Events of September 11: Thoughts and Emotions (Part II)

We are passing through a weak phase in our history and we should not feel the need to defend every Muslim for any action. Unfortunately, some Muslims can do certain things that are not only forbidden in themselves, but can also lead to the dishonouring of Islam and threaten the safety of other Muslims. We cannot say on these occasions that we must defend our co-religionists at all costs. We have to have some moral standards that do not reflect a base nationalism; our ethics have to override our sense of community. In fact, this is what is needed for the whole of mankind. The ‘ulama have all condemned the actions of September 11, and it needs to be understood that if there is a particular way of thinking through Islamic law that can lead to this, then we have to understand it, analyse it and then condemn it also. Akbar Ahmed’s book, Postmodernism and Islam is one of the lesser attempts at tackling one of the key issues of the modern age. Sayyid and Sardar are better. [35] However, Ahmed does say one thing that I believe is pertinent to the current Muslim predicament. He says that the media may succeed in changing Muslim character. I believe that they have, to our detriment. Angry, suspicious, closed-hearted, fearful, narrow-minded, ignorant (frankly), impatient. I know and understand why we have become like this, but I, all praise be to Allah, have moved on, and I urge others to do so. The Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn Ata’illah says in his Hikam: “The source of every single disobedience is being pleased with oneself.” It is time that we recognised our own faults.

The media not only distort character, they also distort our analysis of the situation. Can there be any doubt that our proposed solutions to the Muslim predicament are determined heavily by the media focus upon crisis events, victims, and violence? Does this not valorise a political/military solution (hence the rapid rise of such groups during the nineties)? Instead, the Qur’an says: “Verily, Allah does not change a situation of a people until they change what is in themselves.” Perhaps the media makes us conveniently shift the focus away from ourselves, for indeed are we not responsible for our situation? Iqbal’s Jawab-i Shikwa, written almost a hundred years ago, is perhaps as relevant today as then: “If you are faithful to Muhammad, then I am yours. This world is nothing, the tablet and the pen will become yours.”

I fear that as the situation progresses, we will let the media decide our agenda for us. A similar thing happened during the Rushdie affair. Muslims began to support Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa even though Sunni Islam had a different fatwa. Because the media were asking “Whose side are you on?”, many Muslims, by jumping quickly through a few logical hoops, decided that they were for Khomeini. Similarly, we have to be careful that the media do not push us to argue for positions that are simply forbidden - haram. That is, that in order to defend Islam from the accusations of non-Muslims, we decide to take up positions which distort the Islamic perspective.

The last decade or so has seen the increasing radicalisation of the Muslim position, especially within the British national public sphere. This can be demonstrated by referring to the choice representative of national newspapers of “Islamic fundamentalism.” The first such representative was Kalim Siddiqui who was probably the most radical and strong-minded defender of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa during the Rushdie affair. The second choice representative was Omar Bakri Mohammed, a former leader of Hizb ut-Tehrir and now leader of the al-Muhajiroun faction, who is assertive in his pronouncements, but generally against the use of violence. The third is Abu Hamza al Masri, a spokesman for the Salafi Jihad movement, who is more assertive still and believes in the use of violence. Kalim Siddiqui was popular in the early nineties, though he gave way to Omar Bakri Muhammad in approximately 1993-1994, while Omar Bakri Muhammad gave way to Abu Hamza in the late nineties. All three represent small minority affiliations in the Muslim community. This progressive radicalisation of the Muslim representative was paralleled by the accompanying radicalisation of Muslim youth after the Gulf War, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Palestine. The events of September 11 reversed this process. The death and destruction seemed to be at the hands of Muslims. There was now a tendency towards moderation as many Muslims began to decry the radicalised alternative, “We must stop this madness!” But the bombing of Afghanistan put a stop to that too.

Reading the media over the last two months or so has made me realise how much the radicals and the Islamophobes need each other. One such Islamophobe, Kilroy-Silk, had decided to focus one of his complex television discussion programmes on the issue of Muslims in Britain fighting against the British alongside the Taliban. Omar Bakri Mohamed had been invited to join the discussion. A campaign (mainly by Muslims) began to e-mail, phone and fax those involved with the production of the programme in order to persuade them to prevent Omar Bakri Mohamed from participating. Eventually the campaigners succeeded, but Kilroy-Silk was furious (cf. his article in the Express on Sunday, 11 November). I felt while reading his article that perhaps there is a symbiotic relationship between Islamophobes and extremists. They need each other.

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There are calls for a Muslim reformation. What do they mean? Where is the Islamic Catholic church whose authority should be challenged? Is it not the absence of religious authority that has brought us to where we are? So what is meant, demanded, by this call? The last person on earth whom Muslims would be prepared to listen to on such issues is Salman Rushdie, a Pip to modernity’s Miss Haversham (“I would do anything to please you, Madam”). Yet he wrote in the Guardian (3 November) “Let’s start calling a spade a spade…”, meaning that this is indeed a war against Islam, and “the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which their countries’ freedom will remain a distant dream.” Perhaps this is what is meant by a Muslim reformation: secularism, not scripturalism. But to what extent should Islam be modified for it to be deemed acceptable? Could somebody please provide a list of all appropriate changes that we should make in order to become worthy citizens of this new moral order? Of course, I jest. Let’s call a spade a spade. Islam doesn’t need to take on board secularist-humanist principles, this would never be sufficient, for secularist-humanists have problems with basic religious beliefs such as God and accountability in the Hereafter. It is not the legal periphery of Islam that is the problem, it is its spiritual centre. As we have seen in Britain, the adoption of such an approach has led to the demise of religion itself.

The call for a Muslim reformation is in one sense a call for a liberal Islam. The subjugation of Islam to the heart’s command may provide opportunities for the emergence of liberal Islam, but it is the same hermeneutic that leads to an Islam that advocates violence. Rendering the interpretation of law to the heart’s desire may not lead to the desired outcome. In fact, the present political climate tilts the balance heavily away from any conciliatory interpretation of Islam, quite the opposite. But the line that establishes the Western moral position (if there is such a thing) is in a perpetual state of motion. Are all others condemned to play catch up from now on? Or will they be permitted to establish themselves as alternatives? If others are to play catch up, then maybe one way that they could try to break ahead is by asking what is post post-modernism and making sure they get there first? Ultimately though, Islam has a stronger historical claim than liberalism, having lasted longer while establishing itself across a wider spectrum of cultures. Islam doesn’t require a reformation; liberalism needs to de-centre itself.

The cinematographic power of the images of September 11 could perhaps be explained as modernity’s hara-kiri. The world watches two planes fly into the Twin Towers on TV through satellite communication. Is this the end of modernity? Is this what is meant by the numerous references to “the challenge to our whole way of life”? Were the events of September 11 the result of modernity’s disregarded children returning to their homes? Or perversely, were they the championing of modernity? That modernity could only be attacked through modernity itself - thus establishing it as the sole surviving grand narrative? That, in its moment of supreme weakness, modernity established its universal strength? Or is it all about postmodernism and Islam? How strange that the images on our TVs fluctuate between the city that symbolises postmodernism unlike any other, New York, and the villages of Afghanistan that symbolise the most pre-modern of eras. It is as if the trajectory of progress is being narrated visually. I wonder if bombing Afghanistan would have been so easy if it had been a modern or postmodern country? Or does it make it more difficult? Do their traditionalism and clear Otherness facilitate our bombing? Or does their poverty make us gulp out of shame? Probably both.

About the Taliban themselves and the numerous stories concerning their ultra-Otherness, I am sceptical. Remember the “babies-in-incubator” story that was employed prior to the Gulf War to demonstrate Iraqi barbarism, and which later turned about to be false? Politics and the media, already as siamese twins, tend to merge into one body during war efforts. I remember Malcolm X’s comment about the Japanese (or the Germans?) and the Russians, and how the American media so swiftly switched public opinion pre-1945 and post-1945, and wonder whether the same is not happening now. Were the Taliban not welcomed a few years ago by the US embassy in Islamabad as a stabilising force? The numerous photographs, TV footage and eyewitness accounts are to be taken with a pinch of salt. I am not saying that the media lie, they only strategically misrepresent.

Strategic misrepresentation? Let me give you an example. The Ouseley Report [36] published in Bradford in the aftermath of this year’s riots was extensively covered in the media. A salient claim was that religious schools in Bradford have led to segregation and in fact are implicitly the cause of the race riots (see The Observer, September 30). This point has been repeated again and again, especially as evidence against the government’s proposed scheme to expand the number of faith schools, and became a sub-narrative to the September 11 attacks. The report, however, also includes the following points: there is a white flight from ‘Asian inner city’ areas towards the suburbs (point 2.5.1), Islamophobia is regarded as prevalent in the schools and community (point 2.5.5) and the police “collude with non-intervention” in the drugs problem (point 2.5.10). These points are never mentioned, even in the liberal press. Instead, the blame is laid at the door of the sole Muslim school in Bradford that is supposed to have caused the riots. It is a girl’s school. Correct me if I am wrong, but I didn’t see any girls rioting. The mass of non-Muslim readers, not knowing any better, would have been content with the story of religion yet again dividing and disrupting society. The truth of the matter is far more complicated, and much less gratifying. The point about Algeria mentioned earlier is relevant here. The denial of freedom in the name of freedom through the distortion of facts is happening in front of our very eyes.

So the Afghanis can taste freedom now. Cinemas, pop music, how could anybody tolerate life with such huge absences? A question that I ask myself is to what extent Afghanistan should approximate to Western cultural practice for the various Western lobbies to be satisfied? (I know, I’m homogenising Western culture.) Polly Toynbee’s article “Behind the burka” in the Guardian (28 September) was an angry critique of the treatment of women in Afghanistan. Reading the article again, it is obvious that her ink must have burnt from the intensity of her hatred. It couldn’t have taken her long to write it. Anyway, that evening the television schedule offered the following choices at approximately 11 pm. BBC1: Jo Brand. ITV1: Lily Savage. CH4: Graham Norton. What does this say about gender in Western culture, except that it is somewhere between swings and roundabouts. Perhaps, that’s what irks some intolerant feminists so much, that Islam provides a reasonable, working model for gender. [37] Holding up the burka in order to shoot it down helps the intolerant feminist avoid facing the consequences of gender disruption (which have yet to be assessed).

If the key question is: How do we make the world safer, then immediate and obvious answers are: American troop withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, a ceasing of intelligence agency interference in Muslim countries especially in relation to the move towards representative and accountable government, a return of Israel to pre-1967 borders at least, secure environmental protocols, and fairer global economic trade agreements. Long term answers relate to shifts in industries reliant upon oil and warfare. Can the world’s brains not think up alternative ways of making money? Those who read books know this. But the game of modern-day politics is to avoid the obvious and excuse the inexcusable. I ask myself two questions as I listen to the experts: “How close do they get?” and “What excuses will they offer?” The second question is the linguistic equivalent of hide and seek. Self-explanatory? Perhaps these two strategies could be called the strategies of prevarication and containment. A third question that I ask myself is, “Do they know any better?”

Terrorism is inherently related to fear. The fear of disruption, disorder, chaos. The violation of our structured world, our life, our concerns, our … Where does this “our” end? It ends probably where the threat of terrorism begins. A fear of disorder that was realised so spectacularly on September 11. “Things have changed forever.” Have they? If the US had not bombed Afghanistan, then maybe. But they did. And at that moment Usama bin Laden won the war. A rich man who lives as if he is poor won the war when the richest nation on earth began to bomb one of the poorest nations on earth. So things have not changed. Well, not for the rest of the world, and for the short term anyway. Long term, things may have changed. And I think the greatest effect of the events of September 11 on the US has been and will be symbolic. A confident and secure nation will never feel the same way again. The worrying thing is that in post-moral times, the events of September 11 do provide a strong moral basis for action. But that is all that Western leaders have. And they will need much more if they wish to move beyond rhetoric. I fear as I type that I am typing in vain. Albert Camus said “If our speech has no meaning, nothing has meaning.” [38] Make no mistake about it folks, this ain’t a crusade. It’s only an escalation in the cycle of violence. Is losing language worse than losing life? The heart ordered the voice: “Hold yourself, until I say,” And the cynic ran away.
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(1) Freud, S. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (trans. J. Strachey) 14:275. London: Hogarth. 1953-1974.
(2) There is some disagreement as to the exact number of victims. The BBC in the immediate aftermath suggested that up to 50,000 could have died. However, Michael Ellison writing in the Guardian (October 28) quoted New York City officials as putting the figure at 4,964. The New York Times suggested 2,950, the USA Today proposed 2,680, the Associated Press 2,625 and the American Red Cross which had received $500 million in donations towards supporting the families of the deceased suggested 2,563. Why is it that if I were to say that there is no independent confirmation of these figures, replicating the BBC’s response to casualty figures from Afghanistan, I feel that I am somehow less of a human being?
(3) In attempting to explain how the Holocaust could have happened, social psychological studies into the nature of fascism suggested that the authoritarian personality forced the silent masses into submission (cf. Adorno, T. W. et al. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row. 1950). Any such examination today would have to include the role of the media as an agent for comatisation.
(4) Both papers can be found in: Tamimi, A. Power-sharing Islam? London: Liberty for Muslim World Publications. 1993.
(5) For further reading: Burgat, F. and Dowell, W. The Islamic Movement in North Africa. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1993.
(6) But what about Kosova? How can a Muslim explain the recent bombing of Yugoslavia by the US and Britain in order to protect a Muslim population? It certainly confounded expectations, and experience, and that is why Islamists remain mute on this issue. It remains as one example against a whole list of counter-examples. International politics and Popperian falsificationism simply don’t add up.
(7) Ali, T. and Brenton, H. Iranian Nights. 1989. Aired on Channel 4: 20 May, 10.25 pm.
(8) The consequence of a denotation of barbarism is the civilising process which requires political control and military action.
(9) Quoted on The Late Show aired on BBC2, 8 May 1989, 11.15 pm.
(10) Mannheim, K. Ideology and Utopia (Trans. E. Shils) p. 43. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1972.
(11) Ichheiser, G. ‘Misunderstandings in Human Relations: A Study in False Social Perception’. American Journal of Sociology, 55 (suppl.). 1949.
(12) For examples of how seemingly liberal ideas can be used towards illiberal ends see: Parekh, B. ‘Decolonising liberalism’, in Pieterse, J. N. and Parekh, B. (eds.) Decolonising the Imagination. London: Zed Press. 1993. Said, E. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage. 1993. Wetherell, M. and Potter, J. Mapping the Language of Racism. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester/Wheatsheaf. 1992.
(13) Pieterse, J. N. White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. London: Yale University Press. 1992.
(14) For further reading: Pereira, W. Inhuman Rights: The Western System and Global Human Rights Abuse. New York: Apex Press. 1997.
(15) George, S. Feeding the Few. Washington: Institute for Policy Studies. 1979. George, S. A Fate Worse than Debt. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1988. Shiva, V. Biopiracy. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. 1997. Shiva, V. Stolen Harvest. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. 1999.
(16) Locke, J. Two Treatises of Government , p.140. London: J. M. Dent and Sons. 1989/1690.
(17) Sayyid, B. S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism, p.118. London: Zed Books. 1997. See also a Jewish attempt to provide common ground between internal critics of the West and religious faith: Sacks, J. The Persistence of Faith: Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 1991.
(18) Giddens, A. Beyond Left and Right. Cambridge: Polity Press. 1994.
(19) Simms, B. Unfinest Hour: How Britain Helped to Destroy Bosnia. London: Penguin Press. 2001.
(20) Baudrillard, J. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications. 1995.
(21) Allport, G. W. The Nature of Prejudice. New York: Doubleday Anchor. 1954.
(22) Euben, R. L. Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1999.
(23) “Sociology suggests that you cannot have modernisation, technology, urbanisation and bureacratisation without the cultural baggage that goes with it and this baggage is essentially a post-Enlightenment system of thought”. Turner, B. S. Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism, p.8. London: Routledge. 1994.
(24) For further reading: Johnson, C. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2000.
(25) See Sardar, Z. and Davies, M. Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair. London: Grey Seal. 1990.
(26) The Telegraph published an Islam supplement on Thursday 15 November presumably to counter the misconceptions that other papers were spreading.
(27) Sayyid, B. S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. London: Zed Books. 1997.
(28) Smith, Z. White Teeth, p. 434. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 2000.
(29) Minorities have been found to appear in the news as individuals in stereotypical roles (criminals, rioters) or as members of controversial organisations; see Van Dijk, T. Racism and the Press, p.85. London: Routledge. 1991.
(30) Said, E. W. Covering Islam. London: Vintage. 1997.
(31) Grosrichard. A. The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East, p. 34-35. London: Verso. 1998.
(32) Ichheiser, G. ‘Sociopsychological and Cultural Factors in Race Relations’. American Journal of Sociology, 54, 395-399. 1949.
(33) Said, E. W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1995.
(34) Rose, D. ‘Representations of Madness on British Television: A Social Psychological Analysis’. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of London, United Kingdom. 1996.
(35) Ahmed, A. S. Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise. London: Routledge. 1992. Sardar, Z. Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture. London: Pluto Press. 1998. Sayyid, B. S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. London: Zed Books. 1997.
(36) Ouseley, H. ‘Community Pride not Prejudice: Making Diversity Work in Bradford.’ Bradford: Bradford Race Review. 2001.
(37) “…the logic of Islamism is threatening because it fails to recognise the universalism of the western project.” Sayyid, B. S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism, p. 129. London: Zed Books. 1997.
(38) Camus, A. Notebooks 1942-1951 (trans. J. O’Brien) p. 23. New York: Modern Library. 1965.

Previously published on Masud Ahmed Khan’s excellent website at  The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material.  Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission of the author.  If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder.