x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'War on Islam' had victims, but no victor

In the decade since the September 11 attacks, the world has not broken down into Muslim and non-Muslim camps, as some feared and others hoped.

CAIRO // The men who seized Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl accused him of being a spy, first for the CIA and later for Israeli intelligence. He was clearly neither, but it did not matter.

The 38-year-old American was beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti-raised member of Al Qaeda, on February 1, 2002, in Karachi, Pakistan, where he was investigating a possible link between Osama bin Laden's organisation and Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber".

Pearl's gruesome murder, videotaped and shown on television the world over, signalled a trend that was to escalate elsewhere in the Muslim world, particularly in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where Al Qaeda militants launched a brutal campaign of terror against westerners and the country's Shiite majority.

The years of kidnappings and execution-style murders that followed were the most fanatical reactions to what many Muslims, both moderates and extremists alike, saw as a war against Islam led by the United States and launched under the guise of ridding the world of Islamist terror.

In the decade since the September 11 attacks, the world has not broken down into Muslim and non-Muslim camps, as some feared and others hoped.

A supposed war against Islam, it turned out, was far too simplistic a catchphrase to encapsulate the complex relationship between Muslims and the West on the one hand, and Arab leaders and their mostly Muslim publics on the other.

Some Arab leaders, fearing the wrath of both the militants and Washington, began to secretly cooperate with the United States and its Western allies in the war against militant Islam.

They shared intelligence and, in some cases, used torture to glean information from detained suspects. Secret CIA flights ferried suspects from Europe to some Arab capitals where they were held incommunicado, tortured and later forgotten.

Leaders like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Syria's Bashar Al Assad led the handful of Arab leaders willing to lend Washington a helping hand in its global antiterror effort.

Significantly, the Arab leaders who clandestinely co-operated with Washington worked simultaneously to bolster their Islamic credentials at home, hoping to win over the overwhelming moderate majority among their subjects and to isolate the militants.

The undeclared contest between those leaders and the militants for the hearts and minds of moderates quickened a shift towards a more religiously conservative society, to the growing exclusion of liberals, leftists and non-Muslim minorities.

If the two-track strategy worked for Arab leaders at least for a time in maintaining some clout abroad and their rule at home, it was partly because of the short-lived appeal of Al Qaeda and other militant Islamist organisations.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, whose cause was often confused with that of the Sunni insurgents fighting occupying US forces, lost its steam after many of its senior leaders were captured or killed and Iraqis grew tired of the violence.

Terror attacks blamed on militants linked or inspired by Al Qaeda in Egypt, Morocco and Yemen, for example, failed to inspire potential extremists and, in some cases, were not welcome because of their negative economic effect.

Additionally, the isolation of Osama bin Laden, for years a source of inspiration to millions of young and angry Muslims across much of the globe, undermined his group's appeal.

His audio recordings, thought taped while on the run in the wilderness of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and broadcast by Al Jazeera television, began to sound irrelevant, with his calls for holy war against the Americans and pro-Western Arab and Muslim governments smacking of the grim hallucinations of a man out of touch with the world.

Those young Muslim men and women he had hoped to lure into the cause had a different vision of the future, one that was not about blowing up skyscrapers or downing airliners full of passengers.

The full ramifications of a bipolar, us-against-them world became starkly apparent as the image of New York's twin towers collapsing into giant heaps of grey and black debris faded as a symbol of the humiliation of the "Great Satan" and came instead to be associated in the minds of more and more young Muslim men and women with the costs to their ambitions and freedom.

Suddenly, tens of thousands of Arab Muslims who aspired to an education in the US were denied visas and dreams.

Those already there packed and left when they began to encounter forms, subtle and blatant, of anti-Muslim feelings on the streets and on campuses.

Others were questioned and deported over seemingly innocent conversations or contacts with Islamists. Wearing beards and going to the mosque risked the unwanted attention of the law enforcement agencies, the local police or the suspicions of once-friendly neighbours and colleagues.

It took some years, but at the end, bin Laden did not have the answers. Not the right ones anyway. What the young Muslims wanted, ironically, was the democratic values of the West that the Saudi-born terror leader warned them against.

Even more ironically, the Arab leaders who feared Muslim extremists the most and did everything they could to contain them found themselves up against a generation of internet-savvy men and women who aspire, not for an austere Islamic state, but for freedom.

Mr Mubarak is a clear example of that unforeseen turn of events.

The Egyptian leader spent most of his 29 years in power fighting Islamists.

He allowed his regime to appear more Islamic to rob Islamists of their appeal in a nation where many found refuge in their faith as they struggled with poverty, unemployment and poor services.

During his years in power, Egypt appeared to grow more and more religiously conservative, even as his security agencies bore down on Islamists. An 18-day uprising led by mostly liberal and leftist youth groups toppled Mr Mubarak's regime in February and the Islamists whom his regime jailed by the thousands are now the most powerful group in the country of more than 80 million people.

Yemen's embattled leader Ali Abdullah Saleh may be facing a similar future.

In more than three decades in power, he was everything to everyone in his poor and conservative tribal nation.

Mr Saleh jailed Al Qaeda-linked militants on Washington's most-wanted list, only to set them some of them free as part of the delicate balance act that often caught his political foes wrong-footed, confused or helpless.

He has so far clung to power in the face of a popular uprising that broke out in February.

Seriously wounded in a June attack and out of the country recuperating in Saudi Arabia, Mr Saleh may be looking at a fate not much different from Mr Mubarak's, but the specifics of his case are complex and, in some respects, defying logic.

Yemen has become home to what is perhaps the world's most active Al Qaeda branch since the group's days in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. It enjoys the protection of Yemeni tribal leaders that once allied themselves with Mr Saleh.

The hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who have been taking to the streets almost daily across the nation are demanding freedom and democracy, not the purist Islamic state that bin Laden or his followers in the remote parts of Yemen are advocating.

In all likelihood, Yemen is headed towards a break-up, complete chaos or both, with the country split into small fiefdoms with at least several of them under Al Qaeda rule.

September 11 did not produce a world divided between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Yet for Muslims in nations such as Egypt, Yemen and others where they are the majority, it has merely intensified the decades-old struggle to answer what it means to be faithful in the modern world.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae