This article was published in Time magazine in its issue dated 15th October 2001.
Millions of Arabs and Muslims hold U.S. foreign policy responsible for the calamity of Sept. 11. Is it? The answer is yes, but also no.
The yes has been widely articulated. Yes, there was and is a deep sense of frustration because of the bias shown by the U.S. to Israel and because of America's cruel insistence on continued sanctions against Iraq. Plus, for historical reasons, Muslims and Arabs can always feel bitterness toward America: in the early 1950s, the CIA helped topple the elected government of Iran to reinstall the Shah. In the late 1980s, U.S. left Afghanistan very messy after using it as a battleground against the Soviets.
But there is a no here as well, which hasn't been voiced much in the Arab world. Certainly the international community has a responsibility to address the political grievances of Muslim societies, especially the Palestinian question, and try to reduce the poverty and inequality endemic in most of the Middle East. But no effort at redress by the West will work unless the Muslim world as a whole re-thinks its relation to modernity. Why is it that Africa, though poorer and more hurt by the West, did not create a terrorist phenomenon? Why did Latin America export its purest terrorist product, Carlos the Jackal, to the Middle East?
The reasons lie in the fact that we in the Muslim world have not been able to overcome the trauma caused by colonialism. We could not open up to the tools that modernity suggested, for the simple reason that they were introduced by way of colonialism. Our oil wealth allowed us to import the most expensive consumer commodities, but we could not overcome our suspicions of outside political and ideological goods: democracy, secularism, the state of law, the principle of rights and, above all, the concept of the nation-state, which was seen as a conspiracy to fragment our old empire.
A certain fixation on the past took hold alongside a deep uneasiness with the present. Religious reform did not take off. The Muhammad Abdu project to renew Islam the way Martin Luther reformed Christianity ended at the turn of 19th century in disarray, opening the way to more extreme versions of the religion. Efforts to modernize the Arab language and bridge the gap between the spoken vernaculars and the written classical did not materialize. Public spheres such as a free press, trade unions, civil societies for debating matters related to the common good were not established. And most important, Muslims and Arabs never resolved the question of political legitimacy. They failed to develop workable models, which has made every attempt at political change long and dangerous.
The question of legitimacy is flagrant in Iran, where President Mohammed Khatami and his supporters won all the popular elections but could not win real power, which instead resides with Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. In Syria it seems there is no way out of Hafez Assad's authoritarian legacy. If Saddam Hussein finally falls from power in Iraq, heaven knows who might replace him, so ruthless has he been in suppressing rivals. Yasser Arafat's lack of a mandate has made him unable to make historic decisions in the peace process, so he instead alternates between directions.
The weak legitimacy of local regimes leaves the most essential themes of social and political destiny hanging, creating a vacuum to be filled only populist politicians and extremist groups, by wars and civil wars. By failing to establish effective polities, we have perpetuated our impotence, making it all the harder to catch up with the West. Lebanon, the only pluralistic example in the Arab world, was destroyed by its own religious sects and its neighbors. Among the states in the area that don't work or barely do so are Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Algeria and Lebanon.
Arab intellectuals, who ought to encourage change, have largely failed in that role. For the most part, they did not detach themselves from the tribal tradition of defending the enemy. Their priority has not been to criticize the incredible shortcomings that they live with. They tend ceaselessly to highlight their oneness. Thus they help stereo-type themselves before being stereotyped by any enemy. It is in this particular history and this particular culture, and not in any alleged clash of civilizations, that the roots of our wretched present lie.