A week after the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, my doorbell rang one evening. Gail, my neighbor and a devout Christian, stood apologetically, sorrow etched on her face. “I brought this for you,” she said. It was a miniature marble mosque with a golden dome. “I searched all over the Internet for it. Just wanted you to know we are with you and your family.”
I knew instantly where she was coming from. American Muslims were under siege. That’s how it felt in the immediate wake of the fall of the twin towers. My neighbor was trying to put me at ease. The same scene was playing out all over the country. Concerned neighbors and coworkers who had known Muslims in their midst were offering moral support against insults, injuries and death threats by a minority of Americans who equated us with the murderous fanatics who rained death and destruction on that serene Autumn day. For every American who shot at Muslims, hurled insults and splattered pig blood on mosque doors, however, there were several who threw a protective shield around us. The police were deployed to safeguard mosques. Christian and Jewish women wore hijab to accompany Muslim women on their errands. Interfaith dialogues sprouted everywhere and leaders demanded that citizens abide by the law.
But the besieged feeling persisted. Fox and other right-wing media outlets openly questioned our loyalty, accusing us of being a fifth column. Muslims who were coming of age in 2001 reacted to this onslaught in one of two ways: many embraced the faith more strongly while some were intimidated enough to abandon it. The shrill anti-Muslim voices rose and fell over the years and now, ten years later, they have metastasized into well-funded Islamophobia with the rise of the Tea party and the more extreme elements of the Republican Party. One consequence has been that most Muslims have come out of their cocoons and are engaging with the larger American society in many more ways than they used to before the 9/11 attacks. A recent Pew Research Center poll is instructive. 48% of American Muslims think the American people are generally friendly toward Muslims, 32% think they are neutral, 16% think they are unfriendly and 4% “don’t know.”
Ten years on, two things about the Sept. 11 attacks stand out.
The first is the rejection by the overwhelming majority of Muslims of al-Qaida and its nihilistic ideology. This murderous fringe group offered nothing but death and destruction. We were able to see through its sophistry and condemned its leaders and foot-soldiers in no uncertain terms, even though Islamophobes claimed that we did not raise our voice against the extremists, a canard if ever there was one. The failure of al-Qaida is evident in the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the revolutions sweeping Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Syria that has already dethroned some entrenched dictators. The uprisings have all been indigenous movements in which al-Qaida played no role whatsoever, an obvious indication of their irrelevance and insignificance.
The second is the catastrophic overreaction of the United States. The war in Afghanistan against the Taliban began in October 7, 2001, and had the support of most nations of the world. But when President George Bush, in concert with his diabolical VP Dick Cheney, decided to launch the Iraq war on false pretenses of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s connection with al-Qaida, America lost its moral bearing and purpose.
I remember joining a demonstration on March 28, 2003, in San Francisco, a week after the war began. About 2,000 Americans from all walks of life gathered to denounce the war - Quakers, Franciscan nuns and monks, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and many others. Those who spoke, including one of America’s foremost Islamic scholars, Hamza Yusuf, explained how this was not a war of Islam versus the West but of America waging an unjust, preemptive war against a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11.
Recently, the Nobel economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote that President Bush’s response to the attacks “compromised America’s basic principles, undermined its economy, and weakened its security.” Truer words have rarely been written.
A conservative estimate puts America’s bill for fighting the two wars to at least $3.3 trillion, of which about $2 trillion accounts for the Iraq war. To put this in perspective, for every dollar that al-Qaida spent to pull off the Sept. 11 attacks, the cost to the United States has been an astonishing $6.6 million!
The deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, the erosion of values, and the staggering amount of money wasted, constitute one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history. How did values erode? Through repression of civil liberties, partisan definition of patriotism (“last refuge of the scoundrel”), wiretapping of American citizens, surveillance without judicial approval, torture, indefinite imprisonment, docile media acting as presidential mouthpiece, extraordinary rendition, and so on.
On this tenth anniversary of that infamous day, the question is: Did the 9/11 attacks make America weak? The attacks did not, but America’s overreaction and imperial overreach did. It is a lesson America can never afford to ignore.