What we can learn from 9/11

This weekend it will have been 10 years since al Qaeda terrorist few planes into the World Trade Center building in New York City, killing almost 3,000 innocent Americans. The terrorist attack had an enormous impact on America, but it had an enormous impact on Pakistan, also. Since Osama bin Laden and his jihadis snuck into Pakistan to hide from American troops, they began to make an alliance with extremists here which resulted in attacks that have killed over 30,000 innocent Pakistanis. While the Americans reflect on how the attack changed their country, we should reflect on how it changed ours also.

Professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, Saleem H Ali, says that for him “the most troubling change in Pakistani society following 9/11 was a collective neurosis that the country developed around conspiratorial thinking”. While Ghairat Brigadiers are quick to label anyone who dares to question their conspiracy theories as Hindu-Zionist sympathiser or CIA agent, Saleem notes that conspiracy theories have not harmed American interests, but have done great damage to Pakistani Muslims because “denial in the Muslim world is far more consequential because it can very easily translate into hatred and violence through misinterpretation of theological tenets”.

Instead of burying our collective heads in the sand and denying obvious problems by reciting convenient conspiracy theories, Saleem says that as Muslims we have a responsibility to honesty and taking responsibility.

Denial of extremism among Muslims is a serious challenge that must be confronted both internally and externally. Muslim organisations must be more scrupulous before publishing unsubstantiated accounts and internet rumours. Deconstructing erroneous conspiracy theories is essential. Indeed, in Islamic theology there are strict injunctions against blanket suspicion (termed ‘zan’ in Arabic) against fellow human beings. Religious Muslims will thus find that Islamic theology itself repudiates conspiratorial thinking.

The silver lining to this denial syndrome is that it reflects a general repugnance for terrorist acts among the Muslim population — they consider such acts abhorrent and hence wish to believe that someone else must be responsible. Yet, this reluctance to accept responsibility is now becoming a challenge for even those Muslim leaders who are willing to, occasionally, accept responsibility. Many are being labelled ‘sell-outs’ and splinter groups are forming within numerous Muslim organisations in the West. If we are to have acceptable reforms, a joint effort by Muslim organisations and the international community is essential to combat the onslaught of misinformation that is paralysing our psyche in a post-9/11 world.

Terrorism is not only acts of physical violence like suicide bombings and shooting attacks. There is also a psychological element to this form of violence. The bomb alerts in two PIA planes are the latest example of how terrorism can take place without a bomb even going off. Pakistan Today described this as ‘acting from the shadows‘, and notes that even without an instant body count, the effect can be devastating.

The aim was presumably to demoralise the general public and to discourage people from travelling with the PIA. The hoax could add to the multifarious woes of the national flag carrier and thus turn out to be an act of economic sabotage.

Pakistan is one of the greatest victims of terrorism of the world. But reciting conspiracy theories makes us passive victims by removing any way for Pakistan to take control of its fate. If everything bad is done to Pakistan by faceless outside forces, then we have no choice but to wait for the mysterious outside forces to stop affecting us rather than taking control of our own future.

Some say that the answer is to cut ties with America. But will that really stop the conspiracy theories and the blaming of America for tragedies? Many people blame Zionists for problems in Pakistan, but when was the last time anyone saw one of these magical creatures? We might as well blame some jinn and call a group of Mullahs to expel them from Pakistan. We would get the same result. Conspiracy theories are not only a denial of reality, they are a denial of our ability to solve our own problems. We don’t need to stop the Americans to stop militant attacks – we need to stop the militants.

The mindset of denial made possible by conspiracy theories that allow us to ignore the problems facing the country by placing the blame on external forces and ‘hidden hand’ make us more vulnerable and less safe. By diverting attention away from the real threats, conspiracy theorists and other deniers of reality have created a psychological ‘safe haven’ for anti-Pakistan militants. We ask how the Americans were able to get in and out of Abbottabad without notice, but we refuse to ask how Osama got there. Then we deny he was there at all. The result? Jihadi militants kill scores of Pakistanis to avenge a man we pretend never existed.

There is no denying that America made serious mistakes after 9/11. Shocked by the diabolical attack on the World Trade Center of New York, the American response was based in emotion and prone to believing conspiracy theories like Saddam’s WMDs that never existed. After 10 years, the Americans are trying to learn from mistakes so that they can correct them and not repeat them. It’s time for Pakistan to do the same.

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