3 September 2011
It is strange to think that 10 years have gone by since Tuesday, 11 September 2001. In some ways the pain feels as raw as if it had been yesterday; in other ways it feels so long ago.
There are three events where almost every one of my generation knows what they were doing when they heard: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon and 9/11.
I was working at my desk in my office at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Manchester. A senior manager more or less barged into my office and said something like "Amin, have you heard that aeroplanes have hit the World Trade Center and it is on fire?" My immediate response was to accuse him of spreading unfounded rumours and I turned to my computer for validation or rebuttal. The BBC News website page came up with the website frozen (obviously due to visitor numbers) and in the middle of the page was a photograph of the World Trade Center with smoke rising from it. I muttered something like "50,000 people work in those buildings. This is what you have brought us to Sharon!"
Although at that stage there was no information regarding responsibility, my instant reaction was that the most plausible hypothesis was terrorism connected with the Middle East and in particular with the second intifada which had been sparked by Ariel Sharon's forcing himself onto the Temple Mount.
The office emptied very quickly that afternoon. Strangely I could not bring myself to leave my desk and carried on working until about 20:00. While I was always busy, in truth I realised that it was not pressure of work keeping me at my desk but avoidance of the horrible reality that awaited me on the television screen at home. When I got home I still avoided the television by having my evening meal in my normal place in the dining room. Only afterwards, about 21:30 did I go to watch television, knowing that I would then be transfixed by it.
It was only after President Bush had returned to Washington and addressed the nation, I recall about 02:30 UK time on the Wednesday that I could bring myself to go to bed.
I think it was on Thursday that firm evidence emerged regarding the identity of the hijackers. I recall the efforts that President Bush made to emphasise that this was an attack by specific individuals who did not speak for Islam, a religion of peace, and remember the pictures of President Bush in his socks in the Islamic Centre in Washington DC.
On the Friday I had an early morning train trip to London. First-class passengers received a free copy of the Times newspaper and I can still remember one photograph in that day’s issue. It was taken on the staircase of one of the Twin Towers as a torrent of people streamed down the stairs out of the building. Going the other way and photographed by one of the escapers was a young white firemen heading up the stairs answering the call of duty. I do not recall whether his name or identification number was available on the photograph and have never investigated but assume that he was killed in the collapse of the towers. Either that evening or shortly afterwards I made a donation specifically to the New York Firemen's Disaster Fund.
That same Friday afternoon when I returned from London, about 16:00 I went to Manchester Town Hall where the City Council had opened a book of condolences. This actually comprised numerous writing desks with plain paper for individuals to write their messages which would be gathered together to constitute the “book."
I can still recall how much I was seething with rage; until sat down to write my condolences message I had not identified the precise emotion that I was feeling and probably had felt all week. What underlay my anger was my reaction "How dare they do this in my name? How dare they claim to speak for Islam or Muslims?" My outrage was amplified by the fact that I had been to New York on many occasions and loved the city.
After 10 years I cannot recall the precise text of my condolences message. However the essence of it was to express both my sympathy and my outrage, particularly because the United States of America has always stood as a beacon of freedom and democracy, welcoming immigrants from all parts of the world.
As far as I can recall, I had never heard of Osama bin Laden until the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. They themselves were a shock given the massive loss of life, although paling into insignificance compared with 9/11.
Both from Al Qaeda's statements and from simple analysis it is clear that their motives were essentially as follows:
Unfortunately Al Qaeda were partially successful assisted by what can only be described as the incompetence of the Bush administration.
While the NATO assault on Afghanistan was clearly justified as self-defence under the UN Charter, as soon as the Taliban had been overthrown the Bush administration proceeded to lose interest in Afghanistan and the need to make secure the initial military victory. Instead the Bush administration directed all of its energies towards a war with Iraq that had no objective justification. The great tragedy of Iraq is that Saddam Hussein kept behaving as if he had something to hide when he did not; a sufficient level of openness in access and transparency would have made it impossible for the USA to justify an invasion. The war against the Iraqi armed forces was won very quickly, but the USA was lamentably unprepared regarding what to do after Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
It was further incompetence on the part of the Bush administration to engage in torture both directly and second-hand through "extraordinary rendition."
The Iraq war, the torture programme and other Bush administration foreign policy failings did untold damage to the world's perception of America. The day after 9/11, Jean-Marie Colombani wrote in Le Monde "We are all Americans." The unanimity of support was lost very quickly, as Fred Kaplan summarised two years later on the Slate website. Within five years, Mai Yamani was writing on the Guardian website "We are no longer all Americans."
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have also been very expensive. Taking into account interest, future pension costs and future medical costs etc. I have seen all-inclusive figures as high as $4 trillion for the total cost of America's wars over the last decade. Even for a country as rich as the USA this is a staggering and weakening cost.
Despite the above successes, I believe that overall Al Qaeda has failed.
I was at an event yesterday when Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter) was speaking. He said "As a monotheist, I prefer to leave prediction to the professionals!" I have to concur with that sentiment.
However, looking at the present, I believe that Al Qaeda's time has passed. That applies even if they manage to pull off one or more spectacular attacks. Al Qaeda’s entire worldview is a binary one of perpetual conflict, seen in only one dimension, namely Islam versus non-Muslims. The real world is not like that.
Al Qaeda is as much the enemy of Muslims (apart from those few that share its aims) as it is the enemy of non-Muslims.