Real Lessons of 9/11

Sartaj Aziz

Sartaj Aziz     Most Americans are rightly bewildered and outraged. The attacks on September 11 were not just acts of terrorism, but crimes against humanity. The whole world including all the Islamic countries expressed deep and sincere sympathy.

     There was widespread support for the international campaign against terrorism. The United Nations readily provided the multilateral umbrella for military action in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime and destroy the terrorist network that had found a safe haven in that strife-torn and chaotic country.

     But now two years down the line, the sympathy has virtually disappeared. The war on terrorism is widely perceived as a war against Islam. As a consequence, the gulf between the US and the Muslim world is widening at a frightening pace. Today, the large majority of people in Islamic countries have unfriendly feelings about the US and many of them consider violence as a legitimate means of achieving political objectives. It is important, as we observe the second anniversary of September 11, to understand the factors which have brought the relationship between the West and 1.3 billion Muslims to its lowest point. Unless this is done, the ultimate objective of eliminating terrorism and extremism from the world would be difficult to achieve.

     America has faced many hostile attacks in the past in Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but on September 11, it was attacked for the first time on its own soil. That has changed its psychology. Like a wounded tiger, it has reacted violently and adopted an active strategy to use military force as its main instrument to combat terrorism.

     There is enormous intellectual and research capacity in the United States to analyze and understand the deeper causes of extremism in the Islamic world but this capacity has so far had only limited influence on the overall US policy.

     Even public opinion in Europe has been reacting negatively to some of the policies being pursued by the US. These include the doctrine of pre-emptive military action and the decision to launch a military attack on Iraq without a UN mandate.

     The reaction to the use of military force in Afghanistan in 2001 and the recent occupation of Iraq has been extremely negative in the Islamic world and particularly in the Arab countries. The western media unfortunately has played a major role in widening this gulf, by equating terrorism and extremism with Islam and by portraying militant Islam as the most important threat to western civilization.

     That is why despite repeated statements by President Bush and other western leaders that they respect Islam as a religion, the events since September 11, have confirmed at least two of the predictions made by Samuel Huntington that there will be strong expressions of violence from the Muslim world and that will lead to an alliance of the West against the rest. Even the third prediction of an eternal clash between Islam and the western civilization has now been modified into a clash between civilization and barbarism, since the terrorists are being increasingly classified as barbarians in the western media. These unfortunate predictions have further compounded some of the chronic hostility that has been simmering in the Middle East and elsewhere.

     The most important lesson of these stark realities, emerging from September 11, is that global terrorism cannot be eradicated through the use of force alone. Force may be necessary to forestall terrorist attacks or apprehend them whenever possible, but the use of force will be effective only if it is used as part of the strategy which also deals with the underlying causes of extremism to win minds and hearts.

     The second important lesson is to recognize the importance of democratic and moderate Islam in countering extremism. If all Islamic countries are lumped together and condemned as barbarians, as is being done in the western media, the prospects of curbing extremism in the Islamic world would diminish even further. More and more Islamic countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey are trying to persuade religious political parties to increase their influence through the ballot rather than the bullet. These efforts must be supported and applauded.

     Finally, it must be recognized that terrorism and extremism is as much a problem for the stability of the Islamic world as it is for the western world. A joint approach, worked out in consultation with the Islamic countries and institutions can, therefore, provide a more workable approach than the present "us and them" approach implicit in the current strategy. This will enable the US and its partners to take a more holistic view and recognize the deep and chronic causes that have been generating violence and extremism.

     In this context, the success of the peace process, initiated by the road map agreed upon by the Palestinians and the Israelis can eliminate one of the most important underlying causes of violence and militancy in the Arab world.

     Europe can also become an important bridge between the US and the Islamic world. For Europe, Islam is not out there. It has been a part of Europe for centuries. Europe has also a deeper understanding of Islamic values and cultures. Europe can and should therefore play a more active role, not only in improving relations between the US and the Islamic world but also in promoting durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. Europe can also moderate the adverse impact of the doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive action by strengthening the role of the United Nations. In playing such a role, Europe will not only enhance its geopolitical stature on the global scene but will also accelerate the natural evolution of the European values and priorities.

     The Islamic countries, on their part, have to denounce violence and terrorism in all its forms and take effective steps to control and eliminate extremism in their own societies and as a medium term strategy embrace knowledge, education and modern technology and demonstrate that Islam is fully compatible with good governance and a tolerant democratic society.

The writer is a former foreign minister of Pakistan