Americans remember the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington – in which more than 3,000 died – as a day when the world changed. But the events of that day also profoundly altered the political environment for people in other societies as well.
A Pakistani Professor in Washington
“For me, at the back of my mind was always the fear that somehow Muslims would be involved,” said Professor Akbar Ahmed. A former Pakistani ambassador, anthropologist, and journalist.
At the time of the attacks, Ahmed had just arrived in Washington to take up his position as Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. When one of the planes flew into the Pentagon, just a few kilometers from the university, his students started to pick up a few confusing and horrifying details on their cell phones.
Ahmed immediately noticed a pattern. “Don’t forget the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa, on the USS Cole, and in the early ‘90s the attempted attack on the World Trade Center in New York,” he said. When all 19 of the terrorists turned out to be Muslims, his worst fears were realized. “I knew this was going to be a huge challenge for anyone like me – to explain Islam, to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims, and also to take the backlash, the stereotyping, the anger and hatred I knew would be coming.”
What is often overlooked, Ahmed said, is that there was a lot of sympathy in the Muslim world for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. He observes that at Al-Azhar in Egypt, and in Iran, the center of Shi’a Islam, people prayed for the victims. “That, of course, very quickly dissipated as the war on terror began to unfold and American troops attacked first Afghanistan and got bogged down in Iraq.”
An Arab View from East Africa
In 2001, Nadia Bilbassy was Africa bureau chief for MBC Television in Nairobi, Kenya. “The first reaction was that there was something wrong with the plane. Nobody at that time thought it could be a terrorist attack,” Bilbassy said.
But within minutes the second plane hit the second tower, and there was live coverage on the news, Bilbassy recalled. “And I think from that day until now, the world has changed forever. Although Osama bin Laden had been operating for almost 10 years and had attacked the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, people did not give al-Qaida credit for being able to strike a superpower like the United States and cause that much damage,” she said.
Afterward, as the reality of the event sank in and, as people tried to analyze what had happened and why, Bilbassy said, many of them came to conflicting conclusions. “There was sympathy toward everybody who lost his life, and many people saw the victims as not just Americans, but everybody."
But as time went on, Bilbassy said people in the Middle East and in Africa linked the attacks to U.S. foreign policy. Even though al-Qaida did not have much support, she said, there was some satisfaction that a group had finally awakened the United States. Bilbassy said people were telling her "'You are the superpower that has always sided with Israel, which occupied the land of the Palestinians and the Golan Heights.” For many people in the region, Bibassy said, the attacks were a signal to the United States that its foreign policy had to change.
Lessons Learned After 9/11
Roy Gutman, at the time a writer for Newsweek magazine, was traveling in South America with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. “It certainly struck me right away that it was coming from bin Laden and Afghanistan,” Gutman recalled. He said he detected a similarity between the 9/11 attacks and pattern of the 1998 embassy attacks that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had masterminded in East Africa. He said he immediately called his editor, suggesting that the magazine send a reporter to Afghanistan right away.
Gutman, who today serves as foreign editor of the McClatchy newspaper chain, faulted both U.S. officials and American journalists for their failure to recognize the serious threat al-Qaida posed and for their lack of attention to Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew from the country in 1989. He wrote a book on the subject - How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan.
Gutman faults both the Clinton and the Bush administrations for failing to grasp the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan, where bin Laden had been given refuge. “It is regrettable,” he said, “but two different presidents never focused on the place where it was happening.”
Gutman blames a partisan approach to foreign policy. “The president would consult his political allies and would draw up a policy that would work in terms of making that particular party look good,” he said. The lesson learned, he said, is that the United States needs to deal with the world from the perspective of one country and not two different parties.
Things have now changed at the executive level, says Gutman, and there has been a strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan – with a goal, a strategy, and tactics. However, public opinion polls indicate the American public is waning in its support for the war. Some critics are now saying the war is unwinable.
“I don’t know if it’s winnable or unwinable,” Gutman said. “All I know is that pulling away from the country for the third time – the first being in the ‘90s and the second time being under Bush where they had no strategy – doing it for the third time is bound to cause an absolute disaster for the United States both in the region and in the much broader Middle East."
”Presidents have to do the right thing, Gutman emphasizes, even if the public isn’t behind them. “And that,” he said, “is the legacy of 9/11."
Ahmed, Bilbassy, and Gutman appeared on the 10 September edition of the VOA English Radio broadcast of International Press Club, hosted by Judith Latham.