The legacy of 9/11: A divisive, self-fulfilling, global prophecy

The legacy of 9/11: A divisive, self-fulfilling, global prophecy
Comment: Laith Saud explores how the 'Clash of Civilisations' and the 'War on Terror', along with the rise of new technologies have shaped today's world order.
6 min read
13 Sep, 2016
The vivid concept of 'Islam and the West' endures, writes Laith Saud [Getty]

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 will have shaped our entry into the 21st century for at least our lifetime.

By "shaped," I do not simply mean the attacks imply more attacks (martial or militant) - though that has happened. I mean our way of being in the world has been turned upside down; the individual is no longer simply local, she or he is global. 

On the one hand, the conceptual borders between "Islam" and the "West" could not be more vivid; on the other, spaces and distances have collapsed completely with the advent of social media.

But the vivid concept of "Islam and West" endures, allowing analysts, strategists and thinkers to pontificate on the danger of far away places they have never been to, while drones enable the unjust killing of thousands who were never tried, but convicted due to location - in other words - for being local.

9/11 and the Clash of Civilisations theory

In the late 1990s, Samuel Huntington published his seminal and famous The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argued "the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural." 

A few years later, the attacks of 9/11 seemed to confirm Huntington's prediction. It is not incidental that Huntington took the title of his work from none other than Bernard Lewis, eminent historian of the Middle East. Lewis observed what he perceived as "a surge of hatred that distresses, alarms, and above all baffles Americans", coming out of the Muslim world.

This hatred was based on dissimilar values, in other words, differences in culture. Lewis stresses that the "hatred" he speaks of "becomes a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only what it does but what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes." He certainly convinced Huntington.

Many Americans were very comfortable looking at the Muslim world in simplistic, monolithic terms

Ironically, one could argue that the Bush administration applied the Huntington thesis. Though the attacks purportedly originated in Afghanistan and were carried out by actors primarily from Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration focused its attention and resources on Iraq. 

As the Clash theory would suggest, Iraq is part of the larger civilisation of Islam, thus a source, too, of "Muslim rage". In this context, the Bush administration's strategy - though unsound - would have at least been driven by sincere security considerations. But that was not the case. 

Iraq was invaded for oil. It was invaded to enrich certain contractors in the United States close to power.  9/11 was a shocking tragedy.  The invasion of Iraq was a calculated crime of the most massive proportions - involving robbery and murder. And the average American simply did not know the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan; they were not conservative proponents of Huntington's worldview. 

Nonetheless, the tendency to generalise took hold, and many Americans were very comfortable looking at the Muslim world in simplistic, monolithic terms. The symbolism of 9/11 on television was enough - as it was the only experience most Americans had with Muslims (think Plato's Allegory of the Cave).

The Clash of Twitter and the re-making of the world order

Baudrillard highlighted the significance of imagery in what could be described as simulation of the world; the world, as it is experienced, is basically simulated through the television. Saddam Hussein's face was more recognisable than Mullah Omar's. US media had presented Hussein as Hitler for over ten years at that point. The invasion of Iraq proceeded apace and the destruction therein has yet to be accounted for, either in cost or justice. 

The fact the US invaded Iraq more forcefully than Afghanistan was attributed to the concept of a "War on Terror," incidentally; this is also the time that social media emerged, millions of social media users engaged one another with the spectre of terror constantly looming. 

In this context - demanding more and more content - a market emerged; a market for "experts" on Islam, on terror and on security. With the expansion of Wi-Fi, the capacity to become an armchair analyst was greater than ever.

The fact that the US invaded Iraq more forcefully than Afghanistan, was attributed to the concept of a 'War on Terror'

First, access to media and information became widespread, and people were able to publish without much expertise. Once established through a vetting process, expertise was gained through degrees or training from the appropriate institutions.

Today however, value is not derived from expertise but rather exposure - the more "followers" one has, the more of an "expert" they become, or at least a desired name. Simply type "security" into Twitter's search engine to see how many people identify themselves as security experts. 

Secondly, social media has collapsed distances. I can now not only read about far away places instantly but even communicate with people in such places instantly. But the premise of such a communication determines its trajectory.

Since I am an "expert" in "security" I speak with Arabs or Turks or Persians about "terror," since their connection to me is similarly predicated, they too "inform me" about terror and the categories of conflict, difference and idioms persist. 

Breaking down words such as "jihad", or elaborating on the significance of "as-Sham" in the "sacral imagination of Muslims" serves the function of "enlightening" all us westerners to all that violence "over there". And since it is so "violent" over there, we must maintain our perpetual war. The War on Terror - the legacy of 9/11 - has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The loss of the local

Notwithstanding the tremendous crime that was the invasion of Iraq, the larger loss of the local is perhaps the more long-term injury to the world. Iraq will recover - someday, though maybe not in my lifetime. The world will never escape the omnipresent eye of "security".

Arms dealers need to make money and 'experts' need to have something to talk about; that is the 'War on Terror' in a nutshell

In Yemen, as I write these words, someone is being killed by drones or American supplied weapons. This person is innocent; they will never be tried and are thus innocent by definition. In Syria, right now, drones or Russian supplied weapons are killing an innocent. 

To this add the fact that many of these victims are innocent in the literal sense of the word. Regardless of how hard a Yemeni or Syrian wishes to avoid war, how far away they may reside from the centers of weapon production, the force of this discursive and digital simulation of a "War on Terror" has wrought itself upon them. 

After all, arms dealers need to make money and "experts" need to have something to talk about; that is the "War on Terror" in a nutshell. But if you are interested in actually ending terrorism, begin with the "here" - there is much to discuss, leave "over there" alone.              

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.