9/11 and the problem with tit-for-tat historians

Every year when 9/11 rolls around, I try my best to stop watching TV and reading the newspapers. In 2001, this date was one in which the entire world paused to think about our common humanity and, for a brief instant, set aside our petty differences. Since then, it has become the opposite, bringing out the worst in almost everyone. Whether American or Pakistani, Muslim or non-Muslim, everyone gets defensive and starts pointing fingers at each other’s faces. Aijaz Zaka Syed published a piece in The News making one of the arguments that I’ve been hearing for years: ‘What about the other victims?’ This comes up every year on the anniversary of 9/11, and I’m tired of hearing it.

The core, fundamental problem with Aijaz Syed’s piece is that he is turning tragedy into a competition. Who has suffered more? Americans or Pakistanis? Westerners or Muslims? I reject the premise of the question. Suffering is suffering. All lives are valuable, and no one should make the argument that one or the other victim of terrorism has suffered “more” or “less”. The point is that we are all victims. So why do we continue to lay the blame at America, who is also a victim? More Iraqis have been killed than Pakistanis, so should the Iraqis say that we cannot complain?

At the end of his piece, Aijaz Syed asks America to “ask yourself who and what started it all”. This is another illegitimate point. When did this tit-for-tat history start? Was it 9/11? Was it America’s invasion of Iraq in 1992? Was it Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait? Was it the Iranian revolution in 1979? Was it the CIA sponsored coup in 1953? Was it the Crusades? Was it the Battle of Tabuk? Tit-for-tat historians will always find that the other guy ‘started it’ by picking a convenient ‘start’ time and dismissing everything before.

When a tribesman reacts to a drone strike by killing some people, Taliban apologists say that he is justified because he is taking revenge for this killing. How is this different from what the Americans are doing with the drone strikes? The tribesman wants to kill American soldiers because they killed someone from his village. The American soldiers killed someone from his village because they are being targeted by jihadi militants. Tit-for-tat is not a strategy, it is a chain reaction of events that, like a snake eating his own tail, has no beginning and it has no end.

The implication of Aijaz Syed’s “who started it” comment is that the Americans started it when they meddled in Middle East countries by supporting coups and dictators. Without having the courage to come out and say so, Aijaz Syed implies that America deserved 9/11. But when it comes to their suffering, the tit-for-tat historian follows pure form, dismissing the barbaric acts that killed 3,000 innocents in one devastating attack. In a callous and embarrassing act, Aijaz Syed asks why the American’s can’t just move on.

How long will America remain handcuffed to history and stuck in this time warp? Isn’t it about time it moved on? It has already turned the world upside down, without achieving anything visible or concrete. Indeed, its overwhelming response to the terror attack has given birth to more extremists and has acted as a recruiting agent for groups like Al-Qaeda.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I read this. Aijaz Syed suggests America is ‘handcuffed to history and stuck in this time warp’, but he also suggests that the US brought 9/11 on themselves for actions they did decades ago.

If anyone thought 9/11 would prompt America to mend its ways and policies in the Middle East, well, they need to think again. Clearly, America – the militant global superpower that we get to see and experience far beyond its borders and not American people – doesn’t seem to care one way or another. It remains far from repentant.

The US has certainly been a bad player in Middle Eastern affairs in the past. The CIA’s 1953 coup against the Mossadegh government in Iran is a case in point. But then again, that was almost 60 years ago. Based on Aijaz Syed’s logic, shouldn’t al Qaeda and Aijaz Syed “just move on”? Of course, the truth is America is ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. For decades people screamed about American support for dictators. But when the Americans changed their tune and supported rebels during the Arab Spring revolutions, they were cursed for helping Arab rebels get rid of the same dictators they were blamed for supporting before! Meanwhile, the dirty little secret is that we’re the ones propping up an unpopular dictatorship in Bahrain. Does Aijaz Syed support al Qaeda attacks on Pakistan, too? Or does meddling in other countries only justify mass murders when it’s Americans who are killed?

9/11 was not a kneejerk reaction. Al Qaeda had been attacking the Americans for years before, even bombing the World Trade Center before in 1993. And obviously these attacks were not meant to stop any American policies – how can you stop an elephant from charging when you poke it in the eye? Rather the attacks were all carried out by al Qaeda as a strategy to lure the American military into a quagmire just as the Soviets had been defeated in the 1980s. It was a nefarious scheme to topple the only remaining world power that could stand in the way of their greater plans. Osama and his jihadi militants knew that innocent Afghani lives would be lost in the aftermath, but it was a sacrifice they were willing to make. In Iraq, it was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who led the jihadi strategy of stoking sectarian fighting in order to breed violence and chaos that would engulf the Americans. 35,000 people have died in Pakistan from militant violence, but what is the number of innocents killed from drone strikes? A few hundred? And Raymond Davis killed two ISI operatives who were tracking him. So who killed the other tens of thousands? It was Ilyas Kashmiri, Baitullah Mehsud, and other jihadi militants who are responsible for those deaths. Like their teacher al-Zarqawi, militant groups declare whoever they don’t like as apostate and kill with delight. Then they point West and say, ‘they started it’.

When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets stomped on. On 9/11, Osama poked the American elephant in its eye with a sharp stick to make him stomp. And ever since, jihadis and their media apologists have been blaming that elephant for stomping the grass. But neither would the elephant have lost his eye, nor the grass had been stomped if jihadis had not made this strategy of dividing moderate, peaceful Muslims and the West in a scheme to conquer them both. It’s time to end this vicious cycle of tit-for-tat history by uniting not as Christians, Muslims, Jews or Hindus; not as Americans, Pakistanis, Indians or Israelis; not as East or West…but as members of the brotherhood of humanity. Otherwise it won’t matter who started it, because in the end we will all be doomed.

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.

In Pakistan, A Tale of Two Women

There is no doubt Pakistan has experienced a tumultuous 2010. Heartbreaking reports of terrorism filled the headlines as floods submerged one-fifth of our nation. Our great country is working to better itself on multiple fronts – social, political, and economic – and our current place on the world stage allowed the entire world to bear witness to our progress. Two women, in completely separate instances, have captured some of the biggest challenges we must overcome. They are Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and Aasia Bibi. These two women would become respective symbols for right wing and liberal groups, as activists on both sides sought to define Pakistan’s national identity.

Aafia SiddiquiThe arrest, trial and verdict in the case of Dr. Aafia Siidiqui captured the world’s attention. An American-educated neuroscientist, she was convicted after a jury in a US federal court found her guilty of intent to murder Americans in Afghanistan. In September 2010, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison. A Muslim who engaged in Islamic charity work in the US, she moved back to Pakistan in 2002. It was reported that her second husband’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (the infamous alleged planner of the September 11th attacks) mentioned her name to his interrogators, saying she was involved in similar activities, and thus led to her own interrogation by authorities.

Asia BibiAasia Bibi has nothing in common with Aafia’s background or the terrorism links. But her situation too, captured the world’s attention and brought sharply worded criticism towards the Pakistani laws that seemingly punish minorities.  Her story begins in the blazing summer heat of 2009, when other rural workers refused water from her because she was a Christian. The 45-year old mother of five was charged under Pakistan’s archaic and cruel blasphemy laws. The case has drawn international condemnation, and even Pope Benedict XVI has called for her release.

With the issues highlighted in both cases, we can see Pakistan faces challenges on all fronts – security, political, and social.

Multiple protests and riots have erupted all over Pakistan as supporters of Aafia Siddiqui, as her case has added to the fuel to the “Hate America” fire. She has become the poster child for the idea that Americans hate Pakistanis, and have framed an innocent woman. In a country overflowing with conspiracy theories, it is hardly surprising that Aafia’s tale has proven to intensify the right wing base.

Aasia Bibi’s case has brought to light the vicious anti-minority laws on the books, and a movement to amend those heinous laws has begun. But just as the right wingers sought to capitalize on this issue as well (a cleric has offered 500,000 rupees to anyone who kills Aasia), it seems the PPP has stepped up to honor its platform of equality for all.  Punjab’s Governor, Salmaan Taseer, has been outspoken on this issue, and will seek a pardon from President Zardari to stop the order of execution. We can only hope the appeals court will spare her life.

Terrorism, security issues, minorities’ rights are some of the many issues Pakistan has to face in the coming year. The hope and prayer will always be that in the end, we have created a more perfect society, one that treats all its citizens well.