The West and the Islamic world – mutually radicalised?

Terrorism, civil wars and migration: 9/11 still defines our present. Stefan Weidner's book on the consequences of 9/11 is a plea to rethink the world.
Terrorism, civil wars and migration: 9/11 still defines our present. Stefan Weidner's book on the consequences of 9/11 is a plea to rethink the world.

In his book "Ground Zero: 9/11 und die Geburt der Gegenwart" (Ground Zero: 9/11 and the Birth of the Present) Islamic scholar Stefan Weidner analyses the consequences of the attacks on the USA in September 2001. Kersten Knipp spoke with him about failures – as well as opportunities – in the West-East dialogue

By Kersten Knipp

Mr Weidner, two weeks ago, EU leaders held talks with Turkey, an important Islamic country and also a transit country for refugees. What do you think of such discussions?

Stefan Weidner: These negotiations evidently did not lead to any particularly tangible results. Like the refugee crisis, I believe the deterioration of relations between the EU and Turkey represents collateral damage from 9/11. We have to remember that at the turn of the millennium Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen as a beacon of hope and Turkey as a serious candidate for EU membership. 9/11 then gave the conservative critics of Turkey's accession added fuel for the claim that Islam does not belong in Europe. 

When Erdogan realised that the EU would remain closed to Turkey, he realigned his strategy, in the process smashing more china than necessary. Today he seems like a driven man, and the refugees are his bargaining chip against the EU. A cynical game.

In your book, you present the streams of refugees as in part a consequence of the cynical policies of some Middle Eastern regimes, such as that of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But you also view this development as a secondary result of the hesitant response of the Western world to the Arab revolutions in 2011. What did their reaction look like?

Weidner: Assad didn't have much to lose. He was only really popular with the few people who stood to profit from his regime. He banked on the growing fear of Islam in the wake of 9/11 and tried to discredit the opposition as radical Islamists and drive them into the arms of fundamentalists armed by the Gulf States. And he succeeded, because Europe and the USA hesitated to take action – which was quite understandable after their problematic intervention in Libya.

But this then created a vacuum that the anti-Western forces immediately exploited: Russia, Turkey, Iran and the monarchies of the Gulf. A proxy war developed in Syria in which the West had no proxies and was thus utterly powerless. Assad was and still is ostracised – rightly so, in my opinion. But people are unable to sympathise with the militant, radical Islamist opposition either. The result has been that the pro-Western forces have emigrated – to the West!

The dawn of hope: protests against the Assad regime, Damascus 2011 (photo: dapd)
Früchte der Angst: „Assad hat auf die Angst vor dem Islam spekuliert, wie sie nach 9/11 groß wurde, und versucht, die syrische Opposition als radikal-islamisch zu diskreditieren und in die Hände der Fundamentalisten zu treiben, die von den Golfstaaten bewaffnet wurden. Das ist ihm gelungen, weil Europa und die USA gezögert haben - was nach der problematischen Intervention in Libyen sogar verständlich war. Aber dadurch entstand ein Vakuum, das die anti-westlichen Kräfte sofort ausnutzten“, konstatiert Stefan Weidner.

You write that the West also hesitated because the 2011 demonstrators articulated earnest emancipatory demands – including for global equality of opportunity. What did the West find troublesome about that?

Weidner: For one thing, the first revolutionaries and activists were secular and thus pro-Western, but they were also much further to the left of the political spectrum than the Western average and the governments in Europe and the USA. These were people like those who were active in the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. If they had come to power, they would certainly not have embraced the policies the West desired and which the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, would have demanded.

On the other hand, any new governments that really wanted to improve the situation of their people as a whole would have been more difficult partners for the West than the corrupt dictators. So the West would hardly have benefitted at all from the victory of the revolutionaries, or at best in a very long-term perspective, which our politics, oriented towards election cycles, unfortunately usually ignores.

In the broadest sense, you also interpret the revolutionary year of 2011 as a missed opportunity in our relations with the Middle East. What might an appropriate response have looked like?

Weidner: The dilemma of European and American policy is not ultimately due to unwillingness or incompetence, but has objective reasons. Should the West have intervened actively, possibly using military means, when people were fighting for freedom, independence, dignity and personal responsibility? In the beginning, hardly any of the activists wanted such interference – it was only later, when everything went wrong, that they appealed for help.

It wouldn't have been necessary to resort to military means to influence the situation. Yet any intervention would nonetheless have been costly, and would have required great resolve and diplomatic determination. Much more pressure should have been put on the Gulf States, up to and including sanctions. The West should not have merely looked on as the Gulf monarchies sided with reactionary forces, or as the revolutions were undermined by radical Islamist ideologies and jihadists.

This was the time to finally make up for what was neglected after 9/11: to call to account the ultimate ideological, logistical and financial culprits – the oil monarchies in the Gulf. The West shied away from this because far too much of our wealth and our prosperity is tied to the undemocratic systems there. We eventually paid the price in another form, with the "refugee crisis" and the rise of right-wing populism in response.

Cover of Stefan Weidner's "Ground Zero: 9/11 und die Geburt der Gegenwart" (published in German by Hanser)
Hat Bin Laden also tatsächlich gewonnen und die Selbstgewissheiten des Westens entzaubert? Für Stefan Weidner ist die Geschichte von 9/11 erst zu Ende, wenn wir uns von den Feindbildern der vergangenen 20 Jahre verabschieden. Dann könnten die existenziellen Probleme der Menschheit – etwa der Klimawandel – an die Spitze der weltpolitischen Agenda rücken.

Let's take another look at the year 2011. In some countries the uprisings of that year were hijacked. In Syria, for example, by the jihadists, in Egypt initially by the Muslim Brotherhood, then starting in 2013 by the military. How do you expect things to develop in future? And what role might the West play?

Weidner: On the surface, the Arab revolutions failed. But perhaps the expectations were simply too high. I think we would do well to look at these revolutions from a broader historical perspective. Then we can see similarities to the European revolutions of the nineteenth century, for example the July Revolution of 1830 and the "Vormärz" period leading up to the revolutions that began in March 1848. They also failed at first, but they were not without consequences, and in the long term produced genuine democracies.

I expect to see major changes in the whole Arab-Islamic world in the coming years and decades. We can help to make these changes positive by cooperating less with the regimes and more with the people, such as the immigrants. Not all of them, but a large portion would be interested in returning to their home country or commuting back and forth. They will strengthen democratic forces and pluralism, will bring back expertise and education to their countries, as well as wealth that they have earned here in Germany and can invest there.

We must encourage these osmotic processes, for example by allowing dual citizenship, to name just one example.

You write that, due to the lapses of the past 20 years, the West has also changed fundamentally and is no longer recognisable. Can you explain what you mean here, with regard to Middle East relations?

Weidner: The decade before 9/11 was an era of confidence, of optimism in Europe and the USA.  That all changed: Even before the coronavirus crisis, a darker mood prevailed. The main causes, along with growing economic inequality and the chaos in the new media world, were the spill-over of the crisis in the Arab-Islamic world; immigration, which seemed to many to have become unmanageable, or was at least portrayed that way by populists; and terrorism, which was no longer just Muslim but suddenly white and Western, for example in Hanau, Halle, Christchurch, etc.

All in all, there was a reciprocal process of radicalisation that also contributed to Donald Trump's success, which in turn exacerbated the negative mood. Extricating ourselves from this situation is difficult, as Biden is now learning with respect to Iran and Afghanistan.

Europe should speak with one voice and ideally – but not necessarily – in unison with the USA. We should act non-dogmatically, perhaps even unconventionally here and there, to create political openness and opportunities. And finally, as I said before, we should focus less on the regimes and more on the people, for example through more liberal visa policies.

Interview conducted by Kersten Knipp

© Deutsche Welle 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


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