by Peter van der Veer
The 9/11 attack on the USA has had a huge impact on world politics. The collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York remains one of the most powerful images signifying the vulnerability of modern societies for terrorist attacks. Common people who live their everyday life far away from the battle fields of contemporary conflict have become deeply aware of the fact that terrorism is one of the risks of modern life. Surely, terrorism is nothing new and citizens of Britain, for example, had been long aware of the possibility of bomb attacks by the Irish Republican Army, just as citizens of Spain had been living with attacks by the ETA, the Basque Independence Movement, or as citizens of India had been suffering from the bombings by Hindu and Muslim antagonistic groups. But 9/11 was a watershed, since it was a successful attack on the political and economic power of the most powerful nation in the world on its own territory. It was also a watershed because the attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, one of the world religions, against the political and philosophical hegemony of the West.
The USA has responded to 9/11 by military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq was legitimated by the false claim that Iraq was building up nuclear warfare ability. The war in Afghanistan was legitimated by the fact that one of the warring parties in Afghanistan, the Taliban, had hosted Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist organization. Neither of these two wars has been very successfully carried out and one could argue that they have themselves created new possibilities for terrorism. The complications of dealing with Islamic terrorism are apparent when one sees that Osama Bin Laden has been killed in Pakistan (one of the US main partners in the fight against terrorism) and not in Afghanistan.
One of the important elements of warfare today is that it is not only carried out by regular armies on confined battlefields, but basically everywhere. Violent conflict is globalized. Just as we are consuming products from all over the world we are also experiencing conflicts from all over the world. Especially those who make use of public transport like trains and subways can suddenly be hit by bomb attacks that are related to conflicts thousands of kilometers away about which the travellers are often not entirely informed. No one is anymore outside of this as a neutral spectator. Security concerns the USA just as much as Spain, Holland, or China. This is an effect of the fast speed of globalization that has enhanced connectivity to an unprecedented level. While it was always rather arbitrary to distinguish between military casualties and civil casualties in war, terrorism has brought war on everyone’s doorstep.
While violent conflicts have been globalized their causes are often still connected to the local and the regional. The IRA and the ETA are simply separatist or nationalist movements that want a separate nation-state. They are only called terrorist because they have not (yet) been successful. Anti-colonial movements for national independence were invariably seen by the British, Dutch, or French as terrorist movements till they were successful and created independent nation-states. Movements that want to create an independent Kashmir or Kurdistan or Chechen are not different, but have not been successful. These movements arise from a desire to have a national sovereign territory and to escape from what is conceived to be foreign domination. The Taliban in Afghanistan also emerge out of such strivings. They are one of the groups that (with the support of the USA) were successful in kicking the Russians out of Afghanistan and then started to fight each other for national hegemony. The intertwining of the local and the global is one of the aspects of contemporary globalization.
The 9/11 attacks were carried out by Muslims from the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia and Yemen) with regional grievances against the impact of the USA in the region. But the fact that these attacks were done in the name of Islam and not in the name of the Arabs has had a huge impact on Muslims all over the world. The majority of the world’s Muslim population is not Arabic and does not live in the Middle East, but nevertheless suddenly every Muslim became a potential terrorist. The minority Muslim populations in Western Europe have very different national backgrounds (Turks, Moroccans, Pakistani, and so on), but suddenly their integration into the mainstream society became an issue of national security. This is one of the most unfortunate consequences of 9/11 that Islam became a suspect religion that was seen by some as inherently violent and thus the cause of terrorism. In some cases politicians also made a populist use of this image of a dangerous Islam to whip up anti-minority sentiments among the majority population. This anti-Islamism is a potential breeding ground for terrorism among especially the younger generations of minorities who feel that they are discriminated as well as among members of the majority population, as we have recently seen in Norway where a young, educated Norwegian killed dozens of his countrymen to bring about an anti-immigrant revolution in his country.
Islam is the religion of more than a billion people and is one of the greatest cultural traditions in the world. Its expansion over the globe, like that of Christianity, has always had political and sometimes violent overtones, but it cannot be reduced to that. It contains deep philosophical understandings of the world and moral precepts of how to live a good life and be good to others. Its diversity is immense, since there is no central authority to interpret scripture in order to tell people what to do, although there are several centers that want to claim that position. One of the major aims of Al Qaeda has been to explode that diversity and replace it with a simplified, fundamentalist reading of the scriptures in ways that are similar to what some Christian groups have tried to do. Despite its anti-modernist and anti-Western stance it is in fact highly modernist in its endeavor to get rid of traditional authority that is vested in men of learning. It is laymen and especially engineers who have not had traditional training who suddenly claim authority in the interpretation of Islam. Their violent utopias are countered by those who have traditional learning, but have lost much of their influence with the rise of the internet and with the migration of Muslim populations.
Intellectuals all over the world have to be united in the struggle to protect Muslims from the constant attacks against their religion. It was the true aim of the 9/11 attacks to create a backlash against Muslims and in that way unite Muslims under an anti-Western banner. The distance that this creates between Muslims and non-Muslims is growing in all parts of the world and is among the most dangerous developments today. Respect for Islam as a world religion is required from governments, politicians, believers of other creeds, atheists and secularists. Religion as such does not create violent conflict in the world, but it can be an aspect of it. However, to reduce it to this aspect is incorrect and unwise.