Comment 9/11 aftermath left UK obsessed with Muslims
IT’S hard to believe it’s been 17 years since terrorists destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York.
I remember watching events on the television as they occurred, alongside journalist colleagues.
The first plane had hit one of the skyscraper towers, and Sky News was broadcasting images of smoke pouring from the building. Then a second plane hit the neighbouring tower and the realisation hit that somebody had done this on purpose.
As we now know, Al-Qaeda hijackers had flown two Boeing 767 planes into the towers. The attacks killed 2,606 people in and near the buildings, as well as all 157 on board the two aircraft.
A third plane hit the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defence, and a fourth was apparently en route to Washington when it crashed, after passengers and crew attempted to regain control from the hijackers.
Why did they do it? Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (shot dead by US forces in 2011) and other senior figures gave a number of different reasons, in videos and recordings released subsequently. A particular grievance appears to have been the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, at the invitation of the Saudi government.
Al-Qaeda also claimed America had supported Israel’s actions in Lebanon, attacks on Muslims in Somalia, Russia’s suppression of rebels in Chechnya and other injustices against Muslims worldwide.
But many politicians and terrorism experts claimed there was another motive. Al-Qaeda’s long-term goal was to ignite a “clash of civilisations”, they said. The West was to be dragged in to a war against Muslim countries, which would then forget their divisions and unite.
Well, that hasn’t happened. But if that was the goal, it hasn’t failed completely. Someone who’s 25 years old today was probably eight when the 9/11 attacks took place on September 11 2001. This might be hard for younger people to believe, but before 9/11 we in the UK were not obsessed with Muslims.
Nobody talked about Islamic rape gangs. Racist idiots didn’t march through the streets complaining about mosques. We didn’t worry about Muslim extremists taking over schools, or “preachers of hate” spreading their poison.
That’s not to say there wasn’t racism in this country. There was plenty of it, and that includes marches by far-right racists.
Black people, Asian people and other ethnic minorities were on the receiving end, and many people who experienced racism will have been Muslims.
But Islam itself wasn’t the target. Most people in the UK’s white majority communities didn’t have any views on Islam because they had no idea what it was.
They may have known in some vague way that it was a religion practiced in the UK by some people from ethnic minorities, or associated it with Asian people (I’m aware that Islam actually has adherents from pretty much every ethnic group on the planet). But beyond that, they’d have had nothing to say because they simply didn’t know enough to have an opinion.
Asking the average white person what they thought about Islam, or how much they liked Muslims compared to Sikhs, Hindus or Buddhists, would have been like asking someone who’s never seen Star Trek how they thought Captain Kirk compared to Captain Picard.
It’s safe to say that’s not true any more. Instead, there’s a constant focus on Muslims in our media and politics, and a seemingly endless debate about their place in our society.
Some participants in that debate are firmly on the side of equality. Boris Johnson’s comments about the burka, for example, prompted an angry backlash from people who felt he was wrong to mock women who chose to wear one – even though he supported their right to do so.
Many non-Muslims, of course, live or work alongside Muslims and get on with them just fine. The Mayor of London is a Muslim and so is the Home Secretary, suggesting Muslims can get to the top in British public life. In fact, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, the Bromsgrove MP, is considered to be one of the favourites to
We in the UK talk about Muslims in a way that we don’t about members of other religions
become our next Prime Minister. But even if some of the talk is positive, we in the UK still talk about Muslims in a way that we don’t about members of other religions.
It’s hard to imagine a discussion about whether Hindus can succeed in British politics. We might very well discuss the obstacles facing Asian people or, to put it crudely, people with brown skin. But religion would be much less of an issue.
The obsession with Islam and Muslims has not been a feature of British society forever. It began after 9/11.
And not just in the UK. It’s happened in the US too, and across Europe (where, in some countries, memories of ancient battles between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans – two empires long since gone – have been bought to the surface).
While they failed to ignite a clash of civilisations, the sad truth is that the hijackers achieved some degree of success if their aim was to encourage divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
> Osama bin Laden, right, was behind the ‘9/11’ terrorist attacks