Ten years ago. Time flies. I remember the images, my reactions : shock, near denial. “It’s crazy, it can’t be !” A few days later Time magazine invited me to talk about the relationship between such violence and Islam. I remember having said, clearly : “As so many other observers, I have questions about the facts. But since Muslims were claiming to have acted in the name of my religion, I must take a stand and condemn these terrible terrorist attacks. Nothing can justify them ; not only are they non-Islamic, they are anti-Islamic.” At the time, I was still minimizing the potential impact of those attacks. I was not completely aware of either the magnitude or the potential exploitation of what would soon be called “Islamic terrorism” and the “War on Terror.” But it rapidly became clear that we were witnessing a turning point. The reaction of the American people was as noble as it was honorable. Despite the media coverage and the political confusion, 66% did not believe that the attacks represented Islam. Many hurried to help their Muslim neighbors and to protect the local mosque. It was an impressive display.
Then President George W. Bush gave American citizens, especially the Muslims, a choice. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. American citizens and Muslims were trapped, especially when a few weeks later they had to support the invasion of Afghanistan as a legitimate response to 9/11. The true relationship between the innocent Afghans who were going to die and Usama Ben Laden was not clear. There was nevertheless no choice : either you are with us or with the terrorists was the motto.
I believed it was possible to be against both. The 9/11 attacks had to be clearly and firmly condemned, just as the war in Afghanistan—and more broadly the so called war on terror —was unjustifiable. But I had to face the reality : the world had changed.In the name of our own security we had to accept to be monitored, questioned and suspected. Our social and political rights, as well as our most basic human right—the presumption of innocence—were questioned ; the greater the violence, the more draconian the security policy.
For ten years —with another “legitimate” additional war in Iraq—we have been witnessed growing fear, suspicion, and stigmatization. Mainstream Muslim, in the West as well as in the Muslim majority countries, became more and more vocal and proactive. Not only did they condemn was happened but also attempted to explain the true nature of Islam. Conferences, symposia and lectures were organized around the world to cleanse Islam of such behavior. Ten years later have we succeeded ? The situation and the figures are cause for concern : the great majority of the Western population have a very negative image of not only extremists but of Islam and of ordinary practicing Muslims. 72% of Americans now think that Islam and the Muslim are a problem in the United States.
In the Muslim majority countries, the situation is the same. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed by terrorist attacks themselves or have paid the price of the so-called war on terror as justified retaliation. The consequences of 9/11—beyond Afghanistan and Iraq—are huge. Muslims must prove they are “moderate ;” they are seen as permanently suspect, both in their way of life and when they travel. We have heard time and time again : “Not all Muslims are terrorists but it so happens that all terrorists are Muslims”—a slogan that has justified the mainly negative media coverage of Islam and the discriminatory treatment of Muslims.
Usama Ben Laden has been killed, we are told. A page of a sinister book has been turned ; it’s time to move on. The Arab uprisings have proved that massive non-violent protest can shake the dictators’ thrones. One can feel a new energy even nothing is clear and the future still uncertain. It might be, however, that the most important liberation for the Muslims will be intellectual and psychological.
It is time for them to stop being defensive and apologetic about their faith and values. The war on Muslim minds has had a damaging effect and, on the long run, might prove more dangerous than the war on terror. For millions of Muslims, it is essential to resist becoming alienated, frightened, uncertain and lacking self-confidence. Not to live in the eyes of others’ judgments, but by the meaning of one’s own dignity. It might be that 9/11 is teaching us the most important of all Islamic spiritual teachings : intellectual and psychological liberation are the two conditions of freedom. Through their spiritual, intellectual and social struggles Muslims should dare to be free. For freedom has a price they must be prepared to pay.