The Muslim world after September 11

Ten years after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Arab and Muslim relations with the US are worse than ever. Efforts of the US and its western allies have focused on ‘security solutions’: upgrading their own intelligence and police agencies and preventing al-Qaeda-style attacks on their territories.

This policy has left a host of Arab, Asian and African countries exposed to assaults. The US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with terrorist attacks have meant hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died to pay the blood price of the nearly 3,000 killed on September 11.

Furthermore, the west has refused to admit why al-Qaeda would mount operations against the US in 2001, Madrid in 2004, and London in 2007. The core issue is the Palestine-Israel conflict. Unless Arab and Muslim grievances are addressed, al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist organisations are certain to keep on trying to exploit these grievances by launching attacks to punish the west or compel it to change its policies.

Unending conflict
The initial US response to September 11 was to go to war in Afghanistan. George W Bush touted this war as a campaign to kill or capture elusive al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden but instead ousted the Taliban rulers of the country who provided him with a base.

The unending conflict with the resurgent Taliban has been costly in Afghan civilian casualties and crossed the border into Pakistan. The chief beneficiaries of the US war on Afghanistan have been Pakistani fundamentalists—some sponsored by the country’s intelligence agency—which have repeatedly struck at India.

In March 2003, after a long military build-up in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, Bush launched a war on Iraq with the aim of toppling the secular nationalist regime of Saddam Hussein on the false allegation that he had developed weapons of mass destruction in defiance of UN resolutions.

This war was deeply unpopular in the Arab world and in many Western countries. It was seen by critics as a “war for oil” and an offensive intended to establish direct US domination of strategic West Asia. Addicts of conspiracy theories argued that the September 11th attacks were organised by US intelligence agencies with the aim of providing justification for this war.

The US replaced Iraq’s secular Baathist regime with one ruled by Shia fundamentalists beholden to and allied to Iran, Washington’s chief antagonist in West Asia. This dramatically changed the balance between Sunni regimes, led by US ally Saudi Arabia, by doubling the number of Shia ruled countries from one to two and creating a vast Shia-run hinterland at the heart of West Asia.

Encouraged by Washington, Riyadh came to see Iraq’s inclusion in Shia Iran’s sphere of influence as a major challenge to its authority as the leading Muslim power. Meanwhile, the US battled Iran over its nuclear programme, which Washington says is meant to produce nuclear weapons. Israel has exploited the post-Iraq war rise of Iran by calling for air strikes on its nuclear facilities, risking all out regional war.

Under US occupation, Iraq has become a violent failed state rather than the democratic model the Bush administration promised. The country’s infrastructure has been devastated by two US wars (1991 and 2003), its oil production has fallen, and at least four million Iraqis, largely professionals and Christians, have fled the country. Al-Qaeda, which established a strong presence in Iraq after the 2003 war, has been diminished but is still capable of launching devastating attacks on government, US and Shia civilian targets.

Instead of stabilising West Asia, the Iraq war has shaken the region and deepened popular antagonism toward the US and its allies, including vulnerable Arab rulers. This has provided radical Muslim fundamentalists with a platform, power to impose their will governments and citizens, and justification for anti-US actions.

This year’s Arab Spring is, in part, an Arab reaction to the misbegotten US response to September 11: three Arab leaders targeted by mass popular uprisings—Tunisia’s Zine Edin Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Yemen’s Ali Abdul-lah Saleh - were US allies.

Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, who promised major policy “change” has not delivered, driving down the US approval rating to five per cent in Egypt, 10 per cent in the Gulf emirates and Jordan, 12 per cent in Morocco, 14 per cent in Turkey, and 32 per cent in Saudi Arabia. Overwhelming hostility forced the US to take a low profile role in the air campaign in Libya, seen by many Arabs as a neo-colonial war.

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