Sunday, September 11, 2011

The legacy of 9/11: The war on Islam

   "In the Middle East and Pakistan, religious discourse dominates societies, the airwaves, and thinking about the world. Radical mosques have proliferated throughout Egypt. Bookstores are dominated by works with religious themes … The demand for sharia, the belief that their governments are unfaithful to Islam and that Islam is the answer to all problems, and the certainty that the West has declared war on Islam; these are the themes that dominate public discussion. Islamists may not control parliaments or government palaces, but they have occupied the popular imagination" (emphasis added, AH). Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, Age of Sacred Terror. 

   Today is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Like many of you, no doubt, I watched the memorial service in New York City (at least until I went to church). It was a moving event and tastefully done.
   Yet it was a sad day for many people, especially those who lost loved ones on 9/11. It was a sad day too for Muslims. For the past decade the entire Muslim community (umma) has been blamed for the heinous deeds of a few Arabs who happened to be Muslims. That date marks the beginning of what is widely perceived by Muslims as the war on Islam.
   President Barack Obama famously declared that the US is not at war with Islam, but few Muslims anywhere, even in the US, agree with him. "While US leaders may frame the conflict as a war on terrorism, people in the Islamic world clearly perceive the US as being at war with Islam,” as Steven Kull, editor of explains.
   Kull points to the results of the poll conducted by his organization. In Egypt, 92% of those polled believe one of the U.S.'s goals is to weaken and divide the Islamic world, while only four percent disagreed. Seventy-eight percent agreed with the statement in Morocco, and 73% shared that view in Pakistan and Indonesia.
   Many Muslims refuse to believe that Muslims were responsible for 9/11. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Muslims from Egypt, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel , Indonesia and Pakistan do not believe the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs. The highest rate was in Egypt where 75% of Muslims do not believe Arabs were responsible.
   The report adds that both Muslims and Westerners are concerned about Islamic extremism. For Muslims, the most common concern about extremism is that it is violent, although in both Egypt and in the Palestinian territories, the top fear is that extremism could divide the country.
   They point to bin Laden's own denial of any involvement: "I have already said that I am not involved in the 11 September attacks in the United States. As a Muslim, I try my best to avoid telling a lie. I had no knowledge of these attacks, nor do I consider the killing of innocent women, children and other humans as an appreciable act. Islam strictly forbids causing harm to innocent women, children and other people. Such a practice is forbidden even in the course of a battle."
   Most Americans would dismiss Bin Laden's comments as self-serving. The 19 men who hijacked four planes on 9/11 were all Arabs (and thus all Muslims by American reasoning) and all were members of al Qaeda, at least according to The 9/11 Commission Report. 
   As I said in my last post, I am not a supporter of conspiracy theories, yet I am somewhat skeptical about this report, especially its terms of reference and how it was prepared. There are simply too many anomalies.
   Regardless of whether or not al Qaeda was responsible, is it fair to portray all Muslims as terrorists and to wage war against them? If a Muslim does something in the name of Islam, such as destroying the WTC, he is no more a representative of the entire faith than is a Christian who bombs an abortion clinic in the name of Christianity.
   Do we blame all Christians for the recent killings in Norway? Then why blame all Muslims for 9/11 and make them out to be terrorists?

   There are also many non-Muslims who deny that al Qaeda was responsible. Instead, they argue that the 9/11 attacks were intended to shock, frighten, and outrage Americans into accepting the myth that “Muslim terrorists” pose such a serious threat to their security that they should cede virtually unlimited power and money to Bush to carry out a war on terror and thus, by extension, on Islam.
   And they counter the argument for increased security post 9/11 by asserting that terrorism has never posed a serious threat to the American people. The chance of dying of a terrorist attack in the US has always been virtually zero, even in 2001.
   The repercussions of the war on Islam are enormous and frightening, As Abdulkader Sinno, a fellow at the Stanford for International Security and Cooperation, noted already a few years ago: "The Bush administration is following a strategic course that will damage American interests for the foreseeable future." 
   George Bush and his advisors, Sinno explained, have played into the hands of al Qaeda. "Why did al-Qaeda operatives smash 4 planes into buildings and the ground? The reason was to provoke Washington into retaliating indiscriminately, harming the innocent as well as the guilty. Al-Qaeda expected this reaction and counted on it to build support for itself."
   Muslims often point out as well that among the many victims of 9/11 were several dozen innocent Muslims, ranging in age from their late 60s to a couple’s unborn child. Six of these victims were women, including one who was seven months pregnant.
   As part of the war on terror, the administration rode roughshod over the civil rights of all Americans, but especially Muslims. There have been indiscriminate deportations of Muslims. Thousands of Muslims were interrogated by the FBI and mosques were put under surveillance.
   Soon after 9/11, President Bush described the war on terror as a crusade, which was a most unfortunate choice of words. By pointing back to the medieval crusades, it helped to foster the idea of a new war on Islam.
  Few Americans knew anything about Islam before 9/11. Unfortunately, many still know very little about the second-largest faith, after Christianity, in the world. A recent article is very helpful in dismissing some myths about this faith; consult, "What Americans still don't know about Islam":

   In the aftermath of the violence and horror of 9/11, criticisms were made that Muslim leaders and organizations were not outspoken enough in denouncing acts of terrorism. Muslims are constantly perplexed by this accusation, since there were nothing but unequivocal and unified condemnations by the leaders of the Muslim community, both in the United States and worldwide immediately after 9/11.
   For the record, the inhuman attacks of 9/11 were condemned in the strongest terms by virtually all Islamic leaders, organizations, and countries. The Chairman of Saudi  Arabia's Judicial Council stated emphatically, "Islam rejects such acts, since it forbids killing of civilians even during times of war, especially if they are not part of the fighting. A religion that views people of the world in such a way cannot in any sense condone such criminal acts, which require that their perpetrators and those who support them are held accountable. As a human community we have to be vigilant and careful to preempt these evils."

   In the interest of fairness, lest I be accused of American-bashing, let me add another poll result. Most Canadians say the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks left them with a bad impression of “certain ethnicities and religious faiths." More men than women agreed (67 per cent to 51 per cent), but the responses were very consistent across Canada’s regions at 59 per cent.
   Another question was equally revealing. Should Muslims living in Canada receive the same treatment as other Canadians? Overall 81 per cent agreed, with little variation by age or sex, however only 72 per cent of people with less than a high school education agreed.
   Canadians also still have a long way to go yet before such biases become history. 

   How should we respond to the war on Islam? We need to fight Islamophobia. A few suggestions:
   1. Stop treating all Muslims as terrorists. Not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all terrorists are Muslims. I personally know many Muslims. They condemn violence, and have spoken out vociferously against terrorism in any form. The war on Islam was not started by Muslims. They may be offended by the behavior of westerners, but only a very small group of Muslims has resorted to violence as a result.
   2. Stop bashing Muslims. They make a convenient target, just as Jews did during the Third Reich. Islamophobia is a form of racism, and thus totally unacceptable. Don't allow politicians to use Islamophobia as a political tool. That is manipulation, and must be resisted. Imagine how you would feel if you were the target of vicious attacks such as happened to Muslims post 9/11.
  3. Do not repay evil for evil. In Nigeria, where I lived for many years, retaliation is widely practiced. Last week nine members of a Christian family were massacred by Muslims in retaliation for the death of a Muslim man. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. But the Muslims killed them anyway, since "all of them were unbelievers." Should Christians respond by killing more Muslims? Hardly!
  4. Forgive. The gospel reading for today was Matthew 18:21-35, which is the parable of the "Unforgiving Servant." God has forgiven us much, and we in turn must forgive others. This is the only way that this circle of violence can end. Ultimately, anger will destroy us. We need to forgive, as difficult as that is. I have seen Nigerians demonstrate such forgiveness. If they can, so can we.
   This short list does not mean that I condone the attacks of 9/11 that were splashed across our TV screens again today. But we must learn to love even those whom we perceive as our enemies. Hatred only breeds more hatred. The war on Islam has bred more anti-Western sentiments. It has not made Americans more secure. On the contrary, it has only produced more fear. Nor has it ushered in an era of peace. War cannot do that. Peace is more than the absence of war.
   The war on Islam must end, not next year, not tomorrow, but now. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is the appropriate occasion. Too much blood has already been shed. Enough is enough!
   None of us can forget what happened that day, but we must be prepared to forgive. Very few of us were actual victims of 9/11. Most of us did not lose loved ones that day. Why then is it so difficult for us to forgive? Even those who did lose loved ones must also learn to forgive.
   I pray that Muslims will also be able to forgive, in their case, the war on Islam.

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