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Written by Louay Safi   

9/11 Commission Report presented the American people with the results of the investigations, conducted by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United Stated, into the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Report purports to answer two questions: “How did [9/11] happen, and how can we avoid such tragedy again?”

The bulk of the Report (338 of 428 pages) is devoted to addressing the first question, and describes in details how the 9/11 attacks were undertaken by the 19 terrorists, based on a staggering amount of documents (2.5 million pages) and large number of individuals (1,200) who were interviewed by the Commission.

My comments on the Report focus on its attempts to understand the religious and socio-political background that formed the actual and motivational context in which the terrorists carried their attacks, and the recommendations it provided for dealing with the threat of terrorism.

The Report carefully distinguishes between Usama Bin Ladin’s and Al-Qaida’s worldview and outlook and the larger Islamic community. While it asserts that Islam is “not the enemy” (p. 363) it recognizes that Bin Ladin “uses cultural and religious allusions to the holly Qur’an and some of its interpreters.” (p. 48). It also correctly points out to Bin Ladin’s ability to exploit Muslim grievances to rally the public into his anti-pluralist agenda.

The authors of the Report show keen awareness of the excesses of Arab regimes and Muslim rulers. “Secular regimes” in the Muslim world “promised a glowing future,” but delivered “autocratic regimes . . . unwilling to tolerate any opposition—even in counties, such as Egypt, that has a parliamentary tradition.”(p. 52). These regimes “closed off nearly all paths for peaceful opposition, forcing their critics to choose silence, exile, or violent opposition.” (ibid)

The Report also brings to the fore the dire economic conditions, brought about by corrupt bureaucracies and self-serving elites, that provide a breading ground for discontent, anger, and radicalization: “Frustrated in their search for a decent living, unable to benefit from an education often obtained at a great family sacrifice, and blocked from starting families of their own, some of these young men were easy target for radicalization.” (p. 54).

Rambling in Define the Identity of Terror

The authors of the Report recognize the lack of precision in terrorism references, and undertake the important step of bringing more precision to the usage of the term. But the Report reveals a great deal of both confusion and inconsistency in defining the terrorist. The Report tells us that the enemy is not some generic evil called “terrorism” but rather more specific, “Islamist terrorism—especially al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology.” (p. 362)

Terrorism is not Islamic but Islamist, an important distinction the Report makes very clear. On the one hand, being Islamic does not pose a threat, for “Islam is not the enemy. It is not synonymous with terror. Nor does Islam teach terror.” The enemy is an ideology that feed intolerance, a single “stream of Islam (a minority tradition), from at least Ibn Taymiyyah, through the founders of Wahhabism, through the Muslim Brother hood, to Sayyid Qutb.” (p. 362)

Yet the Report, after linking terrorism with Islamist terrorism, and connecting the latter with a radical ideology and radical movement, remains ambiguous as to the nature and scope of this ideology and this movement. The word Islamist has been used in the media and literature to refer to individuals and movements inspired by Islamic values. The Justice party of Turkey is often referred to as an Islamist or run by Islamists, given its commitments to Islamic principles and traditions. Is being Islamist in anyway linked to radical ideology, or are Islamist terrorists a particular stream of Islamists that are given to violence. Not only is the Report ambiguous on this point, but by using the loose term “Islamist” as an adjective to terrorism, has contributed to the mystification, rather than the clarification of the nature of the enemy.

Associating terrorism with al Qaeda, or any other organization that incite violence against civilians is more precise than using terms that create more confusion than understanding. As such the Report failed to bring more clarity to the identity of the enemy.

Focusing on Dealing with Symptoms Rather than Root Causes

The Report rightly recognizes that terrorism is feed by the dire social, political, and economic conditions that prevail in most Muslim countries. Poverty, lack of good education, corruption, autocratic regimes are some of root causes of terrorism. It clearly recognizes that Bin Ladin’s ability to galvanize support in the Muslim world and find recruits for his violent War against the US is directly linked to “US military presence in the Middle East, policies perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, and support of Israel.” (p. 362).

But rather than exploring those areas and making specific recommendations to deal with the root causes of terrorism, the authors or the Report conclude that the problem of corruption and poverty are long term problem, and hence fall out of the scope of the Commission recommendation. It completely dismisses, and without any investigation, the perceptions of Middle Easterners of US foreign policies and the one-sided and blind support for Israel as erroneous and unfounded.

More troubling, even when the Report recognizes the importance of dealing with some of the root causes of terrorism, and urge the US government to take action to remedy the situation, it gives priority to dealing with the symptoms of the problem rather confronting head on its root causes. Take for instance the Commission recommends that the US government pressure Muslim government to respect the principles necessary for developing an open society that reject violence and terrorism, principles such as individual education and economic opportunity, widespread political participation and contempt for indiscriminate violence, respect for the rule of law, openness in discussing differences, etc. (p. 376) “Where Muslim government, even those who are friends, do not respect these principles, the United State must stand for a better future.” (ibid)

The Commission calls the government to embrace Gen. Musharraf of Pakistan despite the fact that latter come to power through the help of the military, and despite the fact that the Report has placed the responsibility for the bleak socio-economic conditions of Pakistan squarely on the shoulder of the Pakistani government. “Pakistan’s endemic poverty, widespread corruption, and often ineffective government create opportunities for Islamst recruitment, “the Commission point out. (p. 367) Further “Pakistan has made little progress,” the Report asserts, “toward the return of democratic rule …”

The Commission, nonetheless, recommends that “[i]f Musharraf stands for enlightened moderation in a fight for his life and for the life of his country, the United State government should be willing to make hard choices too. …” (ibid) The notion of “enlightened moderation’ was introduced, the Report tells us, by Musharraf himself in a public essay in which he called on the Muslim world to “shun militancy and extremism” and in return he asked the West, and the US in particular, to seek to resolve disputes with justice and help better the Muslim world.” (p. 369) The Commission, however, made no recommendations to encourage the US government help resolve the disputes mentioned by Musharraf, which include the Palestinian and Kashmiri questions.

The Conspicuous Absence of Muslim Americans

One disturbing aspect of the 9/11 Report is the conspicuous absence of the Muslim voice in its preparation, as well as its implications.

To begin with, Muslim and Arab Americans are absent in both the Commission membership, and in the staff who prepared the Report. As a result, Islam and Muslims, even a frequent subject of the report, are not represented in the Report. This apparently deprive the Commission from listing and incorporating in its finding and recommendation an important voice that can play vital role in bringing moderation and understanding to an intricate problem. The lack of Islamic voice to enlighten the discussion is evident in the use of language. Despite the fact the Report recognizes that violence is spawned by different religious traditions, in the US context, only the name of Islam can be use as an adjective to define terrorism. It would be difficult to coin the term “Catholic terrorism” or “Baptist terrorism” when some of the discussant are members of these two faiths.

Similarly, the Commission shows no sensitivity to Muslim Americans’ concerns about their ability to maintain viable charity organization. Although Muslim Americans are eager to ensure that they charity funds do not fall into the hands of terrorists, they don’t want their legitimate charities to get entangled in the war on terrorism on the basis of innuendoes and unfounded allegations. The Report seems to be less concerned with the fate of legitimate Muslim charities.

Published in First Impressions: American Muslim Perspectives, International Institute of Islamic Thought, Herndon, Virginia, 2004.

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