Five years on--and how little we have learned! In the first shock of 9/11, opinion leaders hastened to offer their publics comfort and reassurance. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, they said, were the work of a tiny extremist fringe, condemned by the whole world. The terrorists belonged to no culture, no religion: Their cause did not even have a name.
On the other hand, the terrorists' facelessness implied that they could turn up anywhere. The elderly lady from Iowa ahead of you might be one of them: Better search her carefully at the airline security check.
The good news (or so opinion leaders continued) was that in our struggle against terror, we could count on the support of almost all of the world's one billion Muslims. And if any in that huge population did not support us--if indeed some of them hated us--that was an easily fixable problem. Muslim grievances were limited and reasonable: All it would take to assuage them was a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside Israel.
Very little of this was true, as has become increasingly obvious over the past five years.
In a major survey conducted this summer, one in four British Muslims described the 7/7 attacks as "justified." One-third of British Muslims said they would prefer living under Sharia to living under British law. Two-thirds said they wished to see legal punishments for those who in any way insulted Islam.
Here in North America, we see less professed radicalism, but instead a disturbing pattern of financial support for terrorist activity. The CIA estimates that one-third of Islamic charities offer support for military and paramilitary "resistance" movements somewhere around the world. After the Persian Gulf region, North America is the second largest source of donations to such charities. The largest Islamic charity in the United States was closed down by the U.S. Treasury for terror support in December 2001; Canada has closed five Islamic charities for their ties to al Qaeda: Human Concern International, Benevolence International, the Islamic Relief Organization, the Muslim World League, and the SAAR Foundation.
The good news is that police forces and treasury departments are quietly following the evidence where it leads. The bad news is that they do not dare acknowledge what they are doing.
Because we refuse to talk candidly to ourselves about the real nature of the threat, we waste tens of billions of dollars of public and private resources on unfocused enforcement. Meanwhile, enforcement policies that could actually work--like the U.S. National Security Agency's data-mining of phone calling patterns to map possible terrorist networks--are denounced as violations of civil rights and liberties.
But the errors go beyond the waste of money.
Since 9/11, many Western governments--including Canada's defunct Chretien government--have convinced themselves that the real answer to the terror problem is (in the astute words of Jason Burke, Europe editor of the Observer newspaper) to "separate the violent radicals who want to destroy and replace the modern state from the political Islamists who want to appropriate it."
To that end, Western governments have tried to engage groups like the Muslim Council of Britain and the Council on American-Islamic Relations--groups that reject the violent methods of al Qaeda, Hamas, or Hezbollah, but that share their guiding ideology to a very disturbing degree.
Engagement comes at a price. As the Danish cartoon affair demonstrated, the need to accommodate political Islam often requires Western governments to remain passive as the rights and liberties of their citizens are abridged.
Only last week came this story: One of Germany's most prominent lawyers, Seyran Ates, has resigned her legal practice. Ates, herself a Turkish immigrant to Germany, represented Muslim women seeking escape from arranged marriages. She has come under increasing threat in recent years, but the decisive moment arrived for her earlier this year. As she and one of her clients emerged from a German courthouse, the husband physically assaulted them both. Her client has had to go into hiding; the husband remains at large. German police denied her requests for protection.
The 9/11 attacks were the most dramatic atrocities in a larger struggle: "a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."
Those are the brave words of Dr. Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American living in Los Angeles. For speaking thus on al-Jazeera, she too now lives under the threat of death. Until her fellow citizens of the West can bring themselves to speak with equal candour about political Islam, we will not even have begun to fight back. Five years after 9/11, is it really still too early to start?
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