The Muslim World Reacts to September 11

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The Muslim World Reactsto September 11

The Conflict

In order to better understand the nature of the Arab and Muslim response to the September 11 attacks, it is important to revisit what many believed to be the root causes that led to the tragedy and motivated the attackers. The reduction of complex histories and motives to pat stereotypes or phrases can be dangerously misleading and prevent the analysis necessary to halt future attacks.


  • Muslim fundamentalists, as well as other religious fundamentalists, remain deeply suspicious of any new world order, and many have used religion to usher in the destruction of others to return to an idealized society. In other religions fundamentalists have provided numerous examples throughout modern and ancient history of similar such actions.
  • Singling out any religious extremist group can deflect attention from the root causes of conflict, such as extreme wealth disparities, lack of economic opportunities, constant deteriorating standards of living, and the inability to protect and maintain a cohesive identity.
  • Defining terms is critical to understanding the Muslim reaction to September 11. For example, how is terrorism defined? Who is a terrorist? Can a state be terrorist? Leaving such questions unanswered allowed Muslims to think that maybe this "war" is actually against Islam.


• U.S. President George W. Bush has tried on several occasions to define the parties in conflict. According to him, "we're fighting evil," and there are no shades of gray. The mission of the United States, then, is to rid the world of "evildoers." Therefore the war is not against a particular country or people, but against the concept of "terrorism."

The attacks of September 11, 2001 against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, two of the most visible symbols of American economic power and military might, shocked the United States and the whole world. The realization that the United States would likely retaliate for the loss of thousands of innocent civilians sent a collective shudder throughout the world, which nervously awaited news of the identity of the attackers.

World leaders immediately voiced their condemnations of the attacks, as well as their solidarity and sympathy for the suffering of the American people. Virtually every Middle Eastern state officially expressed heartfelt condolences to the American people. Iraq, however, was alone in not extending strong support to the United States. Instead Iraqi president Saddam Hussein argued that the terrorist attacks on American soil had been the inevitable "fruit" of its own foreign policy.

The deep Muslim concern for American victims on humanitarian and religious grounds was followed by a great fear that Americans would soon seek revenge against all Arabs and Muslims in response to the attack. As President George W. Bush (2001-) was deciding how to respond internationally, a backlash of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence inside the United States alarmed Arabsand Muslims throughout the world, as well as American policymakers. Many American Muslims and Arabs suddenly felt unwelcome in the United States, as Islamic places of worship and stores were vandalized, women wearing head-dresses were harassed, and men who looked Arab were beaten, and in a few instances, killed. In response, President Bush visited mosques, reminded citizens that it was "un-American" to discriminate, and repeatedly emphasized to an American audience unfamiliar with the religion that "Islam is a religion of peace."

Many Arab and Muslim groups felt keen frustration at not being able to communicate effectively to the American public through the media. Despite every major Muslim and Arab leader and organization's denouncement of the attack, many Americans only saw pictures of a small number of people dancing in the streets. To get their message of solidarity with the victims of the attacks across, many of these Arab and Muslim leaders and organizations relied instead on email and website postings, which reached only a limited audience.

In addition, the media drastically underre-ported or ignored the widespread instances of support that had sprung up all over the Arab and Muslim world. For example there were candlelight vigils from Bethlehem to Cairo, blood donation drives to help the wounded throughout the Middle East and in Muslim communities in other parts of the world, and condolence letters were sent to families of the victims. In Tehran, over 50,000 people observed a moment of silence to honor those killed, despite the intense political divisions that have long separated Iran and the United States.

Most Arabs and Muslims believed they had been doubly victimized by the September 11 tragedy. First, they felt that the attackers ignored the central messages of Islam and distorted certain verses of the Qu'ran to justify their political struggles. The hijackers were representing Islam to the world as a violent and irrational faith, leaving the majority of believers struggling to explain that "true" Islam, like Christianity, would never support violence against innocents. Secondly, the attackers also jeopardized the safety and security of many Muslim communities in the face of possible American hostility and retaliation.

While the Bush administration spoke out against discriminating against Arabs and Muslims, Islamic charity groups were shut down under allegations of providing financial support to terrorist organizations, immigration barriers were raised, over one thousand Arabs and Muslims arrested and detained, and authorities allegedly engaged in extensive ethnic profiling. Despite the fact that over 400 Arabs and Muslims had died in the World Trade Center attack, American Arabs and Muslims feared that 'camps,' similar to Japanese internment camps following the Pearl Harbor attack during World War II (1939-45), would now be set up for them. In the information age where many in the Middle East have satellite dishes that allow viewers to see American media first-hand, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim commentaries and news broadcasts in the United States, though not widespread, caused alarm in the Muslim world.

Subsequent official announcements by President Bush did little to reassure the Arab and Muslim world. In these speeches, the president divided the world into two opposing camps: the democratic and freedom loving ("us") and the immoral and terrorist other ("them"). It would be the United States' mission to hunt down the 'barbaric' evil-doers to rid the world of terrorism in whatever country it resided. For those trying to find out whether their country was on the U.S. terrorist list, President Bush gave few clues, but early comments made it clear to Muslims that in speaking of terrorism, the president had not excluded Islamic countries.

President Bush's early use of the term 'crusade' to describe the U.S. mission against the forces of evil sent chills down the spine of both Arabs and Muslims, as historically the word 'crusade' has meant the intentional mass killing of Muslims. While President Bush later regretted the use of the word, the selection of the code word "Infinite Justice" to describe the U.S. military campaign also seemed to suggest a biblical or Armageddon battle waged by Christians against non-Christians. This too was officially regretted and later replaced with "Operation Enduring Freedom," however, these two incidents, coupled with rising discrimination, left the Arab and Muslim world deeply anxious for the future.

When it became clear by early October 2001 that the United States intended to bomb Afghanistan, the Muslim world was confronted with another dilemma: how should it respond to an attack on another Muslim state? While the Taliban, like the early Puritans, were strict religious fundamentalists who had few admirers in the Middle East and the Muslim world, they were also fellow Muslims who had not directly participated in the September 11 attacks, and they governed over millions of innocent Afghanis who would be among the victims of any attack against the Taliban regime. Was the United States really beginning a larger religious battle against all Muslims? Was it unfairly targeting an already poor and oppressed society? Many Middle Eastern countries concluded that the United States had the right to retaliate against the attackers, who had trained and had a network in Afghanistan, provided it focused solely on the culprits, avoided civilian casualties, and kept its mission narrowly defined. Aware that Muslims around the world feel a strong concern and solidarity with one another despite their many differences, and realizing the fear that Muslims had about American motives, the United States decided to launch a "Hearts and Minds" campaign to persuade Muslims and Arabs that the United States was not planning a larger war against Islam.

The audience that this campaign was directed towards was diverse. Arabs are both Christian and Muslim, while the majority of Muslims live outside of the Middle East and can be found in virtually every culture. In addition, what unites Arabs and Muslims across vast distances and cultures is a shared commitment to a just peace for the Palestinians and concern over the three holy cities of Islam: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Beyond these immediate, shared concerns, there were four distinct Arab and Muslim responses to the September 11 attacks that characterize the 'Arab street.'

On the one hand, there are those who viewed the attacks as inhumane, destructive, and unjustified. These 'moderate' Muslim voices (mainly political and religious leaders) denounced terror and violence as incompatible with the Islamic faith. A second majority group thought the attacks were wrong, but hoped that they might be a 'wake-up call' for the United States to reevaluate the effects its foreign policies may have on other nations and peoples. The third but considerably smaller group is made up of those who are supporters of Osama bin Laden and who praised the attacks on the United States as a way of fighting back against it for perceived American injustices abroad. From their point of view, the attackers were brave and honorable warriors engaged in a holy war against a Great Satan that sought to oppress and humiliate Muslims.

Unfortunately, the voices of those few are often heard the most loudly, drowning out the view of the majority of Arabs and Muslims who deeply oppose the strategies and motives of the attackers. The fourth and final group rejects that Arabs or Muslims took part in the attack at all, arguing instead that a large conspiracy against Arabs and Muslims is taking place. This comes from a belief that Islamic and Arab culture would never condone or participate in such violence and from a certain sense that much of these events are taking place beyond their ability to control them.

All of these groups experienced a general fear that the United States would begin a great war against Muslims, despite President Bush's assertions to Muslims that "we respect your faith. Its teachings are good and peaceful." President Bush went on to add that Islam itself had been hijacked by the attackers, which the majority of Muslims also believed. Part of the continuing fear in the Muslim world of American motives, however, has to do with the tendency of the media and several policymakers to repeatedly blame Islamic beliefs, culture or religion—even though they were distorted—as being responsible for motivating the attacks, rather than looking at other root causes which could have prompted them. Much of this response is rooted in long-standing misconceptions regarding Arabs, Muslims, and Islam in Western culture, which also explains the difficulty the administration had in trying to change these negative stereotypes at home.

Muslim leaders and experts on Islam have emphasized, on numerous occasions since September 11, that unprovoked violence against innocent civilians is supported neither in the Qur'an nor in mainstream Islamic tradition, and that the majority of the world's Muslims do not support the holy war that Osama bin Laden had defined against the United States. Those leaders and experts note that even though there are some verses in the Qur'an that talk about struggle and the use of violence for self-defense, Islam remains a religion of peace and justice that prohibits mass killing, destruction of property, and mistreatment of prisoners. Bin Laden and other extremists have manipulated the faith in order to provide religious cover for their actions and to justify acts of murder against innocent civilians.

Many Americans asked the question "why do they hate us?" in trying to understand the September 11 attacks. While American media and President Bush repeated that Americans were attacked because they were free and democratic, many in the Muslim world had a different view. Whereas the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims disagree profoundly with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and particularly with U.S. support for Israel, they have traditionally distinguished between a government's official policies and the people that government represents. In fact, Arab and Muslim appreciation of and attraction to American culture and spirit is evident in the consumption of Western culture, in music, food, clothes, and entertainment. Yet the attackers belonged to a minority of people who do not separate American policies from Americans themselves. They did not see themselves as attacking Americans because they hated freedom or democracy. Rather, as a Pakistani journalist wrote, the attackers believed U.S. foreign policies had denied them their freedom and dignity through keeping undemocratic regimes in power: "Those who hate America love its freedoms; they hate America not least because America's hypocritical policies deny them those freedoms."

An example of such contradictory messages that the United States has projected in the region deals with the Arabic television station al-Jazeera. This news organization is the first of its kind in the region to promote mostly free reporting without government interference; thus many Arabs and Muslims were upset that an advocate of free speech such as the United States wanted to shut it down or attempted to censor stories that did not support U.S. policies. Shortly after the airing of the first bin Laden interview after the September 11 attacks, a representative from the U.S. administration met with the Authority of Qatar, which hosts al-Jazeera, to communicate this desire. The station, however, continued to operate.

As a result of a long-standing history of rivalry and conflict between the West and Islam, the mixed messages of U.S. foreign policy in the region, such as the U.S. support for human rights, while overlooking human rights violations in friendly Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as continued U.S. support of Israel's policies toward the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip and West Bank despite allegations against Israel of human rights violations there, and ongoing stereotypical and generally misrepresentative depictions of Arabs and Muslims in Western media and entertainment, Muslims have been asking, "why do they hate us?"

Compounding this situation is the view that the growth of Western power has coincided with a decline in Islamic power, creating a sense of insecurity and sensitivity to Western claims of superiority. These feelings are closely related to a creeping anti-Americanism in the region, which Moises Naim, in an article in Foreign Policy, believes can be divided into five distinct categories: politico-economic reasons which represent reactions to current U.S. foreign policies (its policy in the Middle East and its support of Israel); historical reasons, which are rooted in past U.S. behavior; religious reasons, which are expressed by fundamentalists of all faiths; cultural reasons, which resent the ability of U.S. culture to influence and displace the local indigenous cultures (through processes of globalization); and psychological factors fueled by jealousy and a loss of confidence at the strength of the West. Examples of some of the historical and politico-economic reasons include many cases in which the United Nations has passed resolutions condemning Israeli policy in the occupied territories, but the U.S. representative to the UN has opposed the resolutions and often attempted to veto such decisions in the Security Council.

As a result, in the years preceding the September 11 attacks, many in the Muslim world called for a dialogue between Islam and the West, so that each community could move away from stereotypes, fears, and insecurities with one another and begin to learn about, and value the contributions of one another. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for a "dialogue of civilizations" to take place in 1998 and the United Nations called 2000 the Year of the Dialogue of Civilizations. The Jordanian King Abdallah II and his brother Hassan in 1998 launched a series of conferences in London and Amman to address the relations between Islam and the West. Yet from the Muslim point of view, the U.S. division of the world between those who are good and those who are evil, and the identification of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as belonging to the "axis of evil" has limited the ability of Arab and Muslim moderates to reach out to Americans and has fueled the fears of extremists.

For longstanding Arab and Muslim allies of the United States, responding to the September 11 attacks was also difficult. On the one hand, they officially support the U.S. administration's efforts in its military campaign, but on the other hand, they could not afford to be open to charges in their own countries that they were in collusion with a foreign government that was about to wage war against Muslim countries. Trying to balance sovereignty with support meant that Middle Eastern regimes tried to say little and clamped down severely on domestic dissent, particularly anti-American sentiment. This in turn generated growing resentment against Muslim and Middle Eastern regimes from the people in the street, which had the potential to destabilize some regimes.

Thus, in the aftermath of September 11, following the heavy bombardment of Afghanistan, the destruction of the Taliban regime, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and the continued and highly visible U.S. support for Israel, the root causes of the conflict remain to be addressed. The image of the United States in the Muslim world in general, and the Middle East in particular, remains in disarray as mistrust dominates the relationship. To understand how so much suspicion and fear came to characterize the relationship between Muslims and the West, it is important to look farther back into their history.

Historical Background

In order to understand the roots of present conflict, it is important to look at the historical evolution in the relationship between the West and Islam in general, and between the United States and Muslim countries in particular. The United States is confronting centuries of Arab and Muslim bitterness over the violence and destruction of the Crusades in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries and later military campaigns, in addition to continued indignation over Western colonialism that began in the region in the early 1800s. Many Arabs and Muslims feel they experienced ten centuries of tremendous cultural achievement that collapsed with European colonialism. In Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito noted that "despite their common monotheistic roots, the history of Christianity and Islam has more often than not been marked by confrontation rather than peaceful coexistence and dialogue. For the Christian West, Islam is the religion of the sword; for Muslims, the Christian West is epitomized by the armies of the Crusades."

Ever since the early decades of Islamic history, Islam presented a threat to the political and religious dominance of Christianity. From its founding in the seventh century, Islam spread rapidly, alarming the West as formerly Christian territories were falling and converting to Islam. The large numbers of Christian converts at the time were mostly due to genuine callings but also because many Christians found it easier to interact as Muslims in Islamic societies, despite the fact that their Christian status was protected in Islamic tradition. Islam's universal message invariably clashed with Christianity's universal message, as each began competing with one another for souls as well as for glory and resources in areas of the Eastern Roman Empire, Spain, and the Mediterranean from Sicily to Anatolia. The threat of Islam was even more apparent to European Christians when Islam emerged as a world power and a civilization while Christianity had begun to decline into its Dark Ages.

Beginning in the eleventh century, Christendom had mobilized beyond self-defense and launched a series of military campaigns aimed at re-conquering Spain, Italy, Sicily, and the Holy Lands up until 1492. This counter-movement initiated some of the worst religiously based violence in Western history and wreaked enormous destruction in the Muslim world. While the United States was not in existence at the time, as a symbol of Western power today the United States has inherited the legacy of these historical encounters, which were characterized by cycles of confrontation and collaboration.


After witnessing a short era of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, the Iberian Peninsula was split between two distinct communities in the tenth century: the Christian kingdom of Leon in the north and the larger Muslim al-Andalus (Andalusia) in the south. During the rule of Abd al-Rahman III in Cordoba, the arts, literature, medicine, science, and culture flourished, allowing the Spanish Islamic state to reach its highest level of power and fame. This period also witnessed significant tolerance and extensive social interaction between Muslims, Jews, and Christians (whom Islam refers to as "People of the Book.") A great period of scholarship, art, and learning emerged from these dynamic interactions, where Muslim scholars brought to Europe their knowledge of algebra, astronomy, alchemy, and medicine. Muslim armies had saved copies of the books of Greek learning that had been burned by Christian authorities in the past, and as a consequence were directly responsible for reintroducing Europe to the works of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, thus ending the period known as the Dark Ages. Christians living in Andalusia became Arabized, adopting the Muslim dress code, artistic expressions, language, and styles of worship.

Although Christians were respected, tolerated, and protected, they were, to a certain extent, still considered strangers in their own society. This situation began to change with the rule of Abu Amir Al-Mansur (Almanzor) in the tenth century: Al-Rahman III's successor began a series of ruthless campaigns against Christians, who were now considered infidels. These campaigns signaled the end of the era of 'harmonious interaction' and the beginning of another dominated by intolerance, suspicion, and prejudice. In the eleventh century, the situation worsened as the rise in 'aggressive Islamic fervor' led to increasing hostility in relations with Christians. This in turn fueled and hardened Christian attitudes against Islam at a time when Christian forces were seeking to recapture Andalusian territories. By the mid-thirteenth century Christian control in Spain significantly increased, reducing Muslim rule and power. The persecution and harsh treatment of Muslims by Christians soon followed, fed by Christian fervor and the initial successes of the Crusades in the Holy Land. The final expulsion of Islam from Andalusia did not occur until the end of the fifteenth century under Ferdinand and Isabella, at the same time Christopher Columbus set sail for America.

The Crusades

The strongest reaction to the Islamic threat in the early Middle Ages was illustrated by the Christian holy wars, or crusades, that were carried out against Muslims in Europe between the eleventh and fourteenth century in the name of Christian glory. The Crusades marked a defining period in the Christian-Muslim relationship. In the areas outside of Andalusia where there was minimal contact with Muslims, widespread ignorance of the Islamic faith coupled with the active misinformation propagated by Christian religious leaders mobilized support and created a tremendous amount of fear of Islam. Instead of trying to understand the success of Islam during this period, many Christians in the West dismissed Islam as a false and rival religion. Muslims felt a strong need to prove themselves and the legitimacy of the Qur'anic revelations to Christians, and pointed to the considerable achievements advanced by their civilization as evidence.

The first Crusade started in 1095, when Pope Urban II responding to an appeal for help from Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, who felt threatened by the Muslim Seljuk Turks, called Western Christendom to take arms in the name of Jesus and liberate the Holy Land (Jerusalem) from the Muslim infidel. This first wave of the Crusaders slaughtered thousands of Jews and Muslims en route to Jerusalem and many Crusaders became rich from their conquests. The apparent successes inspired eight major Crusades in all, but by the fourth crusade, politics and greed had replaced the intensive religious zeal of the earlier campaigns.

Overall the Crusades in the Holy Land failed in their main purpose, which was to rid the lands of Muslims and take back the Holy Land. There were no lasting results in terms of military conquest. They did, however, enrich and benefit Western civilization by bringing it more in contact with the East and its modes of living and thinking, contributing to the age of Discovery. Through extensive encounters with Islam, at home and in the Holy Land, it helped lead to the end of the Dark Ages and the Renaissance of modern Europe.

While the Crusades have a more positive connotation in the West, in the Middle East the meaning is considerably more negative, where culturally history plays an important role in understanding the world. Those who support Osama bin Laden's efforts have argued that bin Laden seems to be playing the role of a "modern-day" Saladin, a Muslim leader who fought against the second and third Crusaders.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Turkish Empire was a sign of the increase of Muslim power in the sixteenth century. It was centered in Istanbul and encompassed major portions of North Africa, the Arab world and eastern Europe. The empire was heir to the Mongol-Turkish legacy of Genghis Khan and his successors and was based on the belief in the Islamic imperative to establish a base from which to propagate and defend Islam.

By the 1600s the Ottoman Empire reached its peak and Istanbul had matured into a cosmopolitan city larger than any European capital, with a large population and an international and Islamicized center of power and culture. Political and religious institutions functioned side by side; politically, the empire was governed by a centralized administration and a well-organized bureaucracy; religiously, the ulama, religious schools, and the courts operated within the state's bureaucracy.

A unique feature of the Ottoman Empire was the "millet system," which regulated the rights and duties of the different religious communities, which enjoyed limited autonomy. Religion, in other words, supported the state and legitimized the rule. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the power of the Ottoman Empire was in decline, a decline that coincided with the Industrial Revolution and modernization of the West. The emergence of a strong military and economic Europe, and its quest for new markets, ushered in the era of Western colonialism. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire survived into the twentieth century until it collapsed during World War I (1914-18) and the following Mandate period with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. This agreement divided up Ottoman lands among the British, French, and Italians. The collapse and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, which began in earnest in early 1800, not only brought about colonialized entities but also gave impetus to a wave of Islamic and nationalist revivalist movements that swept the Muslim world in the following centuries.


With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, European powers came to dominate the Middle East and penetrate Muslim areas. They established their presence and expanded it at several strategic intervals. The first turning point came in the sixteenth century when the Ottoman Empire granted European powers advantages in foreign trade in the empire. The second turning point was Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798, which began a precedent of direct political intervention by the West in Egypt. This was followed by the Ottoman Sultan revising the entire education system to be more Westernized, while bringing technological expertise into the empire as well. The European presence in the areas originally part of the Ottoman Empire was finally legalized and took its most explicit and extended form with the establishment of the mandate system of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Under this agreement the major European powers divided the Ottoman Empire by arbitrary boundaries, for instance France claimed Syria and Lebanon, Britain claimed Iraq, Egypt, etc. This resulted in the current Arab and Muslim states, which had not previously existed under these boundaries. This mandate system continues to generate severe territorial, political, and religious conflict in the Middle East today, such as those between Kuwait and Iraq and especially between Israel and the Palestinians.

The spread of Western culture was enhanced by the Western economic and political control in the region. Missionaries propagated Western ideas through education, while scientific advances allowed the West to spearhead improvements and innovations in medicine, agriculture, commerce, and industry, which devalued traditional methods and approaches. Resistance to abandoning traditional ways and insecurity brought about by rapid, foreign-induced changes that brought them few benefits prompted resistance from the colonized peoples. This resistance took several forms ranging from intellectual debates, to the reform of the Muslim educational system and reaffirming Islamic values and encouraging them to direct action.

The colonial period marks another stage of negative contact between Islam and the West. It embodies a time when the West politically, militarily, economically, and culturally dominated many Muslim lands. Edward Said, of Columbia University, writes about how colonialism plays out psychologically and the lingering effects in terms of power relations in his famous book Orientalism. The post-colonial Muslim world continues to struggle with the lingering social effects of colonization, which ended in the mid-1900s. While Muslims and Arabs may enjoy much of what Europe can offer culturally, the memories of colonialism are never far from the surface.

Millions of Muslims and Arabs lost their lives in their struggles to liberate their lands from the European powers. In Algeria alone, over one million people lost their lives between 1954 and 1962 to win their freedom from French colonialism. In the process, images of Muslims and of Islam were manipulated by the French to justify increasingly aggressive policies against Algerians in the region. Muslim national and religious leaders also suspected and dehumanized Europeans and foreigners in general to mobilize popular support for their cause. The cost of decolonization was enormous for the Muslim world as it has been for many formerly colonized lands. In fact many scholars and analysts continue to argue that a great deal of the current political and economic stagnation in Arab and Muslim societies is mainly the product of colonization and the effort required to be liberated.

Islamic Revival Movements

The need for a revival and reform of Islam emerged in the eighteenth century, contributed by the growing European influence over the Muslim world, when Muslims were faced with internal as well as external challenges to 'their faith and social order.' Revivalist movements provided an answer to the question of how, after ten centuries of civilization and authority, Muslims found themselves in such dire straits. These movements encouraged a return to religious observance and extensive social and moral reform. Prior to this period Europeans themselves were also exploring and experiencing the growth of various national movements or other forms of collective identity.

A number of Islamic scholars and intellectuals voiced their concern with the subjection and weakening of the Muslim world by the Western colonial powers and called upon their fellow Muslims to unite against foreign domination and work for the rejuvenation of the entire Islamic community. Jamal al-Din-al-Afghani (1838-97) was considered the most prominent Islamic revivalist leader who spoke of the liberation and independence of Muslims as the most important of objectives. According to al-Afghani, religion is the most important vehicle with which to achieve human progress and move humanity on its quest towards modernity.

Mohammed Abduh (1849-1905) was another influential Islamic figure who called on Muslims to reform themselves in order to meet the challenges rising from another culture. His call, however, focused on change through gradual methods rather than revolutionary ones. Abduh argued that Muslims can counter the rising threat from the West through religious, legal, and educational reform rather than through political activism. Abduh, like al-Afghani, believed that Islam and modernity were compatible.

With the continued disillusionment with colonial and authoritarian rule, another form of Islamic revivalism emerged, which took more radical and revolutionary form. Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) was the major proponent of this form of revivalism. His central claim was that both the governments and the societies of the contemporary Muslim world had fallen back into al-jahiliyya (unbelief and ignorance). It was therefore the duty of all true Muslims to revive the original jihad of Mohammed and the first Muslim community, whose efforts to drive out unbelief and establish God's work found them waging jihad against their own families. Hassan al-Banna (1906-49) was also a proponent of this form of revivalism, collapsing the Qur'anic definitions of fighting and inner spiritual struggle against evil (the inner jihad) and calls for a holy war (the outer jihad), against the infidels as well as the People of the Book (Christians and Jews). Al-Banna's position was that the crux of the problem in Muslim countries was that advances made by the Christian West and by the corruption and decadence of the Muslim elite had increasingly marginalized the role of religion in society. As a result, Islam no longer held its central position in ordering society and the lives of its members. Al-Banna urged his followers to return to the ways of Islam as the only way to begin reform.

With the continued domination of the West and through the processes of globalization, Islamic revivalist movements increased in number as well as in intensity. Calling for a return to Islamic precepts and Muslim reform is increasingly being linked with a more revolutionary Islamic activism. From this point of view, the disastrous impact that the West has had on the survival and prosperity of the Islamic tradition and way of life have left Muslims few choices besides holding more closely to Islamic teachings in order to maintain control over their own destiny.

The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism

The increase in Islamic activism and Islamic discontent has, at the same time, triggered alarm in the West as this activism has become viewed as a direct challenge and threat to Western interests and security. The rising Islamic activism manifested itself with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which toppled the Western supported regime in 1979. The United States in particular suffered a dramatic blow when its embassy personnel were taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries. The leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called for the export of an Islamic revolution throughout the region to uproot Western control and influence, calling the United States the "Great Satan." Islam thus emerged as a new and assertive political force for change—one not well-understood in the West—posing a serious challenge to the West and to all Western established orders in Muslim areas. Although the United States was preoccupied with communism as its primary threat at the time, when the Soviet Union collapsed the direct challenge that Islam had posed to the West beginning with the Iranian revolution crystallized into a fear by some of a "clash of civilizations."

Muslim fundamentalists called for the establishment of Islamic states and the return to religion as a way to eliminate corruption and subordination and to take matters into their own hands. Islamicizing the regimes was seen as a way of liberating Muslims from Western control. While fundamentalism is always religious in form and is not confined to any particular faith or country, fundamentalist beliefs themselves do not necessarily lead directly to violence. The path that fundamentalism will take depends on the social and political context within which it emerges. Fundamentalists are not necessarily contrary to change and backward-looking. Fundamentalists are in fact often strong advocates for change in a world that they believe to be decaying from its abandonment or perversion of religion. As such, Islamic activism was not only confined to Iran and the revolution of 1979, but formed the context within which political activism took place. It is often difficult to distinguish anti-Western action from pro-Islamic action since the two have often been related as a result of colonialism and a history of violent conflict.

Throughout the Cold War, a number of attacks were carried out in various Muslim countries against Western embassies, citizens, airlines, and businesses in protest against perceived U.S. control over national resources and policies, as well as against U.S. support for the state of Israel. As a result, Americans were kidnapped by Hizballah forces in Lebanon and the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines. The Gulf War (1991) marked a period of brief coalition of some Muslim and Arab states in cooperation with the West when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States led a coalition to drive out Iraq and restore the Kuwaiti government with the active participation and support of Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab and Muslim countries. After the war, however, the continued military presence of Western troops in the region began causing concern and alarm from many Arabs and Muslims in regard to Western motives.

While Saudi Arabia officially requested that U.S. troops continue to stay in the region and train on Saudi military bases, many Muslims disapproved of the Saudi initiatives for two reasons: first, Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest places in Islam: Mecca and Medina. Mecca being the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and the place where he received his first divine revelations. So important is Mecca to Muslims that Muslims worldwide pray in the direction of Mecca five times a day. Medina is where the first Muslim community was established when Mohammed and his followers fled Mecca. Having U.S. and Western troops so close to these sites—only 30 miles away—caused great anxiety given the memories for Muslims of the Crusades and the more recent experiences with Western military colonialism.

Secondly, many Saudi political dissidents objected to the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia because they felt the United States was helping to keep an unpopular regime in power (since Saudi Arabia does not have any significant standing army of its own). It was due to the continued presence of U.S. troops in the region following the war that Saudi Arabian dissident Osama bin Laden began his militant campaign against the West. Initially his goal was to "liberate" Saudi holy land from Western "crusading" troops that he believed were also keeping a regime he opposed in power. Toward this end, bin Laden was directly connected to the bombings of U.S. training facilities and military complexes in Saudi Arabia in 1995, 1996, and the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Bin Laden later announced that he had widened his jihad against the West beyond military targets to include U.S. civilians, an action that Islam rejected outright. His own justification for deviating from Islamic tradition was that the United States was the first government to have "extended its war against troops to civilians" in its ongoing confrontation with Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children have died from starvation and disease stemming in part from U.S.-led sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime. Furthermore, he argued that because the United States was a democracy, all American citizens were responsible for its government's policies. In an interview with CNN in 1997, he argued that "because [Americans] chose this government and voted for it despite their knowledge of its crimes in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq and in other places, and [be-cause of American] support of its agent [Arab] regimes who filled our prisons with our best children and scholars," bin Laden believed he was justified in targeting American civilians. The first civilian target with ties to bin Laden was the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

Due to the fact that bin Laden was convinced that U.S. global policies oppressed Muslims worldwide, bin Laden began organizing a network, al-Qaeda, to challenge the West through violence against U.S. civilians and interests throughout the world. In 1998 bin Laden continued his attack, with strikes against American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, resulting in the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, most of which were not U.S. casualties but rather Kenyan and Tanzanian citizens. The United States became increasingly alarmed at the development of bin Laden's network, which had ties to a number of different Muslim countries, and began working with Arab regimes to capture bin Laden in the years prior to 2001.

The State of Israel

Arab and Muslim reactions to the September 11 tragedy cannot be properly understood outside of the context of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. The conflict with Israel has consistently remained the number one concern of Arabs and Muslims since the Jewish state was founded in 1948. The profound depth of feeling that Arabs and Muslims have in reaction to the establishment of Israel involve historical fears and mistrust that a foreign, colonizing Western power, such as the nations supporting Israel's formation, might aspire to control all of the region and subvert Islam, the religious attachment to the holy land of Jerusalem (the third most sacred site in Islam), the deep social solidarity with and empathy for the uprooted Palestinian refugees, and the anger arising from perceived humiliations and dehumanization at the hands of Israelis. As a result, the conflict with Israel and the plight of the Palestinians strikes a powerful chord in the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims.

Longstanding U.S. support for Israel has been a vexing question for Arabs and Muslims who look to the United States for leadership in restraining or balancing Israel's relations in the region and with Palestinians in particular. The United States struggled to bring both parties to the negotiating table for years as an 'honest broker' to help each side find common ground. With the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, many Arabs and Israelis were hopeful that a durable peace could be achieved. These hopes soon dimmed when Arabs and Muslims observed an acceleration of Jewish settlement that was slowly expanding the territory of Israel beyond agreed borders into the Occupied Territories, while neither the U.S. nor the Israeli governments appeared able to stop them. Additionally, Arafat rejected a peace proposal at the Camp David II discussions in July 2000, which raised tensions further. While the years following the Oslo Accords witnessed the lowest levels of violence between the two sides, the controversial visit in September 2000 by the right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon to the al-Haram al-Sharif ("the Noble Sanctuary"), the sacred Islamic mosque in Jerusalem, which is also an important Jewish site called the Temple Mount, triggered massive Palestinian mobilization and unrest. The visit was profoundly inflammatory to Muslims because Sharon had declared during his visit that he was walking on Israeli territory. The subsequent election of Sharon as Israeli prime minister amid a violent uprising by Palestinian groups oversaw the collapse of the Oslo peace process and brought a strong sense of frustration, anger, and despair to many Muslims.

The conflict with Israel has also contributed to the rise in Islamic activism and revivalism as religious solutions appeared to some to be the most viable way to deal with a sense of oppression and injustice. Islamic fundamentalists rely on the Palestinian conflict to describe why they need to resort to more extreme measures and beliefs to remedy their situation, and why non-Muslims threaten to undermine Islam. In addition, the religious attachment to Jerusalem gives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a global character. Muslims around the world are deeply concerned with, and could conceivably mobilize around, the fate of Jerusalem. For all Arabs and Muslims, the struggle of the Palestinians remains one of the most powerful rallying cries that evokes profound sympathy and massive support, making this issue quite volatile in the region. It is unsurprising that in their bids for popular opinion, both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden promised to deliver justice for the Palestinian people.

Recent History and the Future

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the West and Islam again find themselves estranged from one another and in conflict. Some have argued that we are entering into a "war of fundamentalisms," where extremists from all sides are engaged in a demonization process that insists that the other is out to destroy them. Is it true then that the West is really trying to take over Mecca and Medina? Is it true that Arabs and Muslims really hate democracy and freedom? Looking more closely at the context, history, and needs of the conflict itself helps us to respond in the long-term to the root causes of the conflict and not in the short-term out of fear or rage.

The relationship between the West and Islam is long, complex, and often troubled. Many historians have described it as deeply competitive and marked by periods of violent friction followed by collaboration. This is due to legitimate differences in beliefs about how to live a good and moral life as well as to competition over resources and fears about the motives of the other. Learning about the history, culture, and experiences of one another gives us the safety to value human diversity without feeling fundamentally threatened.

The factor that is continuing to aggravate the current situation is the view of Arabs and Muslims that many Western governments, and in particular the United States, refuse to acknowledge or link the impact of their foreign policies in these post-colonial countries with any of the grievances stated by radical Muslim groups, pushing them further from the accepted mainstream and into extremism. Military solutions do not begin to address the underlying causes of conflict or prevent young men and women from committing acts of destruction and suicide. Equating Islam as a religion to Islamic extremism is also aggravating the relationship between Islam and the West and adding to the misunderstandings between the two. Certain people have come to associate Islam with terrorism. For these people, Islam can then be considered a threat to Western security.

Addressing the underlying causes of conflict and mistrusts involves certain basic and necessary steps from the Arab and Muslim point of view. First, a just and peaceful solution to the Palestinian struggle must take place that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to live free from fear and to live as neighbors. The United States could more actively support human rights and the desire for democracy in the region, as these are deeply compatible with American principles and values. In addition, the United States has considerable expertise in development assistance that could be used to help democratic Muslim governments adjust to globalization processes and advance the interests, health, and well-being of their peoples so that everyone is allowed to benefit.

If positive and genuine change is to ensue, this should be coupled with changes in Muslim societies and leaders; blaming only external force for the increasing use of violence by certain Muslim groups is not enough. In addition to that, more efforts should be invested in reaching out to non-Muslim audiences and media to further understanding about Islam and the Muslim world, and to reflect the complexity of opinions and positions within each Muslim society. A growing number of Muslim scholars, leaders, and activists, such as Ibrahim Musa, Farid Esack, Khalid Abu Fadel, Abdul Aziz Sachedina, Jawdat Said, Abdul Aziz Said and Mohammed Abu-Nimer, among others, have been engaged in examining frameworks for nonviolence and pluralism based on primary Islamic religious sources such as the Qur'an and the Hadith. The writings of many of those authors, in addition to promoting values of tolerance and diversity within an Islamic framework, provide many alternatives to engage in social and political change and to pursue justice by adopting Islamic values of nonviolent resistance. Such attempts can be part of a larger campaign to open channels of communication between the West and Islam (both on the level of leaders and people) that will help in breaking the negative mutual stereotypes.

These are the steps that would lead to a peaceful, just, and collectively secure future.


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Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Amal Khoury

Lynn Kunkle


1095 Pope Urban preaches at Clermont sanctioning theFirst Crusade, which runs until 1099.

1097 The First Crusade reaches Constantinople in its first great expedition.

1100 Crusaders take control of Jerusalem.

1100-40 Crusaders and Muslims struggle for control of the region.

1144-45 The Second Crusade takes place.

1171 Saladin becomes ruler of the Turkish empire.

1174 Saladin takes Damasus.

1183 Saladin takes Aleppo.

1187-1192 The Third Crusade ensues.

May-July 1187 Saladin attacks and destroys a Crusader detachment at Tiberias, reconquering Jerusalem and a majority of Crusader territories.

October 1187 Jerusalem is captured.

1192 Richard the Lionheart makes a treaty with Saladin, recovering some land, but not the city of Jerusalem.

1193 Saladin dies; his sons enter into dispute with one another and divide his territories.

1194-1201 The Fourth and Fifth Crusades occur.

April 1204 Crusaders reach Constantinople.

1212 The Children's Crusade begins from Cologne andFrance.

1227 Frederick II begins the Seventh Crusade.

1229 Frederick makes a treaty with Sultan al-Kamil forJerusalem and territories on the coast and the Seventh Crusade ends.

1245-47 The Eighth Crusade ensues.

1396 An attempt for a Crusade against the Turks is defeated decisively at the battle of Nicopolis.

1402 Tamerlane defeats the Ottoman sultan at Angora.

1422 Murad lays unsuccessful siege to Constantinople in a struggle against his challengers and begins a restoration of Ottoman power.

1443-44 A new Crusade led by King Ladislaus III ofPoland and Hungary forces Murad II into a truce at Szegedin.

1444 Crusaders break a truce and are defeated at Varna.

1453 Mohammed II takes Constantinople.

Official Statements from Muslim Leaders Condemning the US Attack

Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority: "I express my sincere condolences to the American people and the American President, not just in my name but on behalf of the Palestinian people. This crime is completely unacceptable and utterly shocking."

Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt: "Egypt firmly and strongly condemns such attacks on civilians and soldiers that led to the deaths of large numbers of innocent victims."

Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran: We feel "deep regret and sympathy with the victims [of this crime]."

Muammar Qadhafi, President of Libya: Qadhafi stated that these attacks are "horrifying," and urged help and aid for Americans "regardless of political considerations or differences between Americans and the peoples of the world."

Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt: "To kill innocent men, women and children is a horrible and hideous act of which no monotheist religion approves… Islam is a religion which rejects violence and bloodletting."

Organization of Islamic Conference Secretary General Abdelouhed Belkaziz: "We are shocked and deeply saddened by the news of the attacks, which led to the death and injury of a large number of innocent Americans… [We share Americans'] pain and sorrow in this terrible and devastating ordeal."

American Muslim Political Coordination Council:

"American Muslims utterly condemn what are apparently vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians… No political cause could ever be assisted by such immoral acts."

What is Jihad ?

According to Karen Armstrong, a scholar of religion and the author of several books on religion, the primary meaning of the word jihad is not holy war but struggle, or striving. It refers to the difficult effort that is needed to put God's will into practice at every level—personal and social, as well as political. There are two kinds of jihad: jihad al-asghar (the lesser jihad), which refers to an external struggle for justice, and for implementing God's will on earth. Jihad al-akbar (the greater jihad) refers to the far more urgent and momentous task of extirpating wrongdoing from one's own society and one's own heart. A very important and much quoted Islamic tradition has Mohammed telling his companions as they go home after a battle, "We are returning from the lesser jihad [the battle] to the greater jihad."

According to John Esposito, director of the Center for Christian-Muslim Relations at Georgetown University, jihad means to strive or struggle in the way of God and is sometimes referred to as the 6th pillar of Islam, without actually having such official status. More generally, jihad refers to the "obligation incumbent on all Muslims, as individuals and as a community, to exert themselves to realize God's will, to lead virtuous lives, and to try to extend the Islamic community through preaching, education, and so on."

Islamic Revivalism vs . Islamic Fundamentalism

The General or Common Ideological Framework of Islamic Revivalism:

  • Islam is a total and comprehensive way of life
  • The failure of Muslim communities results from their departure from the straight path of Islam and their following a Western secular path
  • The renewal of society requires a return to Islam, an Islamic religio-political and social reformation or revolution, that draws its inspiration from the Qur'an and from the first great Islamic movement led by the Prophet Mohammed
  • To restore God's rule and inaugurate a true Islamic social order, Western-inspired civil codes must be replaced by Islamic law
  • Although the Westernization of society is condemned, modernization as such is not
  • The process of Islamization, or more accurately re-Islamization, requires organizations or associations of dedicated and trained Muslims, who by their example and activities, call on others to be more observant and who are willing to struggle (jihad) against corruption and social injustice
  • General or Common Ideological Framework for Radical Activists (known to some as Islamic fundamentalists)
  • A crusader mentality that pits the West against the Islamic world
  • Establishment of an Islamic system of government as an Islamic imperative
  • Governments that do not allow the sharia are illegitimate and those who fail to follow Islamic law are guilty of unbelief
  • Jihad against unbelief and unbelievers is a religious duty
  • Radicals demand total commitment and obedience: the army of God is locked in battle or holy war with the followers of Satan
  • Christians and Jews are generally regarded as unbelievers rather than "People of the Book" because of their connections with Western Christian colonialism and Zionism

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The Muslim World Reacts to September 11

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