On 10 September 2001, I wrote about the Taliban's viciously repressive regime in Afghanistan. Few cared back then. While Afghans were being flogged and hanged, international businesses were busily vying for advantageous deals there, and the torchbearers of universal moral standards seemed either to be napping, or away on nebulous missions. We had entered the new millennium with Western triumphalism parading through every major city. A day later, al-Qa'ida jihadists, the bastard sons of the Taliban, used hijacked passenger planes as weapons to bring down the symbols of US might and buoyancy.
History, they say, was made and unmade on 9/11. (But remember that al-Qa' ida had previously bombed East Africa and other places and that those uncounted, unnamed lives mattered too.) The psychic shock seemed to first unite all humanity, but then Bush and Blair et al launched their sinister war on terror and our earth was split apart, gashed like those scenes you see after earthquakes. Mistrust infected nations and neighbourhoods. So here we are, 10 interminable years on. Is the world any safer as a result of the actions taken by the Action Men of retribution? Are Muslims worldwide less or more likely to support their extremist, suicidal warriors? With Osama bin Laden gone, one hopes not into the arms of those enticing girls in paradise, is it nearly the end?
The story is not yet over. The questions above only raise more questions and any account of where the world is today has to be tentative. No bad thing, that. That era of élan and overconfidence has passed; all certainties have been stirred and shaken. We hear no more bombast from al-Qa'ida or Neocons and their cheerleaders. I am travelling in the Middle East on a Winston Churchill fellowship, talking to people about politics, culture, ideas, religion and history. What a time to be here with Arabs trying to forge a different future. In Cairo, I met Bilal (not his real name), who in 2004 was bearded and training with al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan. Now he is clean-shaven and working in an office and remorseful: "I am sorry – we must not be so sure of everything. Look what we have done everywhere. My brother, he can't go to study in England because they think he is a terrorist. It's my fault. He does not speak to me now. But I have changed." Others, though, feel that the West still disregards Muslim lives and agonies. It is indisputable that Muslim views are rarely heard when 9/11 approaches. That tragedy is, apparently, "owned" by white America. Listen to Layla, a young mum, one of the many distraught Iraqi exiles I've met in Amman, Jordan. She gripped my hand so hard it hurt: "They are counting the trillions and trillions of dollars they have spent since 9/11. On what? We, of course, cannot count the litres of blood lost of Iraqis, Afghans, our people. Tell me, lady from the Great Britain [sic], how many lives we should pay for each person in the New York towers? How many is enough?" There are bombs in Iraq every day still and there is no time yet for the anniversaries of past tragedies because they go on and on.
Listening to Layla and to angry young Muslims at home, I do sometimes think Bin Laden achieved his goals, by undoing the carefully constructed edifices and principles of mature democracies. He destabilised the West, and proved to his followers that Western values were thin and shaky.
Blair's strategic overreaction represented weakness and failure, not moral resilience. So what do we teach so called "backward" nations? That human rights and state accountability are like cupcakes, great at a picnic but easily binned when a state faces dark threats? Nobody will take lessons from our sanctimonious leaders again after their arrogant wars and complicity in gross human rights abuses. Our secret services used Gaddafi's torture facilities to extract information from suspected terrorists, including Abdul Hakim Belhadj, one of the leaders of the Libyan resistance. You couldn't make it up. And now any dictator or government can use the tag "terrorist" against those they wish to silence and destroy. Grim new world.
Unfortunately, as the war in Afghanistan is found to be unwinnable, our money-makers and political leaders will once again do business with the repugnant Taliban. So many allied soldiers died for nothing, it seems. Meanwhile, the UK Government and its agencies use McCarthyite tools to prevent terrorism. Muslims are asked to spy on each other and constantly "prove" they are innocent. They are subjected to unjust laws. According to a New Statesman survey, 49 per cent of interviewees feared home-grown terrorists and only 21 per cent worry about foreign attackers.
All parties also offer carrots, maybe to make the punishment more palatable. A donkey knows things don't even out in that way. So we have Muslim MPs, peers, members of the Cabinet, but entryism can't stop those who want to blow us up. Then there is the continuing surrender to British Wahabism and separatism, the encouragement of regressive, state-funded Islamic organisations. Poverty, questionable foreign policies and racism are studiously ignored while right-wing politicians, media pundits and influential think tanks denounce "multiculturalism" and Muslim "ghettos", both of which are actively encouraged by the confused state. A New Labour junior minister said to me once, off the record: "They should all be like you, then we would have no problem. Or maybe not, we don't want them all to be like you, a thorn in our sides."
But even after 7/7, most of us would not live anywhere other than Britain. Many of our fellow Britons never gave in to fear and loathing, and they campaign for our inalienable rights. Muslims are now in prominent places and the debates about our rights and responsibilities have grown more sophisticated and mature. Few would behave as intemperately as they did during the Satanic Verses furore. Many British Muslims have come out of denial and now recognise that extremism flourishes in ordinary families, at universities and in mosques. One doctor told me he found his 11-year-old was addicted to extremist sites and had to be re-educated "so he can appreciate how lucky he is to be here and have all the freedoms we have". Good police surveillance has worked because these days wannabe jihadis find less empathy in communities.
Two very different events from this year could, at last, signal that the most destructive consequences of 9/11 are passing. Both involve ordinary folk, not leaders. First came the Arab Spring, proof that democracy matters profoundly to Muslims and is delivered not with bombs, but with bravery and conviction. The second was Tariq Jahan, the forbearing father of 21-year-old Haroon, killed during the riots in Birmingham. Writer and passionate Christian AN Wilson wrote that this man "will make everyone who stereotypes Muslims as terrorists and fanatics feel deeply ashamed of themselves". Amen I say to that. And I hope his faith in us isn't shattered by Islamicist bombers who must find these optimistic developments totally intolerable.