There's another way to defeat terrorism

I would have invested in a cultural network across Muslim countries as a counterforce to US imperialism
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The Independent Online

Has it been only three year since the Twin Towers collapsed? It feels like many traumatic lifetimes. The world is becoming impossibly complicated and unpredictable. So much bad and worse goes on happening. Even though I think it is travesty to assert this was the worst crime in recent history, just because it victimised Americans on their soil, it is undeniable that everything changed that day.

Has it been only three year since the Twin Towers collapsed? It feels like many traumatic lifetimes. The world is becoming impossibly complicated and unpredictable. So much bad and worse goes on happening. Even though I think it is travesty to assert this was the worst crime in recent history, just because it victimised Americans on their soil, it is undeniable that everything changed that day.

As the planes moved through the blue skies and pierced the towers one after another - symbolic rapes - they blew out Western complacency, post-Cold War triumphalism, the absurd myth that all human beings ever want is the right and means to shop and have sex.

It also roused somnolent Muslims, most of whom were unaware that while they lounged, some of their sons and daughters (many educated, middle class, free to shop and have sex) were seething and plotting to shatter the world order which, though grossly unjust, had kept full world wars at bay for half a century.

I suppose it is a consolation that we are still a long way from the unutterable horrors of the two world wars, in spite of the vainglorious and provocative foreign policy decisions taken by the bellicose leaders of the US and the UK. But there are more and more people across the globe who today believe the fanatics were right to do what they did on 11 September 2001.

The Americans deserved this for electing Bush, they say, for failing the Palestinians again and again, for supporting dictators who then oppress and torture their own people, for US greed and might. The most demented among them play and replay the footage, get pornographic thrills as they watch the humiliation of the hyperpower. The illegal Iraq war, in particular the evidence of torture by coalition troops, has only helped to legitimise such views and to sanction such acts.

One teenager I know, the perfectly amiable son of a Muslim friend, has become alarmingly obsessed with this footage. He has a video he claims he bought at an Islamic bookshop. The video contains endless re-runs and speeches by Bin Laden and one gruesome decapitation of a kidnap victim in Iraq. His father works as an investment banker for a US company; his mother is involved with an NGO that reaches out to victims of bad governance, the majority of them in Muslim countries. This boy loved going to America, to Disneyland, to New York, to Yosemite national park. Now he tells me his friends all "hate America".

There were no anti-Western terrorists in Iraq before we went there to occupy the land. Now the country has become a favoured destination for terror tourism. Few people can doubt that Bin Laden has succeeded in causing exactly the chaos he had planned and that his network has destabilised domestic and international politics, the UN, business, the Arab countries, the West, Islam itself.

In his erudite new book, The War for Muslim Minds, the French writer Gilles Kepel says, "By provoking a massive reaction from the US ... Bin Laden and his followers succeeded in stirring up unprecedented hatred of America throughout the Muslim world." That in turn has led to disillusionment with democracy, which then benefits the corrupt Muslim potentates. "The Bush administration's ineptness in the region could not have led to a more complete dead end."

All the genuine concern, the real horror, the shared humanity that arose around the globe three years ago has vanished. The President of the US and his acolytes saw to that.

It could have been so different. I think that if Al Gore been elected, we would not be in the state we are in today. I think that if Tony Blair had been as ethical and bold as he thinks he is, he might have pulled Bush back from launching the inflammatory doctrine of pre-emptive strikes.

Without the backing of his devotee Blair, Bush would have found it harder to sell his disastrous strategy on the "war against terror". I think that many of his brash policies would have been toned down and finessed, if Bush had selected sophisticated diplomats to advise and guide him instead of manic zealots and crude military men (Powell among them).

Even now, Bush and Co seem incapable of understanding how they kill the meaning of America by incarcerating untried men in concentration camps and by kicking away basic constitutional guarantees. Is it any surprise that millions today mistrust and detest the hyperpower?

Do you know what I would have done after 11 September? I would have invested in an American network similar to the British Council, an institutional web across Muslim countries providing tangible educational and cultural benefits, real cross-fertilisation of ideas, a worthwhile counterforce to US imperialism. To depend on McDonald's to spread the word is about as foolish as you can get in geopolitics.

The world we are now nervously inhabiting deserves better from the media too. In the autumn of 2001, there was a breakout of good sense and responsibility, even in the Sun, which ran an astonishing spread explaining the tenets and history of Islam and pointing out the dangers of Islamophobia. It didn't last. Across the media today, an impression has cumulatively been built up that all Muslims are a danger to civilisation.

If journalists repeatedly described Ariel Sharon as "the ruthless Judaic leader" there would be hell to pay. Yet every day, the most serious of our outlets carelessly describe as "Islamic" the worst of crimes by people who are identifiably Muslim. Racism increasingly underpins the coverage of terrorist acts. No Australians died in Indonesia, but that fact got more coverage than the faceless Indonesians who perished. The two Italian women kidnapped in Iraq matter; the two Iraqi women taken at the same time don't. It doesn't matter how many thousands we have killed in Iraq( they are only Arabs, who cares? ), but we know exactly how many white Americans and Europeans are dying.

The Muslim world has also been guilty of squandering that moment three years ago. We needed to, but did not, ask ourselves the difficult questions. It was easier to talk in terms of "small minorities of extremists" and to protest (rightly) that the faith was being unfairly vilified. We should have been more troubled than we were about why Muslim societies today breed so many vengeful, ruthless warriors. It is only now, since the revulsion over Beslan, that Muslim leaders - political and spiritual - are starting to confront their own failures.

Oh yes, they are good at issuing bland condemnations (a ritual which demeans both Muslims and the victims of violence perpetrated by Muslims) and looking out for signs of Islamophobia and pointing out Western hypocrisies and pitiless exploitation. But what about a more honest appraisal of Islamicist malevolence, the growing tendency to seek out conflict and the unspeakable supremacist rhetoric which you now hear among "true" Muslims? Regeneration programmes need to be launched by concerned Muslims worldwide to rediscover the spirit and humane values that connect us to others.

So the audit three years on is depressing, the future full of fearful foreboding. One of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that we learn from history or historical events. We don't. That is the ultimate human tragedy.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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