Monumental Discursive Turn

MUSTAFA HUSSAIN mustafa.hussain at GET2NET.DK
Wed Sep 11 21:41:21 UTC 2002

Dear All,
After Teun's timely reminder, I came across a text that I recieved from [Asiapeace] and could not hold it back for myself only. Good reading pleasure ! 
Best Regards,
Mustafa Hussain
Knastebakken 151.1.
DK-2750 Ballerup, Danmark
tlf. +45 44660171

Search for meanings for 9/11 
Dr. Zahid Shariff, Faculty Member, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington 

The massive human tragedy of 9-11 has understandably been condemned the
world over. Killing of innocent civilians has aroused sympathy for the
victims and anger toward those who murdered them. 
Since that day a massive national effort was launched to both take
action and to search for its meanings. The first included the war on
terror and it does not have an end in sight, and the second began with
asking, "why do they hate us?", and that too is unlikely to end any time
soon. Sometimes the two were inevitably mixed, not always for political
or partisan reasons.
The search for meanings of 9/11 began to be framed from the very
beginning in language that was exaggerated and hyperbolic; it encouraged
wild generalizations that substituted slogans for analysis. Such an
atmosphere is not only more conducive to hysteria than calm reflection,
it is also more likely, as was the case here, to privilege some meanings
and interpretations over others. 
Initially, it will be recalled, the crashing of four airplanes on that
day in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania were described by
President George Bush as an act of terror which will lead to those
responsible being brought to justice. Soon after that, he called it an
act of war. But even the characterization of terrorists' declaration of
war on America was not thought to be enough. Ratcheting the language up
further, the attack, he and virtually all the journalists, TV hosts, and
most of the analysts said, had been launched on freedom, which was left
vague and unspecified, but was closely identified with the United
States; the terrorists resented Americans for having that freedom, it
was alleged, since they did not have it themselves, and that was why
they had struck. Finally, it was civilization itself that was
identified as their real target, although that too was undefined but
presumably it was a proxy for both American cherished values and
cultivated refinement. (If words like terrorists' threat to "life" and
"humanity" have not so far been pressed into service too frequently,
they probably will be in the future.) 
The search for meanings for 9/11, as it intensified, demanded not only
defending the ever escalating aspirations and explanations (threats to
security, freedom, civilization) and policy and political agendas (war,
oil, elections) with which they are linked, it also required the
corresponding denigration in exaggerated ways of those who were believed
to threaten them. And that too has occurred. A new temperament and
vocabulary have emerged which facilitate the use of words that encourage
venomous denunciation: demonic, evil, violent, dangerous, terror,
suspicious, Islamic. 
If the terrorists are described as attacking civilization, what does
that make them? While President Bush continues to formally urge
citizens not to take out their rage against Muslims living in the U.S.
and no one in high governmental position has explicitly used the word
primitive, the implications are not so ambiguous. These words get
translated in public spaces - such as parks, airports, buses, and movie
theaters - into ugly behavior toward Muslims, those who look like them,
or those seen interacting with them. More than 300 cases of harassment
of this kind as well as those that include attacks on houses and
businesses owned or rented by Muslims, or those who resemble them, have
been reported since 9/11, and they include three murders. I recall the
words of Thomas Szasz: "In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be
eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined." 
The desire to understand why terrorists struck on 9/11 has also taken
another route. It consists of resorting to a kind of essentialization
that is often vigorously opposed in other contexts. For example, those
who would never be willing to understand the behavior of a small group
in reference only to its cultural, racial or religious characteristics,
have felt perfectly comfortable in doing just that during the last
year. I don't know anyone, for instance, who has wondered what is it
about the Protestant religion, white race, or middle class background
that produces kids who go with guns to schools and start killing other
kids and their teachers. Furthermore, how often have we wanted to
connect the fact that Timothy MacVeigh was a Christian with his
terrorist attack on a federal building? That notwithstanding, the fact
that the terrorists were Muslims continues to provide enough
justification for many grown and well educated men and women to link the
terrorists' behavior with their religion. While some serious and
balanced discussion of the religion of Islam and the Muslims living in a
variety of societies has taken place during the last year, far more
frequent has been the daily Islam-bashing - in print and electronic
media, journals and books, and movies and TV shows. One of the worst
"scholarly" examples of it is Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong?, as was
recently pointed out by Edward Said in Harper's Magazine. Instead of
opening up possibilities for new meanings and understandings of who "we"
and "they" are, another layer of beliefs about the Muslim world is being
laid, one that selectively supplies new facts to confirm the old
prejudices to define it primarily in terms of its lacks and deficiencies
and absences. All this is being done, unfortunately, in the name of
increasing awareness and reducing misunderstandings about Islam. It
appears that the need for oil and stability had only temporarily
dampened the orientalist discourse. 
If we are willing to search, other meanings of 9/11 are, fortunately,
readily available - in addition, that is, to the blood-thirsty Muslims,
inspired by Islam to kill the infidels on every opportunity - even
though they are not frequently reported. Here is one example. Under
the supervision of Madeleine Albright, who was not known to be friendly
toward Muslim countries when she was the Secretary of State, the Pew
Research Center and the International Herald Tribune conducted a survey
of opinion leaders in several countries. As many as "58 percent of the
foreign leaders said U.S. policies were responsible for the attacks
while only 18 percent of the U.S. opinion leaders interviewed held that
view" (Chicago Tribune, December 20, 2001). 
The dominant understanding and interpretation of 9/11 gravitates toward
pointing the finger at some variant or the other of Islam (Wahabi,
madrassah-based, fundamentalist, politicized, jihad-oriented, the list
goes on) and Muslim culture - beyond the personality and resources, that
is, of Osama bin Ladin. There is another explanation too, the one that
many foreign respondents reflected in that poll. For many, including
Muslims, the meaning of 9/11 is to be found by searching not for vague
clues, subtle hints, or hidden messages, but by recalling some of the
major events in the U.S. foreign policy - from the overthrow of the
democratically elected government of Iran in 1954 to the present support
of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and a great deal in between. That
explanation holds that the bitter memories of humiliation and
exploitation of those policies provided the seeds from which we are
reaping the current harvest of terror.
Since I work in an academic setting, I could not help noticing a
significant increase that has been reported in the number of college
courses being offered on Islam. The motivations behind this development
are probably laudable. I wonder, however, about its impact. The
readings and learning experiences that the faculty will bring to such
courses will certainly have some influence. It is probably safe to say
that in their course syllabi and classroom discussions, terrorism will
surface as an issue, and when tracing its roots, causes, or origins,
Islam and Muslim culture will get attention. In most cases, this kind
of learning is to be feared more often than welcomed. A more balanced
curriculum would offer as many courses on the Politics of Oil, Middle
East, American Foreign Policy, as are now being offered on Islam. 
One of the cherished concepts of liberal democracy and the American
academy is pluralism. As we reflect one year later upon a major
national tragedy, it is time we apply it to our understanding of it. As
we do, I hope our search will yield a multiplicity of meanings. How much
were the terrorists inspired by some interpretation of the Qur'an,
absence of democracy in Muslim countries, envy of the American way of
life, on the one hand, and how much by the deep sense of the betrayal of
the mujahedeen - some of whom later became the Taliban - who suffered on
a massive scale (with their casualties in thousands and dislocation of
population in millions) when the United States abruptly left the scene
after the Soviets had been forced to retreat from Afghanistan, the
stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and American special
relationship with Israel and its consequences for Palestinians, on the
other? After a year it is time to move beyond jingoism and revenge,
innocence and smugness. It is time to move toward an enriched, plural,
deeper search for the many meanings of what happened a year ago. The
celebrated norms of pluralism, I am hoping, will bear multiple and
contested meanings.
September 11, 2002 

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