It is an example of how soft power works that people remember 9/11 as the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York: recollection of the unprecedented use of a passenger plane for a kamikaze dive onto a target to blow up the target and the plane both rarely includes the damage to a big part of the Pentagon, the nerve centre of American military might. But for the brave passengers of a fourth airliner that had been hijacked, who fought with the hijackers and made the plane crash to the ground, rather than on to a target, either the Capitol or the White House, too, would have been struck.
The attack demolished some myths: one, America’s status as a continent ruled out attacks, except by missiles; two, America was the world’s sole superpower and it could not be challenged by any force on earth. But this was the least of the changes wrought by the 9/11 attacks.
In 2001, the Internet was still in its infancy, the smartphone was not yet a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eyes and the Asian crisis had only recently delivered the lesson that globalisation was not an unadulterated blessing. The 9/11 attack was, quintessentially, globalisation gone bad, in its physical execution, cultural inspirations and geopolitical span.
People moved around freely. Saudis, Lebanese, Egyptians and Emiratis could travel to the United States, stick around and take flying lessons. Money could cross borders with relative ease. A modern airliner was a sophisticated amalgam of assorted technologies. Hectic toing and froing by large masses of people via commercial flight was a product of globalisation and the liberalisation and deregulation that accompanied it. To hijack planes, fly them and crash them into high-profile targets — these took advantage of the globalisation’s effects, products and functional protocols.
America’s first Iraq war, to stop and reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, was the first exercise of irresistible superpower might. And a demonstration of American perfidy — after all, Saddam Hussein had been an American ally in the campaigns both to crush Communists/Soviet-supported democrats in Iraq and to counter the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s founder, had become a Mujahid in the fight against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan early on. The Mujahids were, of course, backed by America and Pakistan, who whipped up fundamentalist zeal to wage a low-cost battle against the Soviets. Without US-supplied stinger missiles that were used to knock out Soviet helicopters, it is difficult to say if the Mujahids would have prevailed in Afghanistan.
After the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan in 1989, after 10 years of loss of men and materiel, bin Laden turned his focus on the Americans, whom he considered to be an enemy of Arabs and of Islam. He carried out a series of bombings of American embassies, oil tankers, and even of the World Trade Centre itself, by parking a bomb-laden vehicle in its basement.
As country after country embraced globalisation in the 1990s, the cultural reaction grew as well, among those like bin Laden, who hated the materialist culture of the West, its sexual mores, usurious capitalism and brazen occupation of the holiest Islamic grounds, in the land of the Two holy mosques in Saudi Arabia. Laden considered Afghanistan alone to be a country that was worth adopting as his base, as it followed the ‘Sharia’.
The 9/11 attacks followed. The US asked the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and was rebuffed. US-led Nato forces attacked the Taliban and achieved a swift victory, in terms of capturing territory. But the al-Qaeda and its ideology lived on. The very next year, we saw the Bali bombings. Every successive year saw bombings and attacks in different parts of the world. The Charlie Hebdo attacks were not planned by bin Laden, but were inspired by his ideology. Laden was finally killed in 2011 by American navy Seals, captured from a house in Pakistan’s posh military neighbourhood of Abbottabad. It helped Obama get re-elected, but jihadist ideology lived on and continued to kill people.
Then, in 2014, the Islamic State took up the torch and established a Caliphate, taking advantage of popular disaffection with the US-backed Iraqi government’s sectarian inefficiency and corruption. The killing of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 destabilised not just Libya but the entire region, and groups like the al Shabab started spreading. The Boko Haram, loosely connected to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, kidnapped schoolgirls, raided villages and otherwise wreaked havoc in Nigeria and the neighbourhood.
India saw its own share of terror attacks, including the attack on Mumbai in 2008. Pakistan’s generals think they can control their Frankenstein’s monster, but saw the creature gobble up its school children at a military school in Peshawar. The Islamist state found a toehold in the Philippines.
The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan shows the limits of combating religious fundamentalism with military force alone. So, what is the alternative?
Most religions remain primitive and sectarian, till the societies that follow them modernise and democratise. Christianity today is a far cry from the Christianity of the Spanish Inquisition or the religious order that burnt people at the stake for suggesting that the sun did not go around Earth. Christendom industrialised, democratised and ceded secular space for temporal life.
Islam had arguably been more accommodative of other faiths than Christianity had been until the 20th century. Pogroms against Jews were a feature of the Christian world, not of the Muslim one. Jews lived in Iran with security and dignity, right till the Islamic revolution. Medieval pursuit of science in Europe was exclusively an Islamic endeavour — algebra derives its etymology from al-jabr, a term in a 9th century Persian author’s work that explored mathematical equations.
In the 20th century, when the Islamic world was modernising and aspiring to democracy, the world was divided into two warring camps of the Cold War. The forces of democracy in the Islamic world were supported by the Soviet Union and so were automatically dubbed the enemy to be crushed by the US. The CIA staged the coup against a democratic regime in Iran, which dared to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and imposed the Shah as the ruler.
Across the world, Communists were active combatants against colonial and pre-capitalist forms of social oppression. This made them soldiers of democracy, even if their goal, after securing democracy, was to build the kind of totalitarian society the Soviet Union had passed off as socialism. Communists were active in the most evolved parts of the Islamic world as champions of democracy — as elsewhere in the decolonising world after World War II. The Americans saw it as their mission to stop the Communist surge and effectively positioned themselves as opponents of democracy.
In India, they saw a non-Communist democracy take hold and supported it, gritting their teeth at Nehru’s socialistic mode, anti-imperialism and Indira Gandhi’s non-alignment, while they gave aid bilaterally and through the World Bank. But in those parts of the world where the Communists were in the forefront of popular movements against their own oppressive rulers, the so-called ‘leader of the Free World’ did their best to throttle those Soviet- supported movements and backed authoritarian rulers.
The Shah’s regime in Iran oversaw the slaughter of thousands of Communists and advocates of democracy. This happened in Iraq and in Indonesia, with Saddam Hussain and Suharto respectively despatching America’s enemies, potential modernisers of the Islamic world, to the other world by the tens of thousands.
Such repression left room only for religion as the vehicle and idiom of popular protest.
India was another place where the Muslim world could have modernised. The Partition set things back. Thereafter, cynical communal politics in India and the extreme inequality, state failure and need to mobilise people against India in Pakistan, led to the use and growth of religious fundamentalism and it thwarted internal modernity.
Modernity is a problematic term, often confused with westernisation. What is meant here is people taking up occupations of a non-traditional kind and thus mingling and working with people of all kinds regardless of identity, and being content to let religion inform only their spiritual life while material life is guided by the laws of the land that assume every citizen to be equal to every other citizen, as also by the mores of the society around, rather than by what a cleric tells them are the dictates of religion. That happens when societies move out of traditional, subsistence modes of production, become part of the global division of labour, get educated to be able to do that and democracy institutionalises the processes that protect individual and group rights.
Ultimately, democracy is the route to and guarantor of a life in which ethics and morality are coded into laws framed by popular consensus rather than by divine intervention. In that world, faith-based radicalism would be marginalised. The fight against terror is ultimately a struggle for ever-expanding democracy. Of course, while that good fight continues, terrorists would have to be put down. Focusing on just the latter part is to repeat the errors of the last 20 years’ history since 9/11 — and see the return of the Taliban.