By Ed Attwood
In a special report, Arabian Business looks at how the decade following 9/11 changed the world of politics and business
Did the world really change after 9/11? In many respects, even a decade later, it is too soon to tell. The ramifications of what happened on that autumn morning ten years ago will be argued in scholarly and political circles for years to come. One issue is certain; America will never forget an assault that was likened to Pearl Harbour for its sudden intensity.
In some ways, Osama Bin Laden did succeed in his original aims. The decade following 9/11 has seen the US, and many of its allies, embroiled in wars in various parts of the world, which Al Qaeda has portrayed as a one-dimensional West versus Islam crusade. Campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen America pitted in attritional asymmetric warfare against an often hidden enemy, with thousands of civilian casualties. Last year, the Afghan operation overtook Vietnam to become the longest-ever war in which the US has been engaged.
The cost of both campaigns has been put at nearly $1.25 trillion, or nearly nine percent of US GDP. Far more than that was spent on procuring the weapons and combat systems needed to support those campaigns, while the US defence budget last year alone topped $685bn. But where Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan differed is that the US did not blink when the tide threatened to turn against them. Military surges, with popular backing, have thus far ensured that Al Qaida’s role has diminished, perhaps irretrievably. However, no-one could have predicted that the conflicts could have lasted for as long as they have.
For a decade, wars in the Middle East have shaped US consciousness; countless films and books have been written about the conflict, and the never-ending parade of coffins through towns and cities across the country have ensured that Afghanistan and Iraq remain a constant topic of discussion. The US also enacted several pieces of legislation to combat terrorism, some of which were replicated elsewhere in the world. The Department of Homeland Security was created to coordinate domestic anti-terrorism efforts, while the Patriot Act gave authorities wide-ranging powers to monitor and prosecute suspects.
But ‘pain-based interrogation’ and rendition, which brought dubious results, appeared to have died a death. Security measures live on though; passing through US airports today, ten years on, is an experience that many would wish to forget. Even worse, America’s immigration laws are threatening to deter the global talent that the superpower desperately needs if it is to retain its economic pre-eminence.
Another more persistent aspect of the fallout from 9/11 has been Islamophobia, not only in the US, where it is most prevalent, but also in Europe as well. US president George Bush famously visited the mosque at the Islamic Centre of Washington just a week after the 9/11 attacks in a bid to forestall hate crimes against America’s sizeable Muslim population.
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” Bush said. “Islam is peace.”
But despite efforts by Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, there are fears that Islamophobia is more ingrained in the US consciousness now than at any time since the attacks on New York and Washington. A 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that only 37 percent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam, the lowest figure since 2001. A Time magazine poll from the same year revealed that roughly a third of Americans thought that Muslims should be banned from running for the presidency, with 28 percent thinking that followers of Islam should be ineligible to sit on the US Supreme Court.
In Norway, a massacre committed by Anders Breivik revealed links to US-based anti-Islam commentators, and the incident was greeted with a slew of negative comment on American talkboards before it was revealed that the perpetrator was, in fact, a white Christian.
In the Gulf, close economic ties between the six GCC nations and the US have seen those relationships thrive. Despite the fact that many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi-born, the partnership has continued relatively unhindered. The last ten years have seen commercial hubs expand beyond all recognition, while universities have flourished.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, the fallout has been much more sustained. There is a very real threat that Afghanistan will become a failed state, and Pakistan is likewise suffering from its proximity to a country that has been suffering from internal strife for the best part of 30 years. Worries persist in Somalia and the rest of the Horn of Africa, while Al Qaida still appears to hold some sway in Yemen and certain areas in North Africa.
Bernard Lewis, the famous scholar on Middle Eastern issues, wrote in 2002 that “if the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression…” Lewis also indicated that if the region could resolve its differences, it could again become a centre of civilisation, “as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages”.
Ten years on, and the scholar’s view that the Middle East might take the ‘suicide bomber’ route could not be more wrong. While Osama Bin Laden spent the last years of his life in a compound in Pakistan, he must have known that his influence on the Islamic world had waned to the point where he had become an irrelevance. The Arab revolts that have taken place this year have shown that there is a deep-seated rejection of Al Qaida’s philosophy, with young disenfranchised populations seeking a greater say in the way that their nations are developed. And despite fears that rapidly evolving events could create a vacuum in which Al Qaida or Al Qaida affiliates could gain a foothold — fears voiced mainly by dictators themselves — there has been little evidence to suggest this has been the case. Even amongst the people he claimed to be his own, Bin Laden’s rhetoric has long been absent of any power.
“Al Qaida can strike again of course, but it will be the futile struggle of a drowning man; the giant wave of confident Arab youth will triumph,” wrote Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati commentator, in this magazine shortly after the death of Bin Laden. “We Arabs are just as smart, just as ambitious and just as forward-thinking as any other people. We have the power to change the world for the better; in fact, we’ve already started.”