On the 11th of September 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial flights in the US in order to deliberately crash the planes into prominent American buildings. Three of the four hit their targets, crashing into both the North and South Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan as well as the Pentagon in Virginia.
In total, 2,977 innocent people lost their lives and all 19 al-Qaeda terrorists onboard the flights died. The number of people injured was far higher, not to mention the post-traumatic stress that many civilians and emergency responders would later face.
Al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, later detailed the motivations behind the attacks in his “Letter to America” in 2002. He defended fighting against the Americas by citing actions of the US, such as attacking Muslims and occupying their lands. He quoted the Qur’an to support his claim that Muslims can respond to aggression with aggression. Bin Laden also called on the Americans to accept Islam and to cease all forms of oppression.
It is important to distinguish between al-Qaeda and the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, but they have allegedly been bound by a pledge of allegiance since the 1990s. His concluding thoughts in the letter are thus particularly harrowing now:
“If the Americans refuse to listen to our advice and the goodness, guidance and righteousness that we call them to, then be aware that you will lose this Crusade Bush began, just like the other previous Crusades in which you were humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen, fleeing to your home in great silence and disgrace.”
It is an expectation of the Taliban to prevent groups like al-Qaeda from operating on Afghanistan soil, though we will have to wait and see if this materialises.
The circumstances surrounding 9/11 and its aftermath are significant in many ways but I would like to draw attention to three ways in particular.
Firstly, 9/11 exemplified how terrorism, like many other phenomena, could be globalised. Globalisation is the process in which exchanges of many forms can increase interconnectivity between countries and continents. A major contributor to globalisation is indeed air travel and this was the very vehicle through which the attacks of 9/11 were carried out.
In the same way, information is spread far more easily than in 2001. Social media has enabled individuals and groups to connect despite being on other sides of the globe. Consequently, extremist ideology can be shared at the simple press of a button, motivating others to carry out acts of terror.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the head of MI5, Ken McCallum, warned that the recent events in Afghanistan have likely “emboldened” terrorists in the UK. Besides this, which
he described as an “immediate inspirational effect,” he claimed that terrorists may facilitate more “well-developed, sophisticated plots of the sort that we faced in 9/11 and the years thereafter.”
Secondly, in terms of the aftermath of 9/11, these acts of terror became a significant impetus fuelling the global phenomenon of Islamophobia; the fear or hatred of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. In a news article released by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, this reality was reiterated as recently as March this year:
“Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and other horrific acts of terrorism purportedly carried out in the name of Islam, institutional suspicion of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim has escalated to epidemic proportions, a UN expert told the Human Rights Council today.”
Such suspicion is not limited to the US but has had many faces over the past 20 years. Some argue that this has manifested at a state level. France has been heavily criticised, for example, after its senate called for the “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men.”
This has seemingly perpetuated the perception that Muslim women wearing a hijab or burqa are to be viewed with suspicion, that they have something to conceal, or are symbols of female oppression. This perception, and also that of Muslim men, is what has defined the racial profiling of many Muslims and ethnic minorities as they pass through airport security.
In the UK, advocacy groups like Hope Not Hate have shown that hate crimes against Muslims tend to increase following acts of terror that are claimed to be carried out in the name of Islam. Islamophobia in the UK is closely associated with other forms of discrimination, with assaults on Sikhs who are mistaken for Muslims and with pre-existing, anti-Pakistani sentiments evolving into Islamophobia.
The normalisation of Islamophobia as a result of the acts of extremist groups is also expressed through the scapegoating of Muslims in response to other crises. For example, in India, it was claimed that Muslims were waging a “Corona Jihad” by deliberately transmitting COVID-19. This was originally because Indian authorities claimed that there were many positive cases among one large congregation of Muslims. A consequence of this was violent attacks against Indian Muslims.
To be clear, terrorism should never be excused, but it ought never to be used to justify violence against a group of people in which only a minority are terrorists. Those who do are just as closed-minded as the al-Qaeda terrorists themselves, who justified 9/11 out of a belief that each and every American was responsible for crimes against Muslims.
Third and finally, 9/11 changed the trajectory of political and diplomatic discourse in the Western world. The separation of Church and State had meant that, in many countries, religion was largely relegated to the private sphere and discouraged from appearing in the public sphere.
This is strictly applied in France through laïcité and, in part, explains the aforementioned treatment of religious symbols.
But, with 9/11, religion was suddenly thrust into the public sphere. The US wanted to protect its people and its own values when faced with a force that opposed everything that the US stood for and that sought to convert Americans to Islam as a purer form of living.
The idea that Western epistemology was the ‘correct’ way to view the world was called into question. Other countries and forces, if they are to be truly understood, could no longer be approached solely through a mindset which denied religion as irrational and separate from politics. Bin Laden’s letter shows that his response to many of the US’ political decisions was negative because of his religious sentiments, not in spite of them.
The importance of theology and religious studies was thus emphasised because, without it, there could be no hope of truly understanding the US’ enemy. Simply jeering at religion is not a responsible option.
With this understanding comes responsibility, because a knowledge of theology also allows us to fight the above mentioned phenomenon of Islamophobia. Just because extremists claim to be engaging in jihad in the name of Allah, does not mean that they are. Imams and Islamic scholars have long responded to and condemned acts of so-called Islamist terror by reminding the world what Islam is truly about: peace and charity.
So, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we must be aware of how our globalised world makes terrorism and extremist ideology that much easier to widely propagate. How acts of terror in the name of Islam have come to polarise our world and wrongly turn communities against one another. And how we were reminded that religion is an important part of this world and should not be sidelined from political and diplomatic considerations.
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