The world has had a year to reflect on the meaning of September 11. The flow of information and argument has been relentless. But has anyone actually learned anything? Personally, I doubt it. No one yet knows the difference between Muslim fundamentalism and orthodoxy. No one knows what happened to the leaders of Al-Qa‘ida. And hardly anyone seems to be listening to the Muslim grievances that lie at the root of the current crisis.
If we scrape away the layers of rhetoric and euphemism, if we disregard sideshows like Iraq and the US bases in Saudi the holy lands, we come to the running sore of Palestine. The Western conscience, troubled by the history of antisemitism, is reluctant to look too critically at Israeli behaviour towards a colonised population. But unless the Palestinian voice, and the Muslim voice that echoes its pain around the world, is listened to carefully, there will be no understanding of what happened on September 11. Instead, we will be subjected again and again to banal rhetoric about an axis of evil and the motiveless nature of fundamentalist terror.
Here, in case you are interested, is the voice of a Muslim, a representative of a fifth of the earth’s population. We find we are not listened to much, no doubt because we are excitable Third Worlders, recently out of jungle or desert, all too prone to conspiracy theories which veil our pathetic envy of white people. In the media, commentators with little or no experience of the Islamic world prose away, ventriloquising for us, secure in the knowledge that they can define us better than we can. Everyone agrees that they have that right – after all, how many demands to hear Muslim voices, or any Third World voices, have you recently heard? Westerners broadcast to the world, but are not good listeners.
But here goes. We are furious about Palestine. Furious about the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements on confiscated Arab land. Furious about decades of steadily intensifying military rule on behalf of Jewish conquerors, over resentful Christian and Muslim populations. Furious about the perpetuation of colonial-era racism and apartheid-style zoning laws. Furious about the plight of Palestinian refugees. Furious, above all, about the control of the third holiest place in Islam by conquerors who clearly have no idea what to do with it.
“Why do they hate us?”, moan the Americans. Many reasons could be cited. American indifference to climate controls which might save Muslim countries from catastrophic desertification is certainly one. Support for vicious regimes is certainly another. But it is the American desire to cheerlead for Israel that really alienates us.
Our scriptures counsel endless patience. Were it not for Islam, anti-Western rhetoric and violence would really be out of control. Yet, some of us have been tipped over the edge. The message of these angry young men is that Islam forbids suicide, and forbids the killing of civilians, but that they are now so angry about Palestine that they are going to set these principles aside. The result has been a perversion of faith.
In the thirty years since the fall of Jerusalem, the Muslim voice has been deeply radicalised. I find this in the mosques of Birmingham, where the young and angry speak only about Palestine. I find it in my native Mombasa, where the relaxed African Islam of my youth has given way to intransigence and confrontation. It is the great religious transformation of our age. And if you talk to these new zealots, you will find, in every case, that anger over Palestine has been the catalyst which radicalized them.
Jerusalem has always been a ‘nest of vipers’. Whoever puts his hand into rearrange things will get bitten. Sixty years ago, Jewish terrorists were massacring British officials in Jerusalem. Today, Jews are dying instead. And so deep is American complicity in Israeli control of the city that no Muslim is the least bit surprised that the United States is now taking casualties as well.
Perhaps this has been the most far-reaching consequence of Zionism: the radicalizing of the Muslim world. Like most Muslims, I can’t stand it. I lament the passing of a culture which was focussed on God even more than on community. I miss the smiles of the older sort of Muslim. And like most Muslims, I know that the War on Terrorism is no part of a solution, but merely the acceleration of a cycle of incomprehension and revenge. I have no idea where that cycle is taking us.
Since September 11, Israel’s grip on Palestinian majority areas has become still tighter. Satellite television channels, such as Al-Jazeerah, have brought this home to millions. The frustration at America has never been more intense. And the likelihood of further, perhaps still more disastrous attacks on American cities has never been greater.
America has to decide whether it wants the entire Muslim world to become its own West Bank, the source of an unbreakable cycle of military punishments and suicide bombings. Israel has not succeeded in stopping Palestinian violence even in a small area; and therefore, America will never suppress terrorism in the much larger area that is Islam itself. If it wants peace, it should abandon the belief that more aircraft carriers will do the job, and simply try to work out how to be less hated. A decent settlement for the Palestinians, with the restoration of the Muslim holy places to Muslim control, is not something to be postponed until the ‘war against terrorism’ is won.
Fuad Nahdi is the publisher of Q-News, Britain’s leading Muslim magazine. He is the presenter of “September 11 – Through Muslim Eyes” which was broadcast on Channel Four (Friday 6 Sept) at 7.30pm
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