Washington began the process that led to a catastrophic war in the heart of the Arab world. The combination of military aggression and neo-imperial rhetoric squandered – instead of building on – the immediate surge in sympathy for the United States from every corner of the world: a tragic missed opportunity.
In consequence, a modern equivalent of the cold-war-era “iron curtain” descended between the Muslim world and the west, which was to prove as divisive and emotionally charged as the one Winston Churchill warned of in 1946.
The result over several years was the real winners of 9/11 were none other than the extremists who had inspired, encouraged and supported the action. The military reaction to the attacks had the effect of alienating Muslims from the west, brought tens of thousands of western soldiers into Muslim lands, drove many other insurgents and radicals to take up arms, drove fear into the hearts of millions around the world, and created a self-sustaining cycle of animosity and suspicion. All this was, for the extremists, a success.
Much has been said of the fact that fifteen of the hijackers were Saudi. At the time, the news that two more of the terrorists that carried out the operation came from my own country was for me unfathomable. I lost my innocence on that very day. There was no coverage of them in the local media; they didn’t exist as far as society was concerned. No interviews were conducted with their families; no public investigation carried out of their lives and backgrounds to determine what could possibly have drawn them to commit such a terrible act. They remain nameless to us; and I feel as a result the country has never had closure.
Osama bin Laden himself died at the hands of an elite US force in May 2011. But in a deeper way, the blow had already been inflicted by the inspiring protesters of Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, Tahrir Square in Cairo, Taghyeer Square in Sana’a, and elsewhere in the Arab world in 2010-11. Not one of the brave Arabs who rallied against the status quo in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya and elsewhere sought a replacement inspired by the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Their dignified and almost wholly non-violent struggle has at last brought hope of ending that self-sustaining cycle.
But if the al-Qaida leader is no more, that cannot be said for the poisonous notions he embodied and promoted. It is more than ever vital to expunge from textbooks and media outlets the hate-filled ideas that lead impressionable youngsters down the dark alleys where the ghost of Osama bin Laden still lurks.
This article was originally published in Open Democracy on September 7, 2011.