As the United States and its allies mourn the attacks of 10 years ago, it is
worth placing those events and their consequences into a cohesive intellectual
and geopolitical perspective.
September 11, 2001, constituted the most audacious and deadly terrorist attacks
in modern times. But what amplified the impact of what happened at the twin
towers and the Pentagon - and afforded the attacks an undeserved geopolitical
meaning and legacy - was their precise timing.
The atrocities came at a moment of profound intellectual confusion about the
development of world affairs, indeed the very nature of international relations
at the dawn of the new century.
The 1990s had seen a dramatic rise in "globalization" theory, with
universities across the Western world pontificating on the perceived decline of
the nation-state and the scramble by a wide range of non-state actors, from
multi-national corporations to trans-national terrorist groups, to fill the
At face value, al-Qaeda's dramatic assault on America appeared to lend credence
to these theories, for even the most hard-headed international relations
realist couldn't fail to be stunned by the symbolism of a small idiosyncratic
terrorist organization humbling history's mightiest power. But beyond its
immediate impact, the nature and intensity of the American and broader allied
response put paid to overly liberal theories of globalization and once again
thrust the major nation-states to the epicenter of international relations.
"9/11" as it has come to be known is likely to have two enduring legacies, both
of which will shape major features of international politics in the first half
of the 21st century. First is the determined effort by the United States to
accumulate as much hegemony as possible with a view to managing America's
inevitable decline in the second half of the century by providing a soft
landing. Second is the likely evolution of political Islam as a stable factor
in regional politics.
A Strategic catharsis
Inevitably, the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been subject to intense and
prolonged political point scoring by those in favor and opposed to a decisive
American presence on the world stage. Equally inevitably it spurred a flurry of
conspiracy theories, most of which centered on the premise that the US
government had a secret hand in the attacks with a view to reaping the expected
While the official narrative on the 9/11 attacks, embodied by the 9/11
commission report, leaves a lot to be desired and is far from a conclusive
investigation into all aspects of those events, nonetheless it is probably the
closest to the truth.
The so-called jihadis of al-Qaeda who planned and executed the attacks on the
twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and at the Pentagon in
Washington DC were probably acting on their own political and strategic
volition. But there has been much speculation, misreporting and poor analysis
on their origins, the nature of their ideology and their precise relationship
with more mainstream political movements in the Arab world.
The confusion has been compounded by the astronomical growth of a "terrorism
studies" industry in America, and to a lesser extent in western Europe, an
industry which purports to produce independent research, but is in reality
beholden to either official American policy or to a myriad of private American
political and ideological interests, much of which is unabashedly chauvinistic
and in some cases Islamophobic.
The determined effort by some private political-intellectual outfits in the US
(with deep tentacles inside the government as well as the major corporations)
to directly link the terrorist attacks to political Islam and by extension to
Islam itself is not only short-sighted and rides roughshod over a broad
spectrum of political, historical and theological issues, but is at heart
profoundly dishonest and a potent example of intellectual malice.
This is not to fully disassociate the attacks from the ideological, political
and strategic perspective of more mainstream Islamists and more specifically
the historical experience of Arab Islamists, embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood
and its decades-long quest to re-make the entire political and social
infrastructure of the Arab world in its own idiosyncratic Islamist vision.
In view of the religious nature of al-Qaeda's ideology and more importantly the
movement's framing of its political and strategic goals in religious terms,
there are bound to be indirect connections and cross-pollination of ideas and
visions with mainstream Islamists. Fully understanding these connections
requires forensic research and intellectual honesty of the highest standard.
The most immediate motivating factor for the attacks was the maturation of a
set of deep-seated real or perceived grievances against American policies in
the Arab and wider Muslim world. The United States' decades-long support for
authoritarian Arab regimes, justified by the pursuit of energy security,
rankled deeply with the Arab street, a profound grievance that was eagerly
exploited by al-Qaeda, which presents itself as the vanguard of Arab and Muslim
The United States' acquiescence of (and in some cases direct support for)
Israel's unsettling role in the Middle East, was equally resented and again one
which was effortlessly exploited by those who purport to be the cutting edge of
the Muslim world's conscience.
Deeper motivating factors reside in the Arab jihadis' direct experience in
Afghanistan in the 1980s and the genuine belief (with accompanying hubris) that
their involvement in the so-called Afghan Jihad was the decisive factor in
forcing a Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, and further still
precipitating the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union a little over two years
later. Some of the al-Qaeda leaders expected that the movement could mete out a
similar fate to the more formidable United States.
This stunning delusion goes a long way to explain that while al-Qaeda and its
allies may be adept at propaganda and the construction of elaborate
grievance-laden narratives, they are incapable of producing genuine and
elaborate strategic thought.
In so far as al-Qaeda's terrorism connected with the broader intellectual and
ideological streams of the mainstream Arab Islamists, it was the opportunistic
exploitation of the Muslim Brotherhood's inability to even minimally deliver on
its political objectives. On this point al-Qaeda was responding to the
frustration of radical elements on the very margins of the Muslim Brotherhood
and associated groups, who while openly disavowing violence nonetheless
secretly welcomed the prospect of dealing a body blow to the perceived source
of their failures.
The sum of these factors amounted to a tremendous level of stress and
expectation that directly and indirectly guided the conception and planning of
the attacks, the eventual execution of which was designed to achieve a form of
strategic catharsis, and to escalate the conflict with the United States to a
The immediate effect of America's vengeful response played to al-Qaeda's
agenda, a knee-jerk response that was reinforced by ideologically-driven
intellectual support embodied foremost by the declaration of a "war on terror",
a stunningly unimaginative and inappropriate rhetorical counter-attack
representative of the more superficial aspects of American political culture.
But it is a mistake to imagine that America's mid to long-term response on the
ground, specifically deeper military involvement in the Middle East and South
Asia as well as a gradual encroachment into Central Asia (long viewed as
Russia's back yard), is directly influenced by the experience of 9/11 and the
pursuit of the so-called war on terror, later re-branded by Pentagon
strategists as the "long war".
Despite the undoubted blow to national prestige, the 9/11 attacks have worked
to America's interests by focusing some of America's best minds across a wide
range of professional activities, from the military to academia, on the
prospect of national decline and the best ways to delay that eventuality and
then to manage it effectively as and when it becomes reality. The policies that
the US is currently pursuing in Eurasia, regardless of the declared strategic
and political objectives, are geared towards creating an intellectual and
strategic environment conducive to the realization of these aims.
The transformation of political Islam
The fact that Muslims were the driving force of the 9/11 attacks inevitably
focussed minds on the role of Islam, in particular political Islam, in the
contemporary world. Not all the publicity, and the resulting mass interest, has
been negative, as evidenced by a dramatic spike in conversions to the Islamic
faith across the globe, including the Judeo-Christian realm of Europe,
Australia and North America.
Many pundits in the West were quick to point an accusing finger at political
Islam, with the more myopic and small-minded among them even attempting to
implicate a vastly heterogeneous and diverse phenomenon as Islam in the dark
arts of terrorism and political skullduggery.
To be sure, Islam as a world religion is no more and no less violent than any
other comparable religion or ideology. By the same token, the vast majority of
political actors in the Arab and Muslim world who are either self-described or
described by others as "Islamists" have publicly disavowed political violence.
Nevertheless, the ideological proximity between the Jihadis and mainstream
Islamists give rise to legitimate (if not exaggerated) doubts about the
political vision and more specifically the potential behavior of these
political actors should they ever assume positions of power in their respective
It was precisely these fears which the authoritarian Arab regimes and Israel
sought to exploit in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in a forlorn attempt to
remove the Islamists from the political map once and for all. These
security-driven efforts failed to make significant inroads for they did not
take sufficient stock of the ideological resilience and social connectivity of
the Islamic movements in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Islamists recognized the dangers on the
horizon but they also identified a wide range of opportunities, chief among
them the clear recognition that Islam, and the political actors who identify
most closely with it, had been propelled to the top of the global political and
media agenda as a result of the terrorist attacks.
The more astute in the Islamists' ranks actively joined the Western
counter-terrorism debate, not in an effort to subvert it, but to modify their
more unpleasant and questionable conceptual and intellectual frameworks.
Insofar as political and media attention is concerned, 9/11 has worked to the
advantage of Islamists not just in the Arab countries but the world over. But
it is in the Arab world, the heartland of Islam, where political Islam can
decisively show whether it has the political foresight and versatility to
deliver on its promises of authentic reform and progress.
If 9/11 created favorable media and propaganda conditions for the Islamist
narrative, then the Arab Spring has given rise to tentatively favorable
political and socio-economic conditions for the implementation of the Islamist
agenda. Ultimately, the extent of success or failure will not be judged by the
reaction of states like Egypt to the prospect of Islamists in government, but
the outcome of the internal ideological struggles in the Islamic movement.
In so far as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, the cutting edge of
the ideological struggles pits the younger generation of reformers and
progressive thinkers who aspire to deep socio-economic reforms against an aging
generation of conservative Islamists whose vision doesn't extend beyond a
perfunctory implementation of the Islamic sharia.
To achieve real success in the political realm, Arab Islamists will have to
undergo a transformation, not just in terms of vision but also of the day to
day tactics required to incrementally implement that vision.
The two enduring legacies of 9/11 outlined here, namely the struggle by the US
to accumulate more and more national power in the first half of the 21st
century and the birth pangs of a new generation of political Islamists in the
Arab world, are likely to come into close contact sooner or later. Whether they
collide or not will depend in part on the extent to which Islamists can
transform into a stable factor in regional politics by becoming deeply
entrenched in national governing structures.
As long as energy security is not directly threatened, the United States can
live with empowered Arab Islamists, just as it has done with the Islamic
Republic of Iran for the past three decades. A more lasting and stable
understanding can only be achieved if the US modifies its regional policies, in
particular its apparently unqualified and unconditional support for Israel.
While it is unrealistic, for the foreseeable future at least, to expect the US
to abandon Israel to its fate, a more conditional American support for the
Jewish state will go a long way to transforming the underlying geopolitical
conditions of the region, with potentially beneficial results for long-term
American interests in the Middle East and North Africa.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)