Hussam Itani

9/11 as an Arab Event

From an Arab perspective, the September 11 attack marked the beginning of catastrophes that continue to unfold in the region and ravage its residents, undermining any opportunity to achieve development or improve conditions of life. This attack was the epitome of nihilistic terrorism that culminated with it, as well as its advocates, being destroyed only after causing the deaths f thousands of civilians and the destruction of cities, metropolises, and societies.

For the citizens of the Middle East, of all races and religions, this “absolute event,” as Jean Baudrillard put it in his book The Spirit of Terrorism, was not an inevitable confrontation between globalization on the one hand, with its image embodied in the World Trade Center in New York, and Islam on the other. Nor was it an embodiment of the symbolic violence through which Islam has responded to the imbalance of exchange relations, commodity and knowledge, and Western hegemony over Muslim societies, as postmodern writers believe. Rather, it was an extraction of all the contradictions and conflicts within those Muslim societies, putting them on display without the ability to address or resolve them. September 11 served as bait to a reckless adversary that found something it has been searching for since the end of the Cold War, seeing it instead in terrorism that is without meaning, a project, or a vision for the future.

The foundational event of the 21st century was not a ‘clash of two barbarities’; the barbarity of capitalist pillage up against the barbarism of nihilistic terrorism. Rather, it was also a declaration of total haplessness by Arab and Muslim societies, and the countries of the Third World in general, of their inability to dismantle Western hegemony by adapting to the age. It was easier to return to the statements, fatwas, and claims of bygone centuries, and to justify the killing of civilians in Western cities than it was to admit the historical shortcomings and failures that prevented development, as dreams and capabilities were destroyed by military dictatorships.

The devastation unleashed by the tyrannical regimes in the Middle East has not only crushed the chances of “imitating” the West in its modernization process, but it has also prevented the formulation of a model for modernity that takes into account the local cultural, social, and religious aspects. The popular diagnosis goes that repression, persecution of dissidents, and stifling public freedoms is the primary reason for the emergence of armed terrorist groups that have resorted to basements and caves after they were prevented from declaring their views in open squares. Violence was the only alternative available to these groups, which had been overrun by crackdowns and imprisonment.

Regardless of the accuracy of this diagnosis, one must say that the terrorism of closed and secret groups is not limited to action-oriented and jihadist Islam and that Europe and the United States experienced this with the anarchist groups of the 19th century and in early 20th century. Rather, it should be noted that the Arab revolutions that erupted a decade after the September 11 attack were the complete opposite of the aforementioned diagnosis. The countries that witnessed those mass revolutions were not known for their democratic rule or systems that exalt the value of justice, the rule of law, and human rights. However, over the years, these revolutions came in waves and stages, and their results did not live up to the hopes of the generations that initiated and carried these mobilizations, as they quickly fell into the contradictions that preceded them between the apparatuses of established power (or the “deep state” as some like to call it) and the opportunism of action-oriented Islamist forces that rode the wave of the revolutions and exploited the weakness of their organization, the ambiguity of their demands, and their lack of leadership, program, and goal. Civil wars, large-scale migrations, and destruction are the results of these revolutions, but this is a topic for another day.

The occupation of Afghanistan two months after the September 11 attacks was the tip of the iceberg of the “war on terror”. However, to the same extent that the terrorists lack the vision and merit to manage a war with the West, which supported toppling the Taliban regime in Kabul without reluctance, the attackers had no idea how they would manage a society that had been ravaged by civil war and Soviet occupation. It seems that this did not stop the United States from attacking Iraq two years later under pretexts that were later shown to have been fabricated, with the US and the West finding themselves in the same position facing the Iraqis, who suddenly faced their long lost freedom with new and old grudges.

After the attacks on New York and Washington, a famous Arab writer, in one a research project looking into a way out of the crisis whose clouds had begun gathering in the skies of Middle East, said that the Arabs are too weak and ignorant to have planned for such a complex attack that demands high-level technical skills and security knowledge. Perhaps a response of the kind Baudrillard gives is warranted here; the Arabs’ weakness and ignorance are what pushed them to carry out these attacks. If they had been strong, in the political and social sense, they would have known what the consequences would be. That is not to say that Arabs as peoples and societies are responsible for the attacks, as some racist forces have said. Rather it is to shed light on a political, developmental, and ethical dilemma in this part of the world.