Community in an Age of Hatred
And he did believe he would provoke a war on September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden believed that the United States lay at the root of much of the world's evil, and that inflicting casualties on it would cause it to retreat in those arenas he most cared about. But he believed the United States would strike at Afghanistan, at least with cruise missiles and probably with more, which is why two days before those attacks he sought to ingratiate himself with the Taliban by sacrificing some of his followers in the suicide attack which killed Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. He saw himself as someone who could wear down a second superpower in Afghanistan, and took upon himself the decision to sacrifice the blood and treasure that such a war would entail.
Bin Laden and his inner circle were not, however, enough to undertake this project on their own. They required at least a small army of foot soldiers to sustain the early stages of the struggle, and found it in the recruits who came to the training camps they set up in Afghanistan under Taliban protection. The last book I read dealing with al-Qaeda was Thomas Hegghammer's Jihad in Saudi Arabia, which looks at hundreds of reconstructed biographies of al-Qaeda recruits from that country since the 1990's. This was also, I should note, the homeland of the 15 "muscle hijackers" of the 9/11 attacks. What he found was that, overwhelmingly, their motives for traveling to Afghanistan were rooted in sympathy with and anger for the suffering of their fellow Muslims, a community with which they strongly identified.
All of our communities are based on communication, though rather embarrassingly I only just now noted that those two words are etymologically related. It is only through communication that the abstract can become real. Once upon a time most people were limited to oral communication and those they regularly interacted with locally. Over time, improved communication led to broader bonds that connected them to such wider circles as nation and ethnicity. Today, when a college student at Shippensburg University can watch live streaming video of a protest in Cairo, there is no spatial limit on the size of our communities, and even the bonds of language can start to slip away in an increasingly polyglot world.
For those Muslims inclined to care for the sufferings of their co-religionists, the 1990's offered no shortage of moving images. Today we forget that for 12 years, Iraq was under crippling sanctions that, more due to Ba'athist manipulation for propaganda purposes than their actual construction, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including children. In the summer of 2001, I made my first trip to the Middle East, and while lunching across from a mosque in Irbid, Jordan heard a Friday sermon that listed a series of names: Bosnia, Palestine, Kosovo, Iraq, and others. My deficient Arabic comprehension skills were not needed to see that that was a list of countries where Muslims were under pressure, albeit for very different reasons, and that the United States could be implicated in each, if sometimes only for indifference. Bosnia, Palestine, and Iraq were all prominent causes throughout the Muslim world, and if I've never read that Kosovo was in the same league, it might just be because it lasted for a shorter time. In 1999, Russia launched an assault on the Muslim republic of Chechnya, and it was here, according to Hegghammer, that many of those who went to Afghanistan to train in the camps of a hero of the anti-Soviet struggle expected to ultimately fight. It was in Afghanistan, under the spell of the charismatic war hero and intensive exposure to his propaganda, that many began to share in his agenda. Thus did a globalized love develop a dark twin in a globalized hatred.
The events of September 11 came as a shock to the American people, and the world. I remember well shying away from contemplation of the enormity of it, and also the fear of what was to come. I remember a girl on a street corner by the University of Wisconsin who was moved to just stand there and wave a flag at passersby. I remember the sense of national togetherness, as people of all stations and walks of life were visibly moved and trying to deal with the tragedy. I remember rallying with my fellow Americans around a president whom many saw as illegitimate, and craving justice upon the perpetrators. I remember also a quiet effect it had in many areas of the world. On that day, one of my professors was in Istanbul. When he returned, he told us that one thing he had noticed there was that people who had always seen the U.S. through a lens of flashy Hollywood movies and newscasts saw this country in a way they never had before, as for the first time the politicians and action heroes were displaced by police and firemen and medical workers. Friends I had just met in the Middle East e-mailed with sympathy and concern.
As the war in Afghanistan became imminent, the concern of my Middle East-based friends became opposition to the idea of a military response, as with the community solidarities they had developed, they felt kinship with the inevitable innocent victims and a suspicion stitched together of disparate cases mentioned above that Muslims everywhere were under a sustained assault by Western powers that hated and feared their religion. I expressed my support for the war in Afghanistan and gave my reasons, reasons I still believe in. But I don't think I really appreciated then what I understand more fully now: That having to fight that war was in itself a defeat. For even a battle won has costs, and even a war of necessity can lay seeds for future violence.
Military theorists tell us that one goal of terrorism is to force people to pick sides in an ensuing community struggle. President George W. Bush understood this, and emphasized on many occasions that the United States did not see Islam as responsible for terrorism. Al-Qaeda leaders believed that an open American attack on a Muslim country would rally the entire Muslim world behind them. It is of great frustration to them that this plan failed miserably. Some did join them, however, especially after the 2003 invasion of Iraq proved even more radicalizing than the sanctions. Within Iraq, Christians have become the most vulnerable of populations. There is evidence that religious hostilities are rising around the world, and some say 75% of religious persecution is now directed at Christians, with attacks on churches in Iraq and Egypt simply the highest-profile incidents.
Much as many Muslims perceive a Christian onslaught against Islam, so today many Christians and others in Christian-majority societies see a Muslim onslaught on the Christian world. In recent years, every American Muslim I have met feels a constant buzz of Islamophobic harassment. The Republican presidential race has seen bursts of sharp anti-Islamic rhetoric. Mosque construction is resisted by activists around the country. Last Christmas Eve, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield even raised the specter of Muslim immigrants imposing shari'a in a homily motivated by his concern for Middle Eastern Christians as fellow members of a worldwide Christian community.
In this there are uncomfortable parallels with the radicalization of al-Qaeda recruits that led ultimately to September 11. I do not say that those who have the opinions mentioned in the above paragraph are in any way on the same moral plane as terrorists, for those who pass from thoughts to acts of mass violence cross a significant barrier indeed. But as we recently saw in Norway, it is easy to unthinkingly create an environment in which some will make that crossing, and still easier, when under the influence of hate or fear, to allow those who are themselves lost in darkness to lead us onto evil paths.
Today we have more knowledge of the world than ever before, but it is still incomplete, shaped by our sources, our interests, and our communities. What we must learn is to be humble with all our knowledge, and to retain in the face of wrong those values which make us right. The greatest challenge of modernity is to expand our sense of community to encompass all humanity, speaking to one another across the lines that divide us to gain an understanding of different experiences and perspectives, as well as the root commonalities we all share. For only then can we see the grievances and pains of others as clearly as our own, only then can we draw from the full well of human experience and understanding, and only then can we see most clearly those who are the common enemies of all.
(Crossposted to American Footprints)