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9/11: What it changed and did not change about the world as we know it

In commemoration of ten-year anniversary of the September 11 incident, it is imperative to first and foremost express heart-felt condolences to the departed and their relatives who have suffered from their loss of the loved ones.

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What perhaps is the most dramatic about 9/11 is the glorification of the battle between the Western free world and barbarian Muslim terrorists in the subsequent global war on terror (GWoT). This refers to the US introduction of the Patriot Act, establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and invasions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. It is dramatic because for the first time in contemporary history non-state actor(s), i.e. terrorists and their network the Al Qaeda, has been given an equal status in an international ‘war’ usually waged on the interstate level. This, however, has ironically become a topic of hot debates about anti-terror measures. 

On this account, 9/11 gave mandate to mostly hawkish neo-conservative US officials, or neo-cons, to implement much tighter security controls on the US mainland and somehow justify torture on terrorist suspects, most of whom said to be held in Guantanamo Bay. Meanwhile, the US embarked on wars with the Taliban and Saddam Hussein because the Taliban harboured the Al Qaeda while Saddam was believed to be in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Despite initial dissent against the GWoT especially towards the war in Iraq, one cannot underestimate the consensus among the US public that 9/11 was a quite legitimate casus belli and that the GWoT was justified against non-state actors such as terrorists. 

As wars dragged on and proper victory not yet secured in Afghanistan and Iraq, the romanticism of the GWoT that the US has led the free world against terror which so threatens the pursuit of individual liberty has, however, been eroded by reports of daily deaths of US soldiers and allies. Implication of that is whether warfare was the last resort for dealing with terrorism in the first place. One began to question the extent to which the ‘unknown unknown’, or terrorism and everything related to it, constituted merely a ‘discourse’ constructed by the US imperial mentality so as to conduct the international policing as such. Whether or not the US waged the war in Iraq for oil is left at the discretion of conspiracy theorists. One thing for certain is that analysts and scholars have now argued that anti-terror measures have fundamentally undermined the ‘soft power’ of the US which has always made the US attractive and been regarded as a benign hegemon. Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in The End of History elucidates the argument that after the end of the Cold War the US has emerged as the sole superpower. Alas, global military commitments have done just the opposite. The US bypass of the UN authority in their invasion of Iraq and military overreach which mightily contributed to economic drawbacks have spurred debates on the breach of international law, neo-imperialism and whether these wars have been worth it.

On the other hand, some scholars have pointed out that 9/11 has not significantly altered the world in certain aspects. What prevail are first the existence of religious or ideological fundamentalism and secondly the rivalry between radicalised movements, of which the Al Qaeda is just one, and their nuanced counterparts. This makes it quite plausible to argue that there will always be someone prone to radicalisation. Unfortunately the number does not necessarily matter because the age of technology has endowed an individual with the means to committing atrocities on a large scale. Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that 9/11 is not a historical turning point (http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/09/2011949521974423.html) as ‘it did not herald a new era of international relations in which terrorists with a global agenda prevailed, or in which such spectacular terrorist attacks became commonplace...But progress is not to be confused with victory. Terrorists and terrorism cannot be eliminated any more than we can rid the world of disease. There will always be those who will resort to force against innocent men, women, and children in pursuit of political goals.’ 

What 9/11 did was to crystallise another prevailing worldview which is so different from the romanticised liberal democracy and capitalism. Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis became even more seminal because he had predicted, almost a decade before 9/11, that a fault line of battle in the coming era is to be between civilisations, especially the West and the Islamic world. The argument is not to be exaggerated nonetheless, as the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has shown the strength of Islamic parliamentarians. And yet, even though Osama bin Laden is now truly dead, the Al Qaeda and other networks of terrorists have not died away. The idea of the return to the Caliphate and the shariah (Islamic law) did not result from the Al Qaeda and bin Laden, but in fact gave birth to them. Such ideas trace back to the time of the Ottoman Empire when independent states in the Middle East were carved by the West, the British and the French in particular, in an effort to, as conspiracy theorists have it, prevent Muslims from re-emerging and challenging the Western making of the world. The reason why Al Qaeda is so ruthless is because they follow the Salafiyya - the Islamic doctrine which spells out the rigorous following of the Qur’an and interpretation of it in a Manichean way. Influenced by the Prophet’s life in the Medinan period during which he used the sword to propel his enemies, the Salafiyya doctrine prefers the ‘sword phrase’ of the Qur’an over the ‘peace phrase‘ and sees the world as perpetual battling between dar al-harb and dar al-Islam. Those in the dar al-harb are seen as the ‘kufrs’ or the ‘unbelievers‘ who must be converted into Muslim. The Al Qaeda is frustrated by the US (unbelievers because they are Christians) policies in the Middle East and hence these ‘terrorists‘ regard the US as stepping onto the Muslim holy land. Their war against the US can be justified on the grounds of self-defence whereby every Muslim is entitled to hold a sword and protect their land and neighbouring Muslims. The US citizens were justifiably targeted because they gave the mandate to the US government according to the liberal democratic system. 

In this respect, 9/11 was simply a culmination of extreme hatred ingrained in the minds of Islamic fundamentalists towards the West. Tendency of the radicalised doctrine signals the almost perpetual inclination of persistent radical movements and radical actions against US policies. Better technology and sophisticated weapons will not always render victorious those who acquire them but  they must ‘win hearts and minds’ - a lesson the US should have learned better about Vietnam.  

On the other hand, statements about grievances of the Muslim world only serve to highlight Huntington’s thesis. The crash of the twin towers signifies it because the towers symbolised the glory of Western capitalism and the wealth it brings. 9/11 shows how much damage can be done by a handful number of people to express their dissatisfaction against the so-called triumph of the West.  

All this means the cultural aspect of the international should not and must not be discounted. The significance of culture lies in the fact that it defines who we are and, more crucially, subsequently affects how we think about ourselves and the world. As John Maynard Keynes put it, ideas are like plague. Culture is but one factor which can radicalise ideas and unify like-minded people. Of course this is not entirely true given that Americans are divided between those who support and oppose to the GWoT, and that Muslims are divided into radicals and pacifists. What matters however is that the idea of dissent against the West has instilled in radicals’ minds, seeing themselves as being suppressed by Western culture unfit for Muslims who are supposed to live in the dar al-Islam following the path of Islam to paradise. 

For them, Muslims must be ‘freed’ to break away from the Westphalian style of territoriality and western style of liberal democracy and liberalism, and to revert to the Caliphate and the shariah. With asymmetries of the parties to conflict, i.e. the West has much more sophisticated technology, weapons and larger manpower, terror is deemed to be the last resort of suicide bombers who would go to Allah in the afterlife. 9/11 has drawn attention to see the power of this sense of identity. In a similar vein, the killing spree in Norway a few months earlier should ring a bell about the persistence of fundamentalism. 

One caveat though. The significance of culture, ideas and identity by no means suggests the superiority of social constructivism over material issues such as self-interests as pronounced by realism and liberalism. 9/11 might have marked an era of extensive international policing of global network of terrorism, but the globalised world is also characterised by communications, transportation, and integration of national markets into the world and/or regional economy. All of these suggest a terrorist network can always find a way to hide and thrive. 9/11 gave the US the opportunity to express imperial ambition but it became the victim of its own success. Recent economic crises, considerably attributed to its military commitments, show how fragile the US can be. At the same time, the wrath of the Al Qaeda also portrays the degree to which the power of ideas might have been underplayed in international politics. We now live in a more globalised world, but also one which is indeed fragmented along so many lines, political, economic, social or even ideological.

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