BEIRUT – The 9/11 attacks 10 years ago and the subsequent response led by the United States made deep, far-reaching changes to the Middle East, defining the contours of a conflict between Muslims and the West that continues to shape public perceptions in both parts of the globe.
And yet many in the Arab world describe the attacks themselves as a mere historical footnote, eclipsed by democratic-leaning revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East as well as the more ominous conflict between Shiite and Sunni sects playing out from the Indus River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Ask an ordinary person smoking a water pipe at a cafe or riding a minibus about 9/11, and you're far more likely to be told with absolute conviction that it was carried out by Israeli spies or was the work of isolated madmen rather than symptomatic of a broader malaise in the Arab world and among Muslims in general. A 2008 poll by World Public Opinion found that only 4 percent of Pakistanis and 11 percent of Jordanians believed al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks, and 23 percent of Pakistanis and 48 percent of Jordanians blamed the United States or Israel for the attack. (Most people surveyed in the poll simply said they didn't know who was behind it.)
But 10 years on, it's apparent that the 9/11 attackers partially succeeded in their goal of pitting Islam against the West. Because the West began seeing Muslims as one audience, so too did Muslims -- from the bleak suburbs of Paris to the alleyways of Cairo to the high-rises of Jakarta -- begin viewing themselves as one, battling Western powers that were inclined to reject, stereotype, and, on occasion, bomb them. It's not that 9/11 caused Muslim countries to band together. Major tensions continue to divide countries, governments, and sects. But since the attacks, a sort of global Muslim identity has arisen, with Muslims tuned into similar issues such as the donning of the hijab, adherence to Islamic banking principles, and discrimination by Westerners.
"Sept. 11 turned the notion of a clash of civilizations into a self-fulfilling prophecy," argues Joost Hiltermann, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "There wasn't a clash, but, hey, you could create one by taking all the wrong steps. I think it was an unmitigated disaster for the United States and the Arab world because of the number of polarizations it created. Trust is gone. It's very dangerous."
Immediately after 9/11, most Arabs and Muslims decried the attack, with even
leaders of countries at odds with the United States joining in a chorus of
sympathy for Americans. A few Arabs and Muslims in scattered places cheered the
attack. For once, they said, America was getting a taste of its own medicine.
But as President George W. Bush's administration pursued unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden became a folk hero. His portraits appeared on T-shirts; his voice on crinkly audiotapes would cause people to stop and listen. Meanwhile, the sympathy for the United States dissipated amid angry denunciations of U.S. foreign policy and burning flags.