Add new comment

Dear SOP,
I am an associate dean of International Relations at IE University in Spain and a big fan of the show. Here is the english version of an OPED I wrote for a Turkish Paper on the 5th anniversary of 9 11 that discusses the issue of being a Muslim living in the West.
yours Ibrahim

Wars of Three Words

During the end of January 2002, I was having lunch with an Iranian friend in a restaurant in my hometown in California. Our waitress overheard us speaking in Persian and asked, “Where are you guys from?”
I looked up at the blonde waitress and said in a proud voice, “I am from Iraq and he is from Iran.”
“Oh, all you need is a North Korean friend and you can have an Axis of Evil luncheon,” the waitress responded, proud of her knowledge of global politics. I think she expected us to laugh or at least smile at her clever quip but neither one of us was amused. The night before, Bush had coined the term “Axis of Evil” during his January 25, 2002, State of the Union speech to refer to Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
I came to a few realizations after her comment. First, I would only give her a ten percent tip rather than the customary fifteen in the US, and I would do so begrudgingly and unwillingly.
Second, the US I had grown up in had changed for the worse after September the 11 for Muslims like myself.
Third, as much as I hated to admit, these catchy titles worked. Bush or whichever speech writer came up with the title of the “Axis of Evil” hoped to alienate the parties named, to set them apart from the rest of the “good” countries in the world. When the waitress grouped us into the unfavorable classification, I felt the marginalization the title was intended to inflict.
Not only did the title succeed in creating an identifiable enemy bloc, it also succeeded in working an entire political agenda into its listeners’ memories. After Bush’s speech, that waitress could still remember what the Axis of Evil was and who belonged to it. I then began to realize that most US government initiatives, wars and villains could be summarized in catchy two to three-word titles. For as long as I can remember Americans have been throwing around terms like “Cold War,” “Red Scare,” “New World Order,” “Axis of Evil” and “War on Terror.”
The problem with those concise, catchy titles is that they repackage complex global phenomena into deceivingly simple components. A “War on Terror” implies that terror is something that can be targeted, fought, and defeated when in reality such a title is so broad and so ill-defined that it becomes essentially meaningless. Terror is a world-wide problem that under-represented parties have resorted to for ages in their struggle for agency. The Bush administration could have more aptly declared “War on Usama bin Ladin,” or even a “War on UBL” to fit into the three word formula. Or better yet, “A War on Al-Qaida.” However, it was clear that such a broad name was intentional. There were those in the Bush administration who wanted to target not just on Al-Qaida but Iraq and Iran, and a “War on Terror” gave them free reign to justify any military action in the name of seeking out terrorists wherever they may be. Once Bush had created the villain of the Axis of Evil, I felt he would be compelled to act against them, otherwise he would lose face in front of his constituencies.
Indeed, Bush did act out against Iraq, a member of that “Axis of Evil” and justified “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as a continuation in the “War on Terror.” A war against my native Iraq was justified by merely stringing together 3 three-word titles. In March 2003, as the Iraq war was being waged, I gave a guest lecture at Koc University in Istanbul. As a 29 year old doctoral student then, it struck me as I looked out at a class room filled of only young faces that my entire audience, with myself included, probably spanned the entire range of ages in the twenties. As a group we had only managed to live through two decades, yet in the span of our lifetime the entire nature of world politics had changed.
I thought about the Cold War. The name itself was an oxymoron. It was assigned to describe the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union after World War Two, but it also masked the fact that these two countries did actually fight each other with “hot” weapons. More than a million Vietnamese and Afghanis died as proxies of the US-USSR conflict, and yet it was still called it a Cold War. Was it only worth being called a Hot War when your own citizens were on the frontlines?
In this new Holy War era, as Samuel Huntington argues, the battle is between Christian, Judaic and Islamic civilizations. I, on the other hand see the battle as a conflict where multiple Islams fight each other for the loyalties of the Muslims worldwide. The conflict within Islam has been described in the West as a battle between “radical, fundamentalist Islam” and “moderate Islam.” How does one measure if a Muslim is “radical” or “moderate?” A Muslim is not a mobile phone with a battery symbol indicating the strength of his or her charge.
I found that a better description for this dichotomy as “static Islam” versus “dynamic Islam.” Those who are called fundamentalists and radicals have one unifying factor. They believe that Islam should be interpreted as it was centuries ago in the deserts of Arabia, keeping the faith static. Some of its adherents support the use of violence to destroy any countries, entities or ideologies who challenge their views. When US troops first entered Saudi Arabia in the Nineties, Bin Ladin feared the influence of Americanism on Saudi Arabia’s Islamic values and hence eventually revived the group he founded in Afghanistan in the Eighties – what is known as Al-Qaida today. Those Muslims who see Islam as fluid believe that their religion can evolve without losing its original nature. They have managed to accommodate their beliefs within a modernizing world. Yet in doing so, they have also become the target of static Muslim groups.
Even as Usama is on the run, probably moving from one mountain hideout in Pakistan to the other, he was strengthening his position. He is the epitome of the new state of world affairs; a leader of a group of “static” Muslims who advocate apocalyptic violence, a non-state actor capable of challenging the strongest power in a unipolar world. As the man who the all-powerful US could not capture, he had defied the odds, a feat that granted him an almost mythical power. Al-Qaida worked as a “start up company;” it provided the model that new groups imitated. The exploits of Bin Ladin himself and his supporters sparked other disenchanted Muslims to act on its behalf. Once Bin Ladin became a source of inspiration and other groups began to conduct terrorist attacks without even orders from him, Usama had scored the ultimate victory.
What I wanted those students at the University to appreciate more than anything in March of 2003 that the war against terrorism and the Iraq War that followed might never achieve its goal of eradicating terror. On the contrary, it has fueled even more terrorist activity. The War on Terror made Usama bin Ladin, a renegade, an adversary worthy of the attention of the world’s greatest superpower. It told a world of malcontents that one disgruntled man can orchestrate a series of events that could mobilize a super power. It also provided a myriad of causes for those malcontents to rally against.
Exactly five years ago from today, I had returned from a three month journey around the Mediterranean by bus, train and boat to finally arrive in the UK, whereupon I stayed in my uncle’s house in London. During previous visits to his house, I had sat in front of his wide screen TV, watching hours of the latest action movies that had just been released on DVD. I could have never imagined the scene I was about to witness on that very same TV screen. I rested in one of the reclining chairs and stared at the TV in front of me, as I watched footage of two planes crashing into the Twin Towers and their subsequent collapse.
I was so fixated on the TV screen I had failed to realize that my two year old cousin wobbled into the room. She walked in front of the TV, her blonde curls obstructing the screen. I got up from the chair and hugged her, looked into her round crystal blue eyes and kissed one of her chubby cheeks.
I went back to the sofa, waiting for the latest developments on which Muslim group could be responsible for the attack. During one of the commercial breaks, I looked in the direction of my little cousin, sitting on the floor, playing with her toys. While my uncle is Iraqi, his wife is Greek Cypriot. My cousin herself was a product of Muslim and Christian cultures, and it was precisely because of that that she was so beautiful. I had just come back from a journey to Turkey convincing myself of the possibility of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity’s coexistence, and I was sitting in a living room, actually looking at a three year-old living proof of that very same fact. Watching the TV screen on September the 11th 2001, I realized that even though I had declared the war over between these religions, the rest of the world was just barely gearing up for the fight - a fight that continues unabated five years later.