The events of September 11th, 2001 changed the world. Of the four planes hijacked that day, two caused the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York, one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC, and the fourth was prevented from reaching the Capitol with the intervention of its passengers. The loss of almost 3,000 lives on that day – with thousands more injured – affected not only the United States but, 20 years on, the aftermath persists, and the number of casualties linked to this event have continued to skyrocket across the world.
These attacks ended a decade when American foreign policy was largely defined by the belief that trade and development would enable the spread of liberal democracy: the “end of history” as described by Francis Fukuyama in his controversial essay. An era of renewed interventionism followed, especially targeting the Arab World and its neighbouring nations. The Muslim and Arab victims of the 9/11 attacks, including first responders, and the subsequent hate crimes and racial profiling members of their communities were subjected to in the US were all but erased from the official narrative – Islam became the new enemy of the post-Cold War era, and a process was set in motion. From American and Western pop culture, which vilified Arabs and Muslims across the world, to state surveillance and direct military interventions.
The invasion of Afghanistan took place only two weeks after 9/11 and resulted in a 20-year-long war. Initially targeting Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda, as well as the Taliban as their allies, this occurred under the auspices of NATO and involved the participation of a coalition of 27 countries such as the UK, Turkey, Spain, Italy, and Germany.
President George W. Bush proclaimed a “War on Terror”, a doctrine that would serve to justify military intervention in the Middle-East with the prerogative of combating terrorism. Alongside this, Bush referred to the “Axis of Evil”, explicitly mentioning Iran, Iraq and North Korea as its foremost members. The Bush administration also enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), initially an emergency tool to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but which was later used by presidents Obama and Trump in numerous scenarios ranging from drone strikes to special operations.
The AUMF was, in fact, the tool used to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the grounds of a public security threat due to Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. The war profoundly destabilised the country and caused some 200,000 civilian deaths directly, severe damage to the country’s infrastructure, and altered the social, political and economic fabric of Iraq. Yet, no weapons of mass destruction were found.
The narrative of counterterrorism also affected Western countries internally and specifically Arab and Muslim communities within those countries. The beginning of the modern surveillance state can be traced back to the aftermath of 9/11, with programmes like the Patriot Act in the US or PREVENT in the UK, aimed at severing terrorist funding networks and preventing radicalisation through surveillance of civilians and their activities.
The polarising effect of the counterterrorist narrative also contributed to the fragmentation of Arab and Muslim communities across the globe by drawing a false dichotomy that equated Islam with terrorism vis-à-vis Western ideas of democracy and secularism. Although some initiatives like the UN-led Alliance of Civilisations tried to build bridges in an increasingly binary world, Arabs and Muslims across the world suffered significant prejudice and discrimination because of the policies enacted after September 11th by the United States and its allies, and these effects continue to persist today.
However, the Arab and Muslim worlds have not been the sole targets of these policies. More recent intervention in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia, to name a few, signify a continuing trend of US dominance being asserted to manipulate global political affairs. With the pervasive rhetoric of national and global security concerns, this trend is evidently intertwined with agendas that emerged from 9/11.
Twenty years after the attacks, the results of this paradigm shift indicate little success – the US withdrawal from Afghanistan only occurred in August 2021 after 20 years of instability, spending and a lack of a clear long-term vision which paved the way for the return of the Taliban.
Further intervention in the Middle-East has caused the loss of countless lives in countries like Syria, Libya and Iraq, while authoritarian regimes, such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have gained Western backing as anti-Islamist champions, often leading to repression and surveillance of any type of dissent, thus curtailing the human rights usually espoused by the West. In fact, the contradictions in the US’s global military and peacebuilding operations, legitimised by their post-9/11 interventionist agenda, are best exemplified through their support of the Saudi regime, which has devastated the lives of millions of Yemenis (and continues to do so).
The US and its allies responded to 9/11 with increased interventionism in the Arab World and beyond, as well as with increased surveillance at home and abroad, wittingly or otherwise designating Arab and Muslim communities the main enemy of the West. In a bid to combat an arbitrarily conceptualised notion of terrorism, they appear to have achieved little other than the destabilisation of targeted nations, the loss of life and livelihood of those people, and inciting Islamophobia through the vilification of Arab and Muslim communities and countries.
Edited by Madiha Z. Sadiq