11th September 2001: on that fateful afternoon I was on a teacher training session in east London, in the UK. A short text from a friend appeared on my mobile: 'New York Twin Towers on fire'. For a while I was in disbelief; within minutes a couple of other messages appeared on my screen. By the time I could comprehend what had happened I looked up and saw the pale faces of some of my colleagues - they had also received similar messages. The news spread and our individual shock turned into collective panic. The session was suspended and we came home early: such was the impact of a 21st century terror act. I was glued to the TV for the rest of the day.
9/11, as it has become known since then, changed the world. It was a colossal act of terror and nihilism. The tragedy quickly turned into an outpouring of sympathy from across the world. We were in sympathy with America and America's citizens. We were stunned, too, coming to terms with the reality of such a heinous act.
The sole superpower was expected to react with calm and dignity. But within weeks the advocates of Neoconservatism ('neocons') - who we now know had an ideology predicated on refashioning parts of the world order - persuaded the Bush administration to lash out. America invaded Afghanistan. And within 18 months an Arab country that was totally unrelated with the 9/11 attacks experienced America's 'shock and awe' - despite world-wide protests and UN disapproval. The US Imperial Hubris, with two sovereign countries under its boots and the deaths of unknown numbers of faceless people, rose to its peak with President Bush's historic 'Mission Accomplished speech' on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003. It gave the chilling message that America, as the ultimate arbiter in world affairs, was ready to unleash its military might on any country that 'that provoked her ire'. The outpour of sympathy gradually turned into fear and a gathering hatred of America in the Muslim world.
The consequences of the 9/11 tragedy with its short-termist War on Terror policy by the Bush administration, eagerly supported by the Blair government in Britain, became a global disaster. Overnight the world was forced into two camps by President Bush's 'You are either with us or against us' speech. For an overwhelming proportion of the world's 1.5 billion or so Muslims this seemed a War on Islam. With the American war cost in Afghanistan and Iraq reaching close to $4 trillion, combined with a US debt of around $14 trillion dollars today, the economic tectonic plates are silently shifting towards the East. Some fear that the political tectonic plates may follow suit in a generation's time.
The neocon movement in America opened up a post-7/7 front in Britain among several prominent journalists, columnists, think tanks and allied blogs. After the US victory in the Cold War and the fall of Communism in 1989, these over-enthusiastic conservative thinkers sought to find a new challenger to American hegemony. What they found was 'Islamism': an ill-defined, catch-all term that could mean anything from Islamically-inspired political activism to violent extremism in the name of Islam. This redirection in policy had tremendous political and social impact across the Atlantic. Suddenly, politically- and socially-active Muslims were seen as 'Islamists'. They may as well have said 'new Communists'. A new 'cold war' against 'Islamism' gradually took shape.
Under the neocon spell the US administration abandoned the Geneva Conventions in its War on Terror. The images of shackled prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the abuse of prisoners in Bagram Airbase and at Abu Ghraib filled the airspace. Extraordinary rendition and outsourcing of torture to criminal regimes encouraged many autocratic rulers to violently suppress their political opponents - all in the name of defeating terrorism. Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry were on the rise.
In Britain, some columnists and bloggers chose to conveniently ignoring the advocates of racism and fascism, such as the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL), and started highlighting Muslim 'otherness' with unseemly vigour. Simultaneously, many of our politicians decided to downplay the extent of anti-Muslim hatred because (according to some) it might have deflected attention from 'Islamism' - that catch-all term which they saw as the main problem facing the UK. Almost all mainstream Muslim organisations were put in the dock. Fear of Islamism was used to hide other real issues: job losses, economic insecurity, the profligacy of bankers, and so forth. As ever, these proponents of Muslim 'otherness' looked for simple answers and someone to blame. The diversion created by 9/11 therefore unlocked the doors to dangerous forces which created further division within our societies.
This stifling and noxious 'anti-Islamist' narrative gained momentum after the suicide bombings in London in July 2005 ('7/7'). A strong wind was blowing against Muslims: they were indiscriminately accused and tried by the media of engaging in 'political Islam' or, worse, 'Islamo-fascism'. This McCarthy-esque witch hunt succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear amongst the Muslim population. Even 'moderates' were treated with suspicion - they could be viewed as part of the 'conveyor belt towards extremism'.
A discredited counter-subversion policy from the Cold War era was adopted by several right-wing think tanks close to the current coalition government. A recent report by pressure group Spinwatch examined two of these think tanks, Policy Exchange (PEx) and the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC), whose main purpose seemed to be to condemn peaceful Muslims. The anti-Muslim brigade took advantage of successive governments' lacklustre responses; they had a free ride over the Muslim community. Many Muslims, conversely, felt under siege. London Metropolitan University recently carried out a comparative study on the Irish and Muslim communities, showing how (at different times) both were widely viewed as suspect communities.
Some powerful European leaders tried to cash in on this growing anti-Muslim atmosphere. In the US, a Congressional hearing on 'Muslim radicalisation' raised the anti-Muslim temperature higher. The controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders built a political career forged around Islamophobic slogans. Some 'experts' on both sides of the Atlantic wrote voluminous books to prove how bad Muslims were and how Muslim citizens were trying to 'take over' the West through the backdoor and turn the clock of history back to 7th century Arabia. Even the absurd Eurabia and Londonistan theories were getting an audience!
Fortunately, not everyone was convinced by this hyperbole. Yet it took the cold-blooded mass murder of 77 mainly-young Norwegians by far-right Christian extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, in Norway on 22 July this year to shake the conscience of Europe's political classes. In their enthusiasm for demonising Muslims they had inadvertently allowed (and encouraged, some might argue) other monsters to grow. The slayings in Norway were a horrendous wake-up call to far-right violence and ideology. Inspired by the rhetoric of politicians such Wilders and groups like the English Defence League in Britain, we got a glimpse into a savage dark-age that lurked barely-restrained around the corner.
The inspirational examples by some Muslims to contain the situation during widely-reported English riots during early August also opened the eyes of many. Local Muslim worshippers in east London calmly and responsibly saw off rioters from the streets of Whitechapel. Tariq Jahan, the father of a young Muslim man murdered trying to protect his community in Birmingham, received widespread praise for his dignity and call for restraint in the wake of his son's death.
Some are now beginning to accept that the treatment of Muslims has indeed been embarrassing. A sense of objectivity and balance seems to be gradually returning. In 2002 the Muslim Council of Britain published an insightful book, The Quest for Sanity: Reflections on September 11 and the Aftermath, with the following observations:
"The atrocities committed on September 11 were base deeds. The aftermath has been further baseness. The US-led war on terror has been used to set a global course of action with little respect for human life, national sovereignty and the rule of law. .... Terrorism has no religion. This is true whether its perpetrators are individuals, groups or states. It is time that the international community frees itself from the calculus of terror and directs all its energy towards building a just and terror-free world."
On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 the world has come to realise that 'a just and terror-free world' can only be built on respect for fellow human beings and justice, not on political opportunism. Let us all heed that call.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a parenting consultant. He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) that has grown into Citizens UK, Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). www.amanaparenting.com