The 9/11 mind field

The most notable reason for the US failure to avert 9/11 was ignoring the potential of the fanatical fringe created by a narrow interpretation of Islam

Why did American policymakers fail to anticipate and prevent the calamitous event of 9/11? How is it that they lacked understanding of the forces that were building up the monster that felled the towering symbol of American might? How come the prestigious think tanks of the country, which were envisioning “the end of history” and laying down a roadmap for a New American Century, took no notice of the conspiratorial baggage of those who were going all over the globe and setting up terror nests?

In the 1990s, America’s historical imagination failed to read the contours of the reality that emerged at the end of the Afghan war (1979-89) in the region comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India. During the war, the US had supplied to the Afghan and other Mujahideen, through Pakistan’s ISI, huge quantities of weapons and sophisticated communication equipment. It had also encouraged the policy of invoking the spirit of “jihad” and motivating the Mujahideen to fight with blind fanaticism against the “un-Islamic and godless” Russians.
All this was understandable. Precedence had to be given to the goal of winning the war. But America failed to prevent the new forces becoming, at the end of the war, a power in themselves and using terror, religious frenzy and new technologies to extend that power.
When, in 1990, I was trying to beat back the Pakistan-sponsored onslaught of terrorism and subversion in Kashmir, I could clearly see that the US did nothing to stop the misuse of its special equipment nor did it discourage Pakistan’s savage ventures — the ISI routinely dispatched war-hardened “jihadis” to Kashmir for guerrilla-cum-terrorist operations with a view to gobbling up the Valley. America did not realise that these Mujahideen would one day prowl the streets of America. It leaned towards the allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir and underplayed atrocities committed by the terrorists under the guise of being freedom fighters. This attitude oxygenated the terrorists.
It was in this milieu that two hitherto little-known organisational — Al Qaeda and Al Jihad — acquired prominence. They came separately to Afghanistan to help in organsing “jihad” against the Soviets. But, as the war neared its end, they decided to merge. The new outfit, also called Al Qaeda, was established with the objective of waging “jihad” at the global level till a new world order, in the mould of their version of Islam, was brought about. America was declared the fountainhead of moral corruption and Osama bin Laden made it clear that unless “America abandoned West Asia, converted to Islam and ended the immorality and godlessness of its society and culture, it would be at war with Islamic nation, a nation that desired death more than the American desired life”.
The American failure to avert the 9/11 tragedy was attributable to many reasons, most notably not understanding the dangerous potential of the fanatical fringe created by the extra-conservative interpretation of Islam by radical ideologies, such as Mohammad Wahhab, Maulana Maudoodi and Sayyid Qutb.

America, after 9/11, has moved with unmatched vigour and speed to eliminate shortcomings in its security, intelligence, logistics and other administrative matters. But the cost and losses incurred in the process have been heavy — about $4 trillion. America is now running a deficit of about $1.3 trillion; its credit-rating has been lowered for the first time; in terms of manpower, it has lost 6,215 soldiers and 2,300 contractors. In a sense, the American victory on the homeland front has been a pyrrhic one.
Despite the killing of Bin Laden by US Navy Seals on May 2, 2011, and a few other successful operations, a large number of terrorist organisations exist and many others continue to crop up in different parts of the world.
But it would be futile to surgically remove the visible parts of the terrorist tumour without taking care of its ideological source.
The ideological fight is between the “narrow and negative” and the “broad and positive” interpretations of Islam. Those who insist that all attributes of Islam are divine forget that interpretation of these attributes are “thoroughly human and this worldly”. Centuries ago, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, fourth Caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed, had insightfully observed: “This is Quran, written in straight lines; it does not speak with a tongue; it needs interpreters; and interpreters are people.”
Every interpretation, experience tells us, emanates from the mind of interpreter and their milieu. The Taliban’s interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan led to closure of all girls’ schools, banning of all public entertainment, restricting movement of women, prescribing strict code of dress and awarding barbaric punishment even for minor crimes. Moderate Muslim societies, such as Indonesia and Turkey, look at Islam with a liberal frame of mind. Broadly they follow the Quranic dictums, such as: “To you your religion, to me my religion” (Sura 109, verse 6); and “O mankind, we created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes, that you may know each other, not that you may despise each other” (Sura 5, verse 49).
The challenge on the ideological front that America and the like-minded members of the international community face today is how to ensure ascendancy of the “broad and positive” interpretation of Islam. A strong and sustained initiative is required to encourage and help the Muslim communities to relieve themselves of the influence of ultra-conservative ideologies, which take a restricted, rigid and non-contextual view.
On the other hand, there have been many eminent Islamic scholars, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, who have provided us with highly elevating and constructive interpretation of the Quran.
According to their interpretation, Islam and modernity go together. They have argued that the laws as embodied in nature and science were also the “laws of God” and rational and critical faculties were also the gifts of Allah. In other words, both the sets of laws — law as expressed in the Quran and laws as embodied in nature — emanated from the same source and were worthy of equal reverence.
President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have done precious little, in the decade following 9/11, to fight the influence of the negatively orientated ideologies and to strengthen those that are in tune with the ideals of healthy democracy and constructive co-existence. They have hardly done anything to activate the United Nations and its allied agencies, like Unesco, which were formed to motivate mankind towards peace and pluralism.

The writer is a former governor of J&K and a former Union minister

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