DAWN - Opinion; September 19, 2006

Published September 19, 2006

Five years after 9/11

By Shahid Javed Burki

THAT 9/11 changed the world is a time-worn cliche, now repeated countless times in books, magazine articles and newspaper columns. What is not said is how that change occurred. The fifth anniversary of that fateful day has come and gone with newspaper pages filled with stories about the families that lost loved ones and with analyses of how America and the rest of the world have fared since that morning, when three hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Centre at New York and the Pentagon near Washington.

That act of terrorism was carried out by 19 young men, most of them from Saudi Arabia, for reasons that are still dimly understood. A great deal has been written about their possible motives. The United States government spent millions of dollars in funding the work of a bipartisan commission of 10 members, five Democrats and five Republicans, in trying to understand what prompted these young men to act so desperately, and in the process, take nearly 3,000 innocent lives as well as their own. The 9/11 Commission gathered a great deal of information about the men who committed those crimes and also about those who motivated them. However, it did not reach a firm conclusion as to why these people hated the United States so much that they were prepared to give their lives to hurt some Americans, even those who were perfectly innocent.

Since that day, more innocent lives have been lost, some as a result of more acts of terrorism and some by the way the three countries that have led the charge against terrorism have acted. The leaderships of the three countries — America, Britain and Israel — have now concluded that what they are fighting is a dangerous ideology akin to those that produced so much havoc and misery in the 20th century.

The ideology has been given a name, Islamic fascism, and its objectives have been equated with those of fascism, Nazism and communism. These ideologies, all European in origin, attempted to overpower democratic-liberalism and reorder the industrial world. They were defeated either on the battlefield or by the sheer economic power liberalism was able to muster against state-controlled socialism. The same strategy is now being advocated by those who claim that the post-modern western world is once again challenged by another destructive ideology.

This time around, however, that ideology does not have its roots in Europe but in the sands of Arabia. It is being claimed that its origin lies in a religion that rose some 14 centuries ago in what is Saudi Arabia today and spread to all corners of the world. It now has 1.2 billion followers, a fifth of mankind.

There are many dangers in this new line of thinking for the entire Muslim world, not just the Arab countries. It threatens to turn the on-going conflict between a small group of Islamists who are not supported, let alone sponsored, by any Muslim state and some countries in the west into something much larger in scope: a clash between two cultures and two religions. By calling it an ideology, some Western leaders could turn this conflict into an all out confrontation between the Muslim world and the West. That would be a highly dangerous turn in events, brought about by a very deliberate attempt to misread what is actually happening in Muslim countries.

History, as has been proven time and gain, can be moulded into shapes that suit narrow interests. It is in the interest of the large majority of Muslims around the globe not to fall into this trap and mindlessly march towards a catastrophic confrontation. There is still time to halt this journey.

The Muslim community needs to do three things and do them urgently. In this context, the people and leadership of Pakistan as well as those of us who live abroad could play important roles. The first thing that needs to be done is to condemn all acts of terrorism, no matter where they are carried out and no matter which grievance motivates them. The message that must go out is that Islam does not condone violence of any form against innocent people. In fact, Islam teaches compassion, not mindless terrorism.

This message may resonate with those in the West who have open minds and are still prepared to listen. This message, even if it was communicated, has been done with a weak voice. It has given the impression that the majority of Muslims are content to move in the direction in which the extremists are pushing them.

That is certainly not the case but that sentiment should be openly and fearlessly expressed. Non-Muslims in the West must be made to believe that those who advocate and practise terrorism are indeed very small in number and do not represent Islam.

Second, the Muslim world and the Muslim countries around the world must be made to adopt political systems that are representative of all citizens and are not meant to serve the narrow interests of small elites. The resentment of the young is growing in countries where only limited political space is available to the people — especially the young — for expressing themselves and for having their grievances redressed. This is the case even in countries that have established and well-functioning democratic systems. Britain is one example of a country in which the political structure encourages Muslim exclusion and separation rather than their absorption. This has contributed to the expression of discontent through violence. The British approach to multi-culturalism — of allowing people with religious and systems of belief that are different from the majority to live separately from the mainstream — has not worked. It has created many islands of resentment to which the young men prepared to commit acts of terrorism belong.

Third, both the Muslim state and the Muslim communities that live in non-Muslim states must give the highest priority to human development. No additional analytical or statistical work needs to be done to underscore the important point that, in terms of human development, Muslims have been left behind; or, more accurately, they have allowed themselves to fall at the end of the queue that is moving towards development and modernisation. In its regional and country reports, the UNDP has clearly demonstrated how backward Muslims are, at this point in time, in educating themselves, training themselves and acquiring skills for themselves that are necessary to become productive participants in a fast moving world.

These three steps — raising a clear voice against extremism and terrorism, developing institutions that allow political participation to all segments of the citizenry, developing human resource — must be taken by Pakistan, the Muslim world’s second largest country. But that is not the only reason why Pakistan must be at the forefront of this campaign against the small group of Muslim extremists who are determined to rock and disrupt the world. Because of the unhappy developments since America fought its first war against Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pakistan has become the epicentre of Islamic extremism. The only way to cure the country of this condition is to move resolutely in these three areas.

Those who believe in moderation must raise their voices. President Pervez Musharraf has spoken clearly on this issue but his administration shows less than total resolve when it comes to creating the environment needed to obstruct the advance of extremism. He has, at times, allowed himself to be intimidated by radical groups. He should have, for instance, taken a firm position that the Hudood laws don’t belong to the law books of a modern society. They discriminate against women, something Islam never permitted. These laws should have been removed from the books a long time ago. But the hesitant moves in this direction have only emboldened the extremists and further tarnished Pakistan’s already poor reputation.

On September 14, the New York Times carried a prominently placed story under the title “Pakistan bid to end abuse of women reporting rape hits snag”. Wrote the newspaper: “Pervez Musharraf has sought to use the measure, the Women’s Protection Bill, to burnish his credentials as a modern and moderate Islamic leader before his visit to the United States this month. But the opposition has, temporarily at least, disrupted his well-orchestrated campaign.”

Muslim societies must play a determined role in moving towards a situation in which they can fully participate in the rapidly changing world. They must not allow themselves to be isolated. This is happening and a part of the responsibility is that of the Muslim world. The other part is that of the West, in particular of some of the people who occupy positions of power at this critical time. For instance, the stance taken by the US president and the British prime minister continues to aggravate the situation in the Muslim world. The way the war in Iraq is being fought and the way Bush and Blair handled the conflict in Lebanon have further exacerbated the situation.

The way official Washington observed the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 sent exactly the wrong message to the Muslim world. In a prime time speech delivered from the Oval Office, the American president sought to place the war in Iraq that he initiated in the context of an epic battle between tyranny and freedom, saying the conflict in that country was “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation.” He continued: “if we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons.”

He equalled the task ahead of him to those faced by several of his predecessors, in particular Franklin Roosevelt who led the war against Adolf Hitler’s Germany and the doctrine of Nazism. He also drew a parallel with presidents such as Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy who rallied America against another tyrannical ideology — European communism.

But in drawing these parallels and in settling down to explain the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine as a war against yet another ideology, President Bush is treading on very dangerous ground.

This emphasis on a war with an ideology will push those who think otherwise into the arms of those who would like to portray it exactly in those terms. For the American president and the British prime minister it may be politically expedient to portray their wars in various Muslim countries in those terms.

This, they believe, would save them from admitting that the war in Iraq was a mistake, that the Palestinians should not be condemned to perpetual backwardness within the boundaries of an unviable state, that Israel should not have been allowed to hit Lebanon so mercilessly.

It was a mistake not to have stayed fully engaged in Afghanistan to the point where its diverse people were fully accommodated in that unfortunate country’s fledgling economic and political system. Unfortunately, Afghanistan was left to its devices — in the hands of drug lords, warlords, and selfish tribal lords, while both Washington and London got engaged in an unnecessary enterprise in Iraq. Not recognising that a series of colossal mistakes were made and to portray them in the context of a war against an ideology would produce exactly what Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri wanted all along: an all-out war with the West.

War on terror & its consequences

By Sayeed Hasan Khan and Kurt Jacobsen

GOT a problem? ‘Get tough’ is the insidiously easy answer for short-sighted politicians, playground bullies and movie moguls. Yet brute force rarely works so neatly in real life.

In Vietnam bewildered US leaders were thwarted by a popular insurgency that would not give in no matter how much punishment American weaponry dished out. Earlier Israeli ventures into Lebanon were unsuccessful or else they wouldn’t have tried again.

Amnesia, it seems, is a job requirement for foreign policy elites. President Bush approves every whim of Israel, the uncontested regional superpower. But Israel finds that in firing off vast quantities of western-subsidised high explosives the targeted populations do not collapse with fear. Instead, they resist in whatever manner they can. Why the surprise? Who would want to be a member of a human race that fails to resist or to demand justice?

Far from resolving Middle East conflicts, a strategy of pure coercion by the US and Israel not only devastated Lebanon but is undermining pro-West governments too. If Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt condemn Hezbollah, at US urging, they only appear as indirect supporters of Israel. The street won’t rally soon under that dubious banner.

Instead, Hasan Nasrallah emerged even more popular than Nasser. Standing up to Israel and America is now the supreme criterion of political legitimacy, and Hezbollah leaders are hailed as heroes. Hezbollah accrued its local popular support over decades through its much-needed social welfare activities as well as by military training. The combination of Hamas and Hezbollah is a beacon for the Muslim world.

The self-sabotaging ironies of the US-Israeli strategy are too numerous to name. Hezbollah is a Shia organisation while Hamas is mainly fundamentalist Sunni. Although both groups are full of passionate sectarians, they have been induced, under sustained western and Israeli assaults, to make common cause, which was hardly an American policy objective.

Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni fundamentalists in Egypt, vowed during the Lebanon invasion to dispatch contingents to fight in the Shia south. The Brotherhood is also working with Nasserite nationalists, surely no part of US intentions.

The Bush White House mandarins, intent on restructuring the Middle East to their own exploitative taste and regardless of the consequences, behave as nothing more than western replicas and enablers of the militants they fear in the Muslim world.

Because Hezbollah is wrongly deemed by Americans as a mere Iranian puppet, it is treated as a permanent pariah. Indeed, it appears it is more the Americans than Israelis who want to take this needless war into Iran, as Seymour Hersh recently revealed in The New Yorker. Israeli officials were discussing a prospective Lebanon attack with the Americans long before the two unfortunate Israeli soldiers were nabbed.

Any sensible political solutions are sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik, of being barbaric in the short run simply because one can and because it is fantasised that high-tech weapons alone will resolve everything in one’s favour.

Consider the other side of this devilish situation. If, as a result of western adventures, fundamentalists achieve power, without first moderating their policies to include economic and social welfare programmes, such rule will be short-lived, as in Afghanistan.

The strict religious regimen is not a viable lifestyle for the masses unless perhaps they sit on a trillion barrels of oil, although even the Saudis are nervous. In any case, liberals need to start a dialogue with fundamentalist groups who are not synonymous with rabid militant fanaticism.

The White House, after all, cosies up happily to its Christian fundamentalist constituency. For that matter, it is all too apparent to many unsophisticated observers that the Middle East policy seems to be driven by a desire to plant Jewish fundamentalists on seized Palestinian land.

The strain of promoting such a blinkered coercive strategy, however, is beginning to show. In Britain, the customarily compliant Muslim organisations came under enormous grassroots pressure so that their leaders have finally refused to parrot the government line. The Muslim Council of Britain, as well as Muslim establishment figures, including MPs and member of the House of Lords, openly expressed their deep scepticism about a callous foreign policy, racist security measures, and how conveniently timed the latest bomb plot arrests were, serving as a distraction from the carnage in Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and Iraq.

The UK government then concocted the Sufi Council of Britain whose well-educated youngsters get duly trotted out at media circuses to say nice things about Blair. With no discernible link to Sufism’s tradition of mysticism, peacefulness and tolerance, yuppie Sufis, alas, just don’t carry as much credibility as Whitehall would like.

Western media pundits like to speak with well-rehearsed world-weary wisdom of ‘compassion fatigue’, a point at which reports of injustices and calamities abroad benumb the audience and turn them off.

There are bracing signs that ‘gullibility fatigue’ — fatal to leaders — can set in too. Intelligence agencies responsible for murdering an innocent man in a London tube, making groundless arrests at Forest Gate, and, of course, contriving reasons for invading Iraq, say ‘Trust us.’ How long can one take the authorities at their word? In the aftermath of the new wave of British arrests, needless new security measures threw air travel into utter chaos so that a 12-year-old stowaway, a claustrophobic passenger, and a woman of South Asian origin wielding a water bottle were treated as terrorist incidents.

There is such a thing as playing it too safe. There is such a thing as leaders exploiting terror for their own ends. There is an underlying authoritarian method to this madness, and always has been.

Never were there two democratically elected leaders who plainly displayed less concern for, and less attachment to, democratic practices than Messrs Bush and Blair. At least during the Cold War the major power allowed freedom of the press and personal liberties, protected by courts, at home, although not in puppets abroad where they remorselessly crushed the left.

But now they steadily snuff freedoms at home on the grounds that ‘you can’t be too careful’ — this from the most careless and uncaring of western governments, whose policies create the very enemies they are hunting.

There is an urgent need for mutual understanding across sectarian divides lest one drive otherwise peaceful fundamentalists into militant stances. The Pakistan government, as well as the opposition parties of Pakistan, are playing with fire by going along with the simplistic American line.

By doing so, they only leave the field open for recruitment by fundamentalist organisations who strike anti-imperialist stances but do not even have ameliorative domestic policies to offer.

Blair and Bush stoke sinister images of Islam as if at any moment a horde of Saladins will arise from the East End or lower Manhattan and gallop out, waving scimitars. British authorities, for example, are investigating Tablighi Jamaat, the biggest fundamentalist UK Muslim organisation, which they portray as a “fertile recruiting ground” for “extremists.” Western spooks ought to know better.

In the late 1960s, one of us attended the 50th anniversary of Soviet independence in Moscow where rumours were mentioned to the secretary-general of Komsomol that Tablighi Jamaat was brimming with CIA plants. The Soviet official replied that they knew about it and that reports said that the Tablighi Jamaat was a perfectly peaceful religious organisation who depoliticised the population: “This suits us.”

It is the Saudis who promoted the Wahabi brand of Islam, one unwilling to accommodate any other far more popular trend inside Islam. The Americans used this fanaticism for their own purposes, as fodder in anti-Soviet crusades and earlier to tamp down popular nationalist groups in the Middle East, and it has come back to haunt them.

After deposing Saddam Hussein, the US has had no choice but to back the Shia majority in Iraq, but the partnership has been an uneasy one that can unravel overnight. According to a new survey from the National Science Foundation, no one but a few US employees believe the US invaded Iraq to bring it democracy.

All the major Iraqi communities feel ever more endangered. Sectarianism and xenophobia are on the rise. If the US gets its wish for a clash with Iran, the Shia majority in Iraq is poised to make life infinitely worse for the over-stretched occupation.

Clumsy US planners, allowed to do what they please, are snared within their self-created web of contradictions. The pity is that members of the Bush administration behave more like fundamentalist cult members than sensible diplomats willing to cut their losses or readjust to realities.

The GOP will hang on

By Niall Ferguson

WILL it only be the leaves that descend this fall? Or could some Republican legislators also end up being swept into piles and incinerated? At first sight, the omens are good for the Democrats in November’s midterm elections. Gallup’s national poll of voting intentions has given them a 10-point lead over the Republicans for most of the last year.

The obvious explanation is gloom about Iraq, which remains the No. 1 issue in voters’ minds. President Bush defended his policy trenchantly in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of 9/11, but his approval rating has improved only slightly as a result.

Then there’s the economy. If that proves to be the key issue of this campaign, the Democrats look unstoppable. Voters give them a 12-point advantage when it comes to handling the economy, and twice as big a lead on Social Security. Small wonder so many of my liberal colleagues have a spring in their step.

Asked if they feel more enthusiastic than usual about voting, 56 per cent of Democrats say they do, compared with just 43 per cent of Republicans.

For three good reasons, however, I expect the Dems to be disappointed — just as they were two years ago.

First, on closer inspection, Iraq is still far from being a vote winner for Democrats. Many Americans still believe that invading Iraq was a rational response to 9/11, even if evidence to link Saddam Hussein to the perpetrators is conspicuous by its absence. So they buy Bush’s notion of Iraq as the “central front” in the war on terror. Moreover, when asked which party they trust to wage that war, they prefer the Republicans to the Democrats by a margin of 14 per cent.

Crucially, if asked to choose between a Republican who wants to maintain troop levels in Iraq and a Democrat seeking “immediate and orderly withdrawal,” 48 per cent of voters plump for the Republican and just 41 per cent for the Democrat. Americans may want troop reductions; they are not ready to cut and run. If the Republicans can portray their opponents as favouring withdrawal, they win the Iraq argument.

Second, despite widespread fears over the summer, the US economy looks to be landing softly. Growth has slowed, not stopped.

Consumption is still growing, as are earnings. Sure, inflation is up, but unemployment is down (4.7 per cent compared with 4.9 per cent a year ago), and crude oil prices have dropped sharply since August, easing the pain Americans feel when they fill up their cars. The stock market has bounced back since the dog days of July. The threatened real estate crash has failed to materialise, though house prices have certainly cooled.

And to appease those Americans who blame their economic difficulties on immigration, squabbling Republicans in Congress have sidelined the president’s plan for a partial amnesty for illegal immigrants.

In most democratic systems, of course, that kind of internal dissension causes parties to lose credibility. But thanks to the constitutional separation of powers, party unity matters less here. Indeed, under Karl Rove’s direction, the Republican Party is adopting its own strategy of separation, allowing legislators to do whatever it takes — including, if necessary, criticizing their own president — to ensure their own political survival. This is the third and most important reason to expect a non-event in November.

It’s an old adage that in the United States all politics are local. That’s even more true today than it was a generation ago. Gerrymandering has tended to increase the political homogeneity of most electoral districts. This in turn increases the chances that incumbents will be reelected. Once a district has a critical mass of either Republicans or Democrats, the key to victory is to mobilise the “base” of active voters. There’s much less need to woo floating voters from the centre, who may in any case fail to turn out on election day. This trend explains why there’s less bipartisan cooperation in Congress than there used to be. It also explains why legislators don’t hesitate to badmouth the president if they feel he’s out of tune with local sentiment.

In one of last week’s primary contests, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island comfortably saw off a conservative challenger in a primary. Chafee, deemed more palatable to general election voters in November, was backed by the national party despite being one of the party’s inveterate Bush bashers.

The big question is whether or not the strategy of separation can work in two years’ time, when voters have to elect a new president. It’s a challenge. Separation is one thing; a split personality is another.

For the Republican candidate in ‘08, it might actually be better if the Democrats did well in the midterms, because a brief return to power on the Hill would expose their chronic incoherence, making the case for a Republican comeback two years down the line. That scenario, however, is not on the cards. The leaves may be falling in George Bush’s America, but the Republicans look like they’re hanging on. —Dawn/Los Angeles Times Service



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