9/11 in Historical Perspective

On 11 September 2001, two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, killing 2,752 people. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon Building in Washington, D.C., killing 184. A fourth, possibly headed for the White House or the Capitol, crashed in rural Pennsylvania, killing all aboard.

Soon thereafter, President George W. Bush declared a global war on terror, targeting the mastermind of the crime, Osama bin Laden. American troops entered Afghanistan to destroy bin Laden's support network and associates there and to kill or capture bin Laden. They deposed the government of Afghanistan, which was controlled by a militant Islamic group, the Taliban, and hunted operatives of al-Qaeda, bin Laden's terrorist organization, which had found sanctuary in that country. Then, in the spring of 2003, the United States opened up a new front in the war on terror — Iraq. Although no substantive links between bin Laden or al-Qaeda and the government of Iraq have ever been established, one of the oft-repeated rationales for going to war in Iraq was, in the words of George W. Bush, that it is “better to fight the terrorists over there than over here.” The statistics from the war on terror are grim. As of this writing, over five thousand American soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; estimates of Afghan civilian and noncivilian casualties run between fifty thousand and 650,000; and estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties range from approximately one hundred thousand to over one million. From 2001 through 2009, Congress appropriated almost a trillion dollars to pay for costs associated with waging the two campaigns, and one highly regarded study estimates that the Iraq war alone will end up costing American taxpayers more than three trillion dollars. Adding insult to injury, at the moment bin Laden still remains at large.

As anyone who watches the news or reads a newspaper knows, this is a period of extraordinary turmoil in the Middle East. Those policy makers who had argued for the overthrow of the government of Iraq believed that the invasion would be a cakewalk and that the United States could quickly transform Iraq into a regional model of democracy. The facts tell a different story. Although “Operation Iraqi Freedom” proved successful in toppling the Iraqi government, the postwar occupation floundered as a result of poor planning and inadequate manpower and preparation. By the spring of 2004 coalition forces found themselves first confronting a reinvigorated insurgency, then sectarian violence. After a troop surge in 2007, concentrated in Baghdad, violence did diminish, but skeptics argue that the troop surge and new tactics were only half the story, at best. The other half was the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the city, which separated communities and emptied neighborhoods of their inhabitants, and the “standing down” of the largest militia in the country — neither of which bodes well for the future unity and stability of Iraq. In the meantime, disputes over the distribution of oil revenue, provincial boundaries and autonomy, and the power of the central government, make Iraq more a model of brittleness than a model of democracy to be emulated.

Similar problems dog Afghanistan. After its initial rout, the Taliban regrouped to battle rival warlords and NATO troops for power. It also has battled for control over the 92 percent of the worlds supply of illicit opium now produced in Afghanistan (up from 75 percent in 2001), which the Taliban and its rivals use to finance their military operations. And although elections have been held, one would be hard pressed to decide which was more corrupt and fraud-riddled: the 2009 election for the president of Afghanistan or the 2009 election for the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There has been turmoil as well outside the main arena of the war on terror. In 1993, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to hammer out their differences through face-to-face diplomacy. When that effort failed, the Israeli government decided that it might end the fifty-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict by constructing a wall (literally) between Israelis and Palestinians, withdrawing from some occupied land, and setting Israel's boundaries unilaterally. By the summer of 2006, tensions between Israel and Islamic groups to both the north and south escalated into all-out war. It soon became apparent that neither a negotiated settlement nor an imposed one would be imminent. Then there is Iran: After eight years under a reformist government that had promised democratization at home and moderation in international affairs, the political tide shifted. A new government came to power which resurrected the slogans from the revolutionary era, pursued the enrichment of uranium in defiance of the international community, and began projecting Iranian influence throughout the region. And far from being the panacea for American woes in the Middle East, elections, such as those held in Palestine, Algeria, and Egypt, have only demonstrated the popular appeal of Islamic parties. How are these phenomena to be explained?

The argument of this book is twofold: First, the only way to understand contemporary events is to understand the history of the region that has become the focus of so much attention. Specifically, this book argues that recent events cannot be understood unless one understands the social, economic, cultural, and political evolution of the Middle East, particularly during the modern period — the period that began in the eighteenth century but has roots that stretch back as far as the sixteenth. Second, this book contends that the Middle East does not stand outside global history, that the social, economic, cultural, and political evolution of the region parallels (but does not necessarily duplicate) developments in other regions of the world, and that therefore events in the Middle East cannot fully be understood unless placed within their international context. To put it another way, historians specializing in the Middle East certainly have a story to tell, but it is a global story told in a local vernacular.

Although these two propositions would appear to be self-evident, a number of scholars, politicians, and pundits have offered alternative explanations for contemporary events. Some have conjured up something they call an “Islamic civilization,” whose main characteristic seems to be an implacable hatred toward the West and modernity. Perhaps the most famous advocate of this position was Samuel P. Huntington, professor of government at Harvard University. According to Huntington, the world is divided into a number of distinct civilizations which are irreconcilable because they hold to entirely different value systems. Islamic civilization, Huntington asserted, is particularly dangerous because of its propensity for violence (Islam, in Huntington's words, has “bloody borders”). For Huntington and his disciples, the dramatic events of 11 September offer proof positive that Western and Islamic civilizations are doomed to engage in a fight to the death.

Huntington's “clash of civilizations” thesis found a wide audience in the aftermath of 9/11. Nevertheless, it is open to criticism on a number of grounds. First, Huntington fails to take into account the diversity of the Islamic world. There are, after all, numerous ways Muslims practice their Islam, and there are numerous cultures with which Islam has interacted. This brings us to the second problem with Huntington's thesis: Cultures are not billiard balls that bounce off each other when they come into contact. Throughout history, cultures have borrowed from and influenced each other. During the Middle Ages, for example, Arab philosophers kept alive ancient Greek texts that later provided the foundation for the European Renaissance. Interactions such as this make one despair of ever drawing distinct boundaries for any “culture” or “civilization”—which is why many scholars have abandoned those concepts entirely. Finally, Huntington's thesis is ahistorical. For Huntington and his disciples, the values of Islamic civilization are unchanging and are spelled out in the foundational texts of Islam (such as the Qur´an). But why are we to assume that the meaning and social function of Islam have not changed over time as circumstances have changed? Why are we to assume that a Muslim of the twenty-first century would approach those foundational texts in the same way as a Muslim of the seventh century?

One of the more practical critiques of Huntington's thesis has come, believe it or not, from American presidents and policy makers attempting to come to terms with the post-9/11 world. As George W. Bush stated on a number of occasions, and as Barack Obama reiterated in 2009 in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world, America's problem is not with Islam per se. If that were the case, America's purported goal in the Middle East of promoting democracy and freedom — two values they deem universal — would be futile. Instead, it has been asserted that America's problem is with a radical interpretation of Islam — what Bush and his supporters saddled with the unfortunate label “Islamo-fascism,” and what the Obama administration has termed, with a touch of redundancy, “violent extremism.” The real Islam, they publicly contend, is a religion of peace. If only moderate Muslim leaders would step up to the plate, they argue, if only those leaders would wrest control of the hearts and minds of the “Arab street” from the radicals who have hijacked Islam, democracy would spread among benighted Muslims and terrorism aimed at Americans and others would cease.

Of course, a number of Muslim leaders have stepped up to the plate. Some have disputed the authority of self-appointed religious experts from the radical fringes to make pronouncements on religious matters (bin Laden, for example, did not learn much theology as an economics major in college). Along with some academic scholars of Islam, these leaders also challenge the radicals' argument that their interpretation of Islam is the one true interpretation of Islam.

Take the concept of jihad — a concept central to bin Laden's pronouncements. Those associated with al-Qaeda read into jihad meanings alien to most mainstream Islamic scholars, if not most Muslims. For example, al-Qaeda views armed struggle against Islam's enemies as a personal obligation to be undertaken by all Muslims. Their reasoning is that waging a defensive jihad is incumbent on all when the Islamic community is under attack — as it has been, they claim, since the beginning of the Reconquista (the Christian reconquest of Spain). For them, jihad-as-armed-struggle is a sixth (neglected) pillar of the faith, and those who do not undertake it cannot be considered true Muslims. Most mainstream jurists, on the other hand, have viewed armed struggle under the present circumstances as a responsibility to be delegated to proper authorities, such as governments and their armed forces. It is not to be delegated to just anyone old enough to carry an AK-47 or strap on a bomb. And most jurists associate any litmus test for being a true Muslim with the renegade Kharajite sect of the first Islamic century. According to those jurists, the Kharajites' gravest sin was that they sowed the seeds of fitna (discord) in the community by doing what bin Laden and others do: pronouncing Muslims they disagree with to be non-Muslims, and thus rendering them suitable for killing.

In light of such arguments and their conventionality, one might flip Huntington's clash-of-civilizations theory on its head and ask why al-Qaeda's message resonates at all among the inhabitants of the Middle East. Or one might even fine-tune the question and ask what exactly it is that has found resonance in the region.

Let us begin our answers with some polling data. Surveys conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project from 2002 to 2009 found that starting from an initial high there has been a steady erosion of support for bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the Middle East and wider Islamic world (excluding, for some reason, Nigeria). For example, in answer to the question, “How much confidence do you have in Osama bin Laden to do the right thing regarding world affairs?” the percentage of those answering “a lot” or ”some” fell by at least a half — and sometimes, by quite a bit more, depending on the country. How is this decline to be explained? One reading of the polls is that the first findings were made on the heels of 9/11 and reflected what Germans call Schadenfreude (delight in another's misfortune). The last surveys, conducted in the wake of far too much al-Qaeda-induced savagery with far too little to show for it, reflected something akin to “buyer's remorse.”

But why Schadenfreude in the first place? Although Americans and Europeans like to think of themselves as the heirs to the Enlightenment traditions of democracy and tolerance, many in the Middle East have experienced otherwise at Western hands. What they see is that after centuries of European imperialism, the United States has simply picked up where the Europeans left off. While the United States proclaims its benevolent intentions, many in the region see the opposite in America's unquenchable thirst for oil and support for Israel. While the United States declares its goal in the region to be the spread of democracy, many in the Middle East remember the American role in overthrowing a democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 and, more recently, America's boycott of a democratically elected government of the Palestinian Authority. And while American leaders weep crocodile tears over human rights, many in the region have paid a high price for America's support of every king and tinhorn dictator from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan whose friendship furthers American interests. Little wonder, then, that so many in the Middle East treat America's assurances of goodwill with skepticism.

There are other factors that have contributed to that skepticism as well. Beginning in the 1960s, the Middle East has been hit by a number of debilitating shocks. First, the populist regimes of the 1950s and 1960s — like the regime of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser in Egypt — which had seemed to promise so much for so many ended up delivering so little. This was pardy caused by their own authoritarian tendencies and the inefficiencies of centralized economic planning, which those regimes encouraged. But just as important, one must count the pressures put on those regimes by the United States, which, during the cold war, viewed them as real or potential Soviet pawns in the high stakes “game of nations” (as one cold warrior called it).

Then came the “oil revolution” of the 1970s, a revolution that was sparked by a nearly 400 percent increase in oil prices in 1973-1974. The oil revolution promised to transform social and economic relations of the region. Instead, the oil revolution consolidated the position of America and America's conservative allies in the Middle East, increased the despotic capabilities of governments in the region, and widened the gulf between rich and poor, both within and among the nations of the region. It also opened up the region to the worst consumerist and free market dogmas and brought little of what might be considered a positive social transformation. Ironically, one of the few accomplishments of the oil revolution was to provide financial support for the bin Laden family. And then the oil bubble popped anyway, leaving broken promises in its wake.

This is not to say that the inhabitants of the Middle East have been passive observers of events. During the period from the 1950s through the 1970s, many in the region looked to secular national liberation movements (like the National Liberation Front [Front de libération nationale, FLN] in Algeria or the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO]) or to nationalist movements (such as those that have represented Arab, Egyptian, Iranian, etc., national aspirations) to challenge Western intrusion, social and political inequity, and economic backwardness. Many still do. But by the late 1970s, secular national liberation and nationalist movements began losing popular support to mass-based Islamic movements for a number of reasons. First, in all too many places in the region, the reputations of secular nationalist regimes had been marred by corruption, inefficiency, and brutality. Islamic movements have offered the beleaguered inhabitants of the Middle East an alternative. Second, during the late 1970s, the United States and international financial institutions not only began preaching the gospel of economic liberalization, they began pressuring increasingly destitute secular nationalist regimes to abandon responsibilities they had assumed in earlier decades. Islamic movements, financed in part by newly enriched oil-exporting states like Saudi Arabia, eagerly stepped into the breach. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Hizbullah, and Hamas built loyal constituencies by providing the medical, educational, and welfare assistance that states in the region could not or would no longer provide. Furthermore, every success scored by one or another Islamic movement provided encouragement to imitators across national boundaries, much as the Algerian Revolution and Nasser had done in earlier decades. After the revolution in Iran, Hizbullah emerged in Lebanon; after Hizbullah emerged in Lebanon, Hamas began its meteoric rise in Palestine. Finally, it did not hurt that Islamic groups addressed popular expectations in a language that seemed more “genuine,” more “authentically Middle Eastern,” than the secular nationalist language of the regimes they have opposed.

Nevertheless, the highly touted “return of Islam” (as some call it) cannot be used as Exhibit A to prove the Islamic world's natural aversion to modernity, as Huntington and his disciples have done. Just the opposite: Islamic movements are thoroughly modern. They are thoroughly modern, first of all, because they were generated by twentieth-century conditions. For example, Islamic movements are, for the most part, urban movements. They would have been impossible without the enormous growth of urban concentrations in the region — a relatively recent development in Middle Eastern history. These urban concentrations have provided Islamic movements with a prime recruitment ground for an endless stream of underemployed and disaffected activists and supporters. Islamic movements must also be considered modern because they have adopted organizational and operational strategies followed by comparable twentieth- and twenty-first century mass movements. They also address twentieth- and twenty-first century expectations, such as the expectation that social justice and social welfare are fundamental rights to be enjoyed by all and that ensuring those rights should be a primary responsibility of every political system.

The problem is that we are so blinded by associating modernity with the particular historical evolution of the West that we are unable to understand that these movements are offering alternative approaches to modernity. More precisely, the twin towers upon which the modern age rests are an integrated and global economic system and a world system of nation-states. Islamic movements do not offer an alternative to these systems. Indeed, when they do offer a program, they end up — consciously or not — inserting that program within the current economic and state systems. No “Islamic economic system” has been presented or even devised, in spite of all the rhetoric about an “Islamic Third Way.” No alternative to the state system has been presented or devised either: Hamas fights for the liberation of Palestine, Hizbullah for the sovereignty of Lebanon. A faction within the Taliban even sought representation for the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in the United Nations (it never happened).

If it is hard to imagine bin Laden seeking a seat at the United Nations, it is because al-Qaeda represents a totally different type of movement from those we have been discussing. True, al-Qaeda, like Hamas and Hizbullah, for example, communicates its message in an Islamic idiom. And true, this idiom often acts as a road map demarcating proscribed and prescribed tactics and strategies for all three movements. But that is where the similarities end. Unlike Hamas or Hizbullah, al-Qaeda has not organized a mass-based political machine, nor has it built a network of social welfare organizations. While Hamas and Hizbullah wage campaigns of national liberation, al-Qaeda identifies with no particular national struggle nor, for that matter, with national struggles in general. And while Hamas won an election and later seized power in Gaza by force, and while Hizbullah has similarly won seats in the Lebanese parliament and even cabinet positions in the Lebanese government, it is unthinkable that al-Qaeda, for all its denunciations of impious governments in the region, would do likewise. Unlike other movements that use the language of Islam, al-Qaeda does not operate within the international state and economic systems. Rather, it wars on those systems.

Instead of comparing al-Qaeda with Hamas or Hizbullah, then, it might be more fruitful to examine the resemblance between al-Qaeda and various anarchist groups that have come and gone in the West. A number of scholars have already suggested two points of comparison: First, anarchists have often organized themselves in decentralized networks rather than in structured units. So does al-Qaeda. And, less frequently but still often enough, anarchists have engaged in acts of symbolic violence (what some nineteenth-century anarchists called “propaganda of the deed”) to energize and mobilize “the masses.” Once again, so does al-Qaeda. That's what 9/11 was all about.

These are, however, only superficial resemblances. There is a third, more elemental point of comparison: Both anarchist groups and al-Qaeda hold a distinctive worldview that is both defensive and anti-systemic. In other words, both view their actions as a response to an oppressive system, and the destruction of that system is the single-minded objective of both. Neither shows more than a passing interest in anything beyond that. Anarchists have commonly identified the capitalist system, the nation-state system, or, most recently, the “globalized world order” as the source of oppression to be overthrown. For al-Qaeda, it is the “Zionist-Crusader alliance,” the world order it has imposed, and the aggression it is committing against Islam. Whatever. The idioms might differ, but the philosophies are much the same. Here, for example, is bin Laden on 9/11:

One of the most important positive effects of the attacks on New York and Washington was that they revealed the truth about the struggle between the Crusaders and Muslims, and they revealed the immense hostility the Crusaders feel toward us. The attacks demonstrated that America was really a wolf in sheep's clothing and revealed the truth of its hideousness. The entire world awakened from its sleep, and Muslims awoke to the importance of the doctrine that God alone defined their friendships and enmities. Thus was the spirit of brotherhood amongst Muslims strengthened, which might be considered a huge step toward the unification of Muslims under the oneness of God and toward the establishment of the rightly guided caliphate, should God will it.

Now, substitute the words “capitalist,” “worker,” “class struggle,” and “freedom,” for “Crusader,” “Muslim,” “God,” and “rightly guided caliphate,” respectively, and see what you get.

Viewing al-Qaeda in familiar political terms rather than as some inexplicable “Islamic thing” demystifies it. So does linking whatever cachet al-Qaeda initially enjoyed in the Middle East to identifiable historical processes (such as the long-term effects of imperialism and the ordeals of decolonization) rather than to a stagnant Islamic civilization averse to modernity. After all, no purported civilization (if there is such a thing) has the luxury of exempting itself from that which has affected us all. As I put it before, historians specializing in the Middle East certainly have a story to tell, but it is a global story told in a local vernacular. And it is to that story we now turn.

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