How 9/11 changed the Muslim World

The year 2001 was one of many tribulations and disasters, ranging from economic recession to the Manhattan bombing of September 11. It is by now a cliche that the world changed on 9/11, yet many do not fully understand how much.

It is not just the US that has changed irrevocably. A potentially bigger change is occurring in Muslim countries, strengthening secular forces and weakening fundamentalist ones.

To Indians, the most obvious changes are in Pakistan, but similar things are happening in the rest of the Muslim world. Back in October, passionate anti-American street demonstrations rocked Muslim countries, the demand for Osama T-shirts exploded, and Muslim analysts told the US to forget military action and instead try to understand why it was hated so widely.

Some gleefully predicted that the US would get stuck in Afghanistan like the Soviet Union and British earlier. Others said bombing Afghanistan would set the Muslim world even more firmly against the US.

Events have exposed that as wishful thinking. The US success was unexpectedly swift and total. Going by the logic of anti-American analysts, that should have made Muslim countries even more anti-American.

Instead, anti-US demonstrations disappeared, and the demand for Osama T-shirts collapsed. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are no longer touted as Islamic heroes battling the infidel. The morale and strength of secular Islamic forces have improved in all Muslim countries, reversing years of fundamentalist advance.

Muslim governments that were earlier reluctant to take on the mullahs are now doing so. The notion that Osama and his fundamentalism represented the way forward has taken a powerful knock.

In Kuwait, faithful ally of the US, radical Islam had made such strides in recent years that the government looked like giving in to clerical pressure to install Sharia law. But after the Taliban’s debacle, everything has changed.

The Kuwait government has swung the other way, banned scores of fundamentalist institutions, and stopped dubious outfits from collecting money supposedly for charity, but actually to create madrassas preaching religious hate.

Yemen and Somalia have long been safe havens for militant Islamic groups. Local warlords are not particularly keen on transnational terrorism, but have been happy to make deals with moneyed fundamentalists.

However, after Afghanistan, they know that they can no longer play footsie with fundamentalists with impunity. Safe havens may not totally disappear, but will decline sharply in number and safety.

None of this means that Muslims suddenly love the US. Quite the contrary. What it does mean is that Osama and Co are no longer seen as Islamic heroes, as messiahs who will take Muslims to a new promised land.

Osama achieved heroic stature by taking on the US repeatedly with impunity. He masterminded the bombing of US soldiers in Dhahran (Saudi Arabia), of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam, of the naval ship USS Cole, and finally 9/11.

Earlier US attempts to retaliate were either futile (as with President Clinton’s bombing of camps in Afghanistan) or stupid (like mistakenly bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan).

With every new bombing, Osama’s stock rose in Muslim countries, which saw the US as unable to react with more than the odd bomb raid. This strengthened mullahs in every Muslim country and sent secularists into retreat.

But 9/11 ended American waffling, and provoked it to declare open war on terrorism. What followed soon proved that Osama was no David who could repeatedly defeat Goliath. He had merely got away with earlier bombings because the US was reluctant to go into full battle. Once it did, his goose was cooked.

Pakistan, Syria and Libya have, in the past, supported terrorist organisations. They will doubtless continue to support nationalist terrorists those seeking the liberation of a particular territory, like Palestine or Kashmir.

The US will live with this provided these governments crack down on transnational terrorists, who attack distant countries out of ideological religious fervour. The distinction between nationalist and transnational terrorism has not explicitly been made by US policy makers, but is being followed tacitly in practice.

Pakistan has long tried to straddle both sides of the fence, using militant Islam for its purposes in Afghanistan and Kashmir, yet claiming to be fundamentally secular and modern, and hence a natural ally of the West.

But 9/11 forced Pakistan to choose. It has chosen, with some understandable ambiguity, to take the secular route. Pro-mullah elements in the Pakistan Army have been sidelined, though they will doubtless fight back.

No more will Pakistan use mullahs to extend its influence with the Taliban or Afghanistan. No longer will Pakistan allow madrassas to preach religious hatred, and act as training grounds for transnational terrorists.

These madrassas had as many as 35,000 foreign students from other Muslim countries, all posing a threat not just to the US or India, but to secular Muslim governments everywhere.

No Pakistani president earlier dared take on the madrassas. That has changed after 9/11. The madrassas will be reformed into secular institutions that teach maths and science rather than holy war. The mullahs will fight back and may win some battles, but secularists in the government should come out on top.

Pakistan will indigenise terrorism, weeding out foreigners and focusing its assistance on ethnic Kashmiri groups like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Militancy in Kashmir will decline though not end. It will become a Kashmiri rather than Islamic uprising, a promising change that will make a solution easier.

Any real change in the Muslim world has to come from within, and cannot be imposed by US might. But the US can change the internal dynamics in Muslim countries by strengthening secular forces and weakening the mullahs.

Its firmness on terrorism has achieved this. The change in power equations within Muslim countries will be messy, riddled with ambiguities, and laced with plenty of anti-Americanism. Many deep problems will continue unresolved.

The terrorists will be quelled, but not eliminated, and will wreak revenge from time to time on the US, Europe and India. Nevertheless, after 9/11, the world has become a better place, warts and all.

What do you think?