Monday, 12 September 2011

Looking beyond 9/11

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in human history. Like many, I remember watching the Twin towers collapse - I recollect being numbed by the shock, stunned by the scale of inhumanity towards innocents and positively terrified of the new world that had just been created. Nobody could have been left in any doubt that in an instant the world as we knew it had changed beyond recognition; an era of relative confidence, global stability and innocence can crashing down alongside the symbol of American economic supremacy.

What was clear in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity was that, at least in the case of the UK and US governments, logic would so easily give way to irrationality, and that many broadly progressive, considered foreign policy positions would be exchanged for a counter-productive "war on terror". What the 9/11 attacks actually called for was a sober-minded response from the international community, with an honest analysis of the factors leading to the hijackers' radicalisation and their determination to destroy what they perceived the US to represent in political, economic and religious terms. The understandable rage could have - and should have - been channelled into a constructive plan to reinforce the values under attack, while the effects of key foreign policy positions on the Middle East were honestly re-evaluated. Unfortunately, what actually followed was to play into the hands of al-Qaeda and create a destructive myth of an "Axis of Evil" that not only proved an effective recruitment sergeant for militant Islamists but polarised society with a prejudice-fuelled and ignorant rhetoric. Al-Qaeda dreamed of enticing the West into a religious conflict against the Islamic world and in this respect it succeeded: George W Bush was only too pleased to give al-Qaeda the "crusade" it badly wanted.

Like many others across the world, I have been indirectly affected by the 9/11 attacks and their legacy: no-one living in Tony' Blair's Britain could have failed to see the impact this had on UK race relations.. As Bush and Blair cynically and wrongly heightened fears, so a culture of suspicion developed towards Asians - and Muslims in particular. This, combined with the UK government's illiberal determination to cast aside even the most basic tenets of human rights in the name of "security", served to disenfranchise many British Muslims with fatal consequences. Meanwhile the US, equally oblivious to the counter-productive and naive nature of its response, established a string of torture centres including the infamous Guantanamo, while peddling the frankly laughable line that the secularist Saddam Hussein was in some way linked to Osama bin Laden.

Unfortunately, in political terms at least, the legacy of 9/11 has been almost entirely negative: two disastrous wars (one of dubious legality), a misguided attempt to "democratise" the Arab world, heightened tensions between increasingly polarised communities and worldviews, a growth in Islamic militancy, loss of Western political and economic credibility and tens of thousands of lost lives. (On a slightly more positive note, the flagrant disregard for human rights led me - and, I am sure, others like me - to join Liberty. And, later, the Liberal Democrats).

This dreadful legacy is largely the product of the Bush/Blair inability to provide the necessary leadership in a crisis: the kind of leadership that calms nerves and champions democracy in the face of a full-frontal assault on its fundamental principles. Fortunately, ten years later, it is clear that al-Qaeda have ultimately failed: recent events have confirmed that the Muslim consciousness it attempted to facilitate is virtually non-existent and that the supposed tendency of the Middle east towards theocracy is nothing more than an ignorant delusion. But the US and UK also failed for the same reasons as al-Qaeda: they did not understand the people of the Arab world. progress towards democracy has occurred in spite of, rather than because of, the Bush-Blair obsession of shaping the Middle East in their image. In addition, the costs of intervention has been high with lost economic opportunities and increased distrust of Western influence.

George W Bush told Time magazine: "I know that when you're leader of an organisation, you've got to be resolute, compassionate, and you've got to know what you need to do. And I knew what we needed to do. I knew we needed to use all resources of our government to defend the American people". Perhaps if he had used those resources more wisely rather than rushing headlong into foolish wars, the interests of the US and its people might have been more robustly defended.

Bush's actions were wrong, precisely because he misunderstood Islam and the nature of the Middle-Eastern psyche. If the optimistically named Arab Spring is testament to anything, it's how wrong Western political commentators have been. The Middle East is no hotbed of fundamentalist Islamic militancy. Its people have not only rejected the despotic dictatorships that have dominated the region's politics for a generation; they've also rejected jihad. No-one's calling for a holy war - just democracy.

The victims of 9/11 deserve a better legacy. So to, does the US, the UK and the Middle East. While the events of the previous ten years can be neither reversed nor forgotten it is vital to look beyond them, to learn the necessary lessons and build a more just future as an appropriate and lasting tribute to those who died on 9/11 and during the actions that followed. While the focus of the media in the last few days has understandably centred on reconstructing events and emotive reflections on personal stories - many of which are truly inspiring - the memory of the victims is not honoured through recollection and remembrance alone but through political action to ensure such a horrific and indiscriminate act of mass murder will never be repeated.

Firstly there must be a recognition that 9/11 was not simply a crime against the US, or even Western democracy. It was a crime against humanity. It was an international event, and therefore the response should be international. Bush's "war on terror" was in fact something of a misnomer; what he was actually promoting was a strategically flawed conflict with a single extremist organisation struggling to gain the respect and recognition of the very people it claimed to speak for. What Bush did was to give al-Qaeda a profile, gravitas and status it previously lacked and didn't deserve. But terrorism is not confined to al-Qaeda; neither did it originate on 11th September 2001 not conclude with the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this year. All parts of the world have experienced terrorism; what is needed is a cogent international strategy and a global anti-terror network, ideally one which refuses to be driven by the narrow interests or whims of any nation or individual, however powerful. The world must unite against inhumanity.

Of course, this requires a revitalised international community. The UN, already badly damaged in the Balkans, was rendered virtually impotent in the lead-up to the Iraq War by the arrogance of British and American determination to have their war at any cost and on the basis of any rationale, however questionable. The UN was essentially sidelined and has never truly recovered. The challenge now is to rebuild, re-energise and equip the UN to become a more effective player on the world stage, at least as far as global governance and peacekeeping are concerned, while ensuring it is protected from being forced into a subservient role by the world's superpowers.

An international political philosophy of hope and tolerance, rather than the fear and prejudice of Bush and Blair, based on understanding, collaboration and democratic empowerment would have marginalised al-Qaeda in 2001 and will prove equally as effective a weapon against terrorism in the future, as we have seen recently in Norway. The greatest enemy of the terrorist is optimism; the greatest enemy of the fundamentalist reason. The surest way to defeat terror, especially that of a fundamentalist nature, is through education and the promotion of hope in humankind. There could be no greater or more fitting memorial to those who perished at the hands of terrorists . Even in 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it was possible to discern a sense of unity of hearts and minds as people drew together in solidarity; the news stories were not of kamikaze suicide bombers or destruction but of the bravery and survival of individuals and communities refusing to cower or be crushed. Sadly, neither that sense of togetherness not the faith in the inherent goodness of humanity have been cultivated by our political leaders, and the world is the worse for it.

It is impossible to consider the challenge of creating a positive 9/11 legacy without reflecting on the future for the Middle East. Whether the Arab Spring will prove to be a turning point in world history or simply another false dawn remains to be seen. The politics of the Arab world are immensely complex and there is an uncomfortable tendency for Westerners to generalise and ignore the reality that the area is made up of multiple and diverse peoples and countries, each with its own unique cultural, social, political and religious heritage. What we can be assured of is the overwhelming, and for so long unexpressed, yearning for the advent of democracy. My own instinct suggests that the transition to democracy will be easier and quicker in some nations that in others; the obvious challenges for any fledgling democracy in establishing new structures of accountability, especially in areas where there remain elites with vested interests, can not be overstated. However, democracy will have a greater opportunity for success if the international community, and Western democracies in particular, can encourage and the facilitate the birth of Arab democracy without either attempting to move it at too fast a pace, shape the outcome towards its own ends or intervene in an unnecessarily ham-fisted way. The Arab peoples must simply be empowered to shape their own destinies, with international support and encouragement but not direct interference. Any attempt to impose a system of democratic rule will ultimately fail: strong, effective democracies are not be created but the product of evolution.

To use a biblical analogy, the challenge for Arab democracy is to prepare a wineskin to contain the new wine. If the west can actively, but not forcefully, act as a catalyst for change while allowing Arab pro-democracy movements the freedom to design their own "fit for purpose" systems, however imperfect, the long-term by-product could be the emergence of a new progressive political consciousness throughout the Muslim world that would marginalise the backward-looking philosophies of al-Qaeda and its ilk.

Arab people must be allowed to carry the torch of democracy, unhindered by enforced orthodoxy or the constraints of Western designs. However, the flame should be kindled by all those who care for the triumph of democracy and the defeat of terrorism.

Closer to home, there is a more novel means of defeating jihadist values: reducing oil dependency. There are, of course, many other perfectly sound reasons to pursue this aim, but it is an inescapable statement of fact that it was this dependency that sustained the appeal of the al-Qaeda philosophy as well as Bush's neo-colonial aspirations in Iraq. Taking action towards implementing a responsible and sustainable new energy policy isn't merely environmentally sensible but also a vital contribution towards the ultimate death of al-Qaeda's creed.

Liberal Democrat Party president Tim Farron yesterday used twitter to declare:

Today we'll stop to remember the innocent victims of Sept 11. We'll never forget them. My thoughts and prayers are with their families today.

That is a sentiment that clearly most of us can identify with. But our thoughts at this time must move beyond simply remembering the past and onto forging a new post-9/11 era which is hopeful, respectful of new political realities and focused on the maintenance of peace. In a nutshell, the kind of legacy 9/11 victims deserve.

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