- [Over the next few days there will be some posts reflecting on the world 10 years after 9/11. This is one.]
Sometimes it’s important to step back from the daily news and look at the bigger picture. A new Gallup poll on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 brings some welcome news — there appears to be no link between religious identity and support for violent attacks against civilians. From Gallup:
A Gallup analysis of more than 130 countries nearly a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks suggests that one’s religious identity and level of devotion have little to do with one’s views about attacking civilians. Almost all residents surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa who reject attacks on civilians say religion is an important part of their daily lives — much like those who say attacks are sometimes justified. […]Evidence refutes the argument that Islam encourages violence more than other religions. Residents of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states are slightly less likely than residents of non-member states to view military attacks on civilians as sometimes justified, and about as likely as those of non-member states to say the same about individual attacks.
In the aftermath of 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror, one of our greatest fears was that the Islamic religious and political revival across the Middle East would inexorably lead to an increase is support for terrorist groups and attacks on civilians: that radical groups like Al-Qaeda would hijack awakening Islam. Ten years later, this appears not to have happened — in fact, the opposite has occurred. Despite the claims of radical Islamic leaders that a violent holy war against America is encouraged by Islamic law, Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa were by far the least likely to condone violence against civilians of any group in the world.
Mehmet II enters Constantinople
This is extremely good news, and we should be happy that our nightmare failed to materialize. While American policy surely played some role in this shift, more important is the rejection of terrorism by those who have experienced it. As I wrote in an earlier piece on Iraq:
Sunni Iraqis took a long hard look at Al-Qaeda. They watched bombs go off in marketplaces and mosques. They watched reprisal killings of respected tribal elders and innocents. They watched undisciplined groups of fighters, freed from all moral and social restraint, innocent for the most part of any serious religious knowledge, imposed narrow and poorly conceived ideas on society by force in the name of an Islam Al-Qaeda neither understood nor respected. […]They decided that the future of their families, their children and their values was better served by aligning with the United States against the terrorists and against the fanatics.
The past decade has been a chaotic one for the Middle East, as country after country has been rocked by upheavals and violence. But experiencing religious nutcase violence does not seem to make people yearn for more. Ten years after 9/11 Al-Qaeda and its ilk have been driven into the fringes of Islamic discourse.
The good news should not be exaggerated. Hatred of Israel can still inflame people across the Middle East — yesterday’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo being just one of many cases in point. Radical Islam in various forms today still rejects the global status quo and is deeply hostile to many (but not all) of the values and interests that are important to many people in the US. An immense cultural, political and ideological gap exists between the two worlds, and many Muslims who reject random violence against civilians consider themselves to be at war with western civilization and to the American power they see as propping it up. And when we are speaking of well over one billion Muslims, a very small percentage can be a very large number — certainly large enough so that radical fringe violent groups can recruit new members and raise more money.
Ten years after 9/11 we are not living in paradise. But neither has the radical fringe managed to capture the mantle of Islam. Osama bin Laden is dead, his organization badly frayed, and his ideology has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of those he sought to enlist. The problems and tensions that gave birth to his movement, however, remain.
More profoundly, Islam is once more intellectually, culturally and politically awake. It will be a presence and a power in the 21st century world in ways it has not been for the last 200 years. No one yet knows what that means, and it will likely mean different things in different places and different contexts, but it does not mean nothing. Like Christianity, Islam is a proselytizing religion with global ambitions. Even more than Christianity, it is a religion that is linked to a political agenda. That agenda can change as Muslims analyze their history and reinterpret their faith, but the reawakening of Islam cannot be considered a non-political or apolitical matter.
Those who think that politics in the 21st century will steadily grow more secular, which is what the overwhelming majority of American policymakers and opinion shapers believed for many years, were utterly deceived. We are in for an age of identity politics and religious competition. Sharpening this sense of competition will be the degree to which civilizations, cultures, economic groups and individual human beings are going to feel challenged and even endangered by rapid social change — and the radical insecurity we all feel as a result of the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The siege of Belgrade (Wikimedia)
The revulsion which violence against civilians inspires among peoples of all faiths is a good and a healthy thing, and it is one of many reasons why we can reasonably hope to limit religious conflict and violence. But that revulsion in itself is not enough to prevent new waves of conflict based on the complex politics of faith. The efforts of Muslims to define and assert an international political role for the second largest of the great world religions will, for better and for worse, be a part of 21st century politics no matter what happens to Al-Qaeda the organization or to the agenda of hatred and apocalypticism that spawned it.