There is a “War on Terror”, we are told, but who is winning? Since the 9/11 assault, terrorist attacks in Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul, London, Madrid, and elsewhere, have killed and injured thousands of innocents. Bin Laden has depicted the fear and devastation wrought by such atrocities, fuelling suspicion and hostility against Islam worldwide, as a legitimate Muslim response to “a new crusade led by America against the Islamic nations.” Bin Laden’s actions have thus been hugely successful in exacerbating an inexorable polarisation between “the Islamic world” and “the Americans and their allies.”
Yet oddly, bin Laden’s rhetoric bears unnerving similarities to that of his most ardent opponents. In the wake of last month’s terror plot, President Bush declared that we are fighting a “war against Islamic fascism.” Indeed, the monolithic identities identified by bin Laden seem to read straight from the musings of influential Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington. “Contemporary global politics is the age of Muslim wars”, he wrote in January 2002. “These instances of Muslim violence could congeal into one major clash of civilizations between Islam and the West or between Islam and the Rest.”
And indeed, bin Laden has successfully bogged down the United States, Britain and the Rest of the West in a series of dubious imperial military adventures in the Middle East and Central Asia. By now, coalition casualties in both conflict zones have soared, with up to 20,000 American troops sufficiently wounded to have been evacuated. Iraqi and Afghan civilian casualties, however, have also done the coalition no PR favours. A widely-cited survey by Marc Herold, professor of economics at New Hampshire University, found that at least 3,767 Afghan civilians were killed by British and US bombs between October and December 2001. In Iraq, the Lancet provided a peer-reviewed estimate of “at least 100,000” Iraqi civilians killed largely under coalition aerial bombardment. The reported destruction lends undeserved credence to bin Laden’s portrayal of a West at war with Islam. These nations were targeted, he said, solely because they are “Muslims and non-American”. Therefore, the Americans felt it was “their right” to “annihilate” them.
Combined with the increasingly repressive and discriminatory apparatus of anti-terrorism laws being extended and executed at home, the Anglo-American response has only served to alienate and criminalize the very Muslim communities that are needed to curb terrorism. In September 2004, the Institute of Race Relations warned that terrorism powers were being misused for other purposes, in routine criminal investigations and in the policing of immigration. By the 7th July terrorist attacks last year, despite over 700 arrests of Muslims under the UK Terrorism Act, there were less than 20 convictions. Following bin Laden down his rabbit hole, the West has created a ‘recruiting sergeant’ for Islamist terrorism more powerful than bin Laden could have ever dreamed.
But simultaneously, bin Laden’s 9/11 provided precisely the ideological capital Whitehouse policymakers needed to implement questionable strategies that would otherwise have received little public support. In September 2000, the neoconservative Project for a New American Century — many of whose members joined the Bush administration — advocated “the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf”, to be achieved by the Defense Department moving “more aggressively to experiment with new technologies and operational concepts”. But this process of transformation, it lamented, “is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.” Thus, with 9/11, bin Laden sealed the neoconservative grip on power, by seemingly proving their point — that Islamist terrorism was an unprecedented new threat, requiring unprecedented global policing.
Since then, the policies and pronunciations of Bush and bin Laden have repeatedly rebounded off each other in an increasingly macabre dance of death. “These events have divided the whole world into two sides”, declared the al-Qaeda emir on 8 October 2001: “The side of believers and the side of infidels.” As if to confirm the accuracy of this statement, the American President warned the international community the following month that “they will be held accountable for inactivity. You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”
But alas, life is not so simple. The world cannot be compartmentalized into two giant enemy camps doomed to global conflict. Five years on, there are no winners in this war, only hundreds and thousands of losers, Muslim and non-Muslim victims of neoconservative and Islamist terrorism. While the mutual rhetoric and actions of the fundamentalists serve to reinforce each other, they ignore the common principles of human rights, justice, and freedom that unite the authentic Islamic and western European heritage, and which the vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims alike hold dear.