The historical rupture of 9/11 quickly overshadowed all that which was supposed to happen by the end of the Cold War. It was not only the Twin Towers that collapsed in an hour and forty-two minutes following the impact of commercial planes weaponized by Islamic terrorists, but an entire edifice of liberal theories, hopes, and dreams of the end of history and the onset of Kantian peace. Rarely in human history do entire societies’ futures change so quickly. What followed was great global confusion that, with the recent turmoil in Afghanistan, seems to only be worsening.
After a long period of what seemed like a greater containment of violence in certain pockets of crime, civil wars, and failed states, the violence of a sacred and existential kind shattered those dreams with an almost superhuman speed. On 9/11, the world witnessed an unprecedented shift in the nature and scale of sudden, unexpected social violence. Not only did violence proliferate, but it also grew more brutal to a nearly mythological level. Such brutal violence in New York was only the beginning of a globalized era of more violence, gore, and madness. It coincided with quicker and more efficient modes of communication that culminated in high-definition footage of beheadings in Raqa and drowned children washing up on European shores.
As if such sudden unraveling was not enough, the confusion indeed assumed mythological proportions as what seemed like a global deceleration of war was issued by the ambiguous and disembodied forces of “Islam” or “Radical Islamism,” or the politically correct “religious extremism.” In this war of the mythological creature, akin to a mischievous Greek god, it became clear that the medium is the message: violence is for violence’s sake.
It is impossible to overstate the effects this unprovoked, barbarous assault had on the psyche of the United States and the world. The calamitous shock of the sudden onset of the age of global Islamic terrorism was so traumatic that it eroded the empirical reality of events and exposed the deep mythological layers of human thinking, reactivating attachment to dichotomous symbolic systems of conflicts between an eternal “Islam,” and an eternal “West.” The range of psychological and ideological responses in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies, ironically, regressed to the same primary psychological responses; denial, defensiveness, and impulsive reactivity.
When those of sound minds started looking for answers, they all asked the same questions: Where can we find the origins of the terrorist attacks of 9/11? Does one find them in the Quran? In medieval Islamic texts? In 19th century European colonialism? In the 20th century Arab political history? In a clash of civilizations? Or in Chomskyan anti-American grievances? Since the fateful day that transformed our world, all former answers have been offered in extensive analysis disseminated via journals, books, and lectures.
No approach was spared whether philological investigations of the conceptual origins of jihad and Islamic militancy, historical research of late Ottoman history, examination of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, or the postmodernist, jargon-dense theological exegesis on eternal Western guilt. During the time experts took to offer their precious explanations, the terrorism of Al-Qaeda descended even further into the apocalyptic nihilism of ISIS, Arab autocracy into the Hobbesian post-Arab Spring Middle East, and any public discussion of the taboo of “Islam” became moral suicide.
The large group of quarrelsome experts belonging to many rival ideological camps may disagree on the perceived origins, reasons, interpretation and conditions that ultimately led to Islamic terror and the war on it, yet they all agree on the basic constitution of this socio-historical drama as well as its timelessness between two historical protagonists, the “West” and “Islam.”
Following this essential reduction, the only problem remaining is sequencing the events to determine the original motive and hence identifying who the real monster is. In pursuit of this great “Who Dunnit” cosmic thriller, some pored over medieval Islamic legal texts, retrieving the dichotomous Dar Al-Islam vs. Dar al-Harb and the accompanying Islamic legal terminology, while others opted for the more recent dichotomy of the colonizer vs. the colonized. Human action, so it seems, is the product of the world as text. Ironically, this explanatory effort bears a great resemblance to that of Al-Qaeda terrorists themselves whose contribution, likely supported by many postmodernist professional accusers, would be identifying the medieval European Crusades as the formal beginning of the cosmic drama of Islam and the West.
20 years later, we must ask ourselves; what did Bin Laden achieve? Did he succeed in defeating the United States? Annihilating Israel? Establishing a thousand-year caliphate? The answer is a decisive no, but we should not indulge in a delusional sense of victory hiding our true defeat.
When the great terrorist entrepreneur established, “The Global Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders,” the medium was the message. He was seeking to re-wrap our world with the political mysticism of the symbols of the 10th century. Like the heroes of a good Greek tragedy, the stars were aligned for a perfect tale of the folly of the gods behind which humans have no free will.
In the last decades of the 20th century, Muslim societies in the Middle East were on a journey of a gradual and systematic social, psychological and intellectual regression that entirely reversed the projects of modernization begun a century earlier. The bombastic rhetoric of Arab nationalists of the 1950s against “Western imperialism” and the “Zionist entity,” had descended into outright paranoia, conspiratorial existence, pathological antisemitism, and sexual neurosis of the most terrifying kind.
“Palestine” became not merely an objective political issue, but an allegory of eternal victimhood, masochistic humiliation, and a pathological symbol of a deeply wounded identity. In mainstream Arab and Muslim discourse, an unprecedented process of time and concept collapse merged Judaism, Israel, the Crusaders, colonialism, the United States, capitalism, and feminism into one perennial cosmic evil, or “Satan” in the Iranian version. The autocratic Arab republics, founded on the original sin of Arab nationalism, could do nothing but watch their populations descend rapidly into madness.
In Western society, different subterranean changes of the cognitive structure were also underway; a systematic and gradual rejection of modernity and all its achievements. From the critical intellectuals of the Frankfurt school to the postmodernist paranoia of Michelle Foucault, Western academics and intellectuals constructed the greatest polemic against the Western age that dwarfs those of the USSR and early communists.
According to this narrative, every corner of modernity, be it medicine, gender relations, democratic practices and even knowledge itself turned out to be a decorum for aggressive, predatory, and colonialist power. Power was discovered to be “interwoven” in Foucauldian terms, in everything we do and say and even in these very words I’m typing. The Western intellectual collapse may make the Muslim one look like a caricature. Generations of highly educated Americans and Europeans received critical training to heighten their sense of suspicion of themselves. In the wider populations, the acceleration of the nomadization of the individual, the gradual de-conversion from religion, and the predominance of the consumerist aspirations meant that the onset of the new anti-modern and anti-social ideologies became either attractive or irrelevant.
Those are the conditions of the perfect storm that Bin Laden rode to infamy, conditions that were in motion long before Bin Laden reached puberty. The CIA uncovered that he, after all, didn’t only read Sayyed Qutub but also Chomsky. The rock which he threw in the pond of our modern world uncovered the dark boiling waters coming from the deep and brought back the weight of entire human history onto our shoulders, forcing us to assume all old and new dichotomies of our history; Greece vs. Persia, Rome vs. the Barbarians, Islam vs. the infidels, Crusades vs. Jihad, the Ottomans vs. Europe, colonial powers vs. noble savages, and neoliberal economics vs. local development as if we are destined to lead symbolic lives in which every generation reenacts the never-ending story.
In the Middle East, what seemed like a lunatic fantasy of Bin Laden, a Caliphate built on conquest and sexual slavery, turned out to be a real fantasy of a young generation of Muslims. In Western societies, what was thought to be a temporary academic fad after which modernity would resume its course turned out to be the whole identity perception of young generations of anti-American Americans. In short, Bin Laden won, we lost. The origins of our failure can be found nowhere but in the personal moral failure in the personal life of each of us.
But all these confusions and ambiguities would not have turned into the infernal mix they did if it weren’t for political and ideological opportunism. The fractures that appeared in the neoliberal Washington Consensus due to the unexpected effects of globalization uncovered widening ideological rifts inside institutional Western liberalism gave way to warring political programs. The cooptation of the legacy of 9/11, in the form of Western politicians paying homage to Islam, dawning a hijab, or alternatively promising hyper-vigilance in the confrontation of the Muslim menace, resulted in shrouding the questions with impenetrable political interests and alliances. Left-wing politicians allied themselves with Islamist figures, Tarek Ramadan in the UK and CAIR in the US, to cater to an emerging Muslim constituency and to harden the lines of political identity against their rivals. Right-wing politicians offered nothing but more promises of further securitization of deeply rooted social, psychological, and intellectual problems.
Is it really a mystery that 20 years later our confusion is ever greater? Antisemitism is even worse? The allegory of Palestine became a Western academic consensus? The “inherent evil nature of America” became a pedagogical method? Tribal identity politics became the norm? Islamist-leaning Americans became celebrated politicians? Yet, the question still persists – was all this inevitable?
I dare to say, in hindsight, none of this should have been inevitable, but what is surprising is that 20 years later, no new questions seem to be asked. The affairs of the Middle East remain relegated to specialists of political science and think tank experts who hold dearly to theories at the expense of reality. Then we are shocked when we discover that a sizable segment of our foreign policy technician class looks favorably upon Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and unfavorably on religious reform initiated by Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian rulers. Increasingly rogue academia remains to be the only imagined way to institutionalize the analytical and educational faculties of society. As a result, theories are breaking out of the academic asylum and pushing our public life further into dogmatism, hypocrisy, and conformity.
The failure of imagination is astounding. 20 years later, we are still trying to pretend we can continue doing business as usual. Did anyone ask why figures such as Sayyed Qutub didn’t become a subject of Western intellectual curiosity before 9/11? Did anyone inquire how come Western experts did not care about the onset of mass sexual neurosis before the gang rapes of German women by asylum-seeking young men in Cologne? Did societies care about the gradual advancement of anti-liberal identity politics in American life before it took out to rioting on the streets in the summer of 2020?
80 years after the Holocaust, did our “critical intellectuals” inquire about the effects that the proliferation of antisemitism in the Middle East have on the political and social realms? The Foreign Minister of Pakistan went live on CNN talking about “Jewish deep pockets,” but did our highly esteemed political scientists ask what the political implications of politicians with such beliefs are? Did Western societies feel alarmed about the return of intellectualized antisemitism to the most esoteric corners of academia?
None of these questions can even begin to approach imagining the long-term effects the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan will have on the United States. A much flawed Freedom Agenda gave way to an Unfreedom Agenda as the Taliban Islamic rule returns with American equipment that is also finding its ways to the hands of Iranian Islamic lunatics. A deep sense of failure, and worse, self-betrayal, will either begin our own journey of psychological and intellectual regression or shock American ingenuity and moral imagination back to life. The 20th-century crisis of Muslim societies, long seen as particular and not relevant to the rest of the world, turned out to be a herald to generalizable terrible possibilities of the 21st. The problems of the Middle East might not be a remnant of a dark and medieval past, but a foreshadowing of the deepening crisis of modernity and post-modernity.
Despite my pessimistic outlook, I believe that today, we are in dire need of imaginative hope. We cannot afford to keep hoping things will turn out okay at status quo, or to believe that we are heading to unavoidable doom. We need hope and a belief that we can never exhaust our capacity to manage our lives in new ways. And that whatever answers we think we have, they are not terminal. We need to reopen our philosophical problems and questions afresh and demand that every future generation does so.
On a positive note, I’m happy to see in some places that leaders do not do business as usual. To the dismay of the New York Times and John Kerry, Arab Gulf leaders courageously decided to slaughter the sacred cow of hating Israel with the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia is giving radical Imams a choice between home or jail. Aljazeera journalists risk imprisonment if they step foot in many Arab countries. Even with the resurgence of the Taliban, the prospects for Islamism don’t look as promising as they did 10 years ago.
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