The End of the ''Antithesis''

After a decade, 9/11 is over. Its main legacy – the idea that Islam is fundamentally opposed to Western democratic values – has finally lost its power of persuasion. What is making this antithesis untenable is the Arab Spring, which is revealing rather different sides to both Muslims and what the West has stood for in the past. An essay by Geert J. Somsen

9/11 has shaped a decade. It has affected geopolitics and it has changed the ways we speak about things at home. For apart from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been major changes in our domestic political climate as well. Both in the US and within European countries, the attacks by al-Qaeda have massively influenced public debate. For almost ten years now, publicists and politicians have developed a variety of discussions around one central theme: the idea of a fundamental antithesis of Western values and Islam.

This theme of a "Clash of two Civilisations" can be discerned in a wide range of deliberations. But its most direct manifestation has been the spectacular rise of right-wing populist parties with strong anti-Islamic agendas. Many of these have grown in Europe's smaller countries (the Danish National Party, the Dutch Freedom Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, and others), but anti-Islamists have been strong in France and the US as well.

Of course, none of these movements arose solely in response to the attacks on the Twin Towers. They also owe their success to longer-lingering misgivings about non-Western immigration. But 9/11 did give them a strong boost, and more importantly, they themselves associate their domestic causes with the alleged threat of Islam worldwide. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders has given speeches at Ground Zero, warning against the Islamic "threat", and his Freedom Party calls unruly young immigrants "street terrorists", in direct reference to their "grown-up brothers" in al-Qaeda.

How 9/11 has shaped domestic politics

Still, the impact of 9/11 has not been restricted to these movements proper. Their themes have come to dominate the entire political debate. My own country, the Netherlands, is a good example. It used to be known (even if not always deservedly) for its liberty and tolerance, but now it has become a hotbed of populism and anti-Islamic sentiment. Opinion leaders like Pim Fortuyn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders started the so-called "Islam debate" which has filled Dutch airwaves and newspapers for years now.

photo: picture-alliance/dpa
"Where Islam rises, Western values will go down": The Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders during a speech at Ground Zero, New York. The Netherlands used to be known for its liberty and tolerance – now its leading politicians are international avant-garde in terms of xenophobic agitation

​​Traditional parties have felt forced to respond and have adopted measures in attempts to avoid losing voters on a large scale. This has led to a law against burqas, proposals to forbid Muslim parties and Muslim books, suggestions to tax the headscarf, and a forthcoming parliament ruling against the right to halal (and kosher) slaughtering. It has also created a lot of turmoil and even political violence, fuelling the idea that Muslims and Westerners are indeed inevitably in conflict.

It is easy to add examples from other countries. France has banned women from wearing headscarves in public sector jobs, stepping up its proud principle of laïcité. Denmark has felt its freedom of expression threatened after attacks on cartoonists criticising Islam. Switzerland consulted its people on whether the minaret belongs in its landscape. And in the US, some have argued that president Obama is secretly Muslim. Of course, very few people actually believe this allegation, but the underlying premise is that if he were a Muslim he would be unfit to lead America.

Even in Germany, long a paragon of political correctness, the debate has recently been opened by Thilo Sarrazin's book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Is Abolishing Itself). Here too the premise is that where Islam rises, Western values will go down.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous expression of the antithesis of 9/11 has been the prominence of discussions about "integration". If integration used to be thought of as a matter of uplifting immigrants socio-economically, the last decade has completely reconfigured the issue in terms of culture. Foreign ways of life have to be adapted. The 1990s' ideal of a multicultural society has given way to the belief that certain aspects of immigrant cultures will just never square with Western values. But the immigrants referred to in these deliberations are not just any immigrants, they are almost exclusively the Muslim population.

In the Netherlands, the largest groups of immigrants are in fact returning Dutch émigrés, followed by Polish and Chinese people, with Turks taking a fifth, and Moroccans a seventh place – at less than 10% of the returning Dutch. But these larger groups are hardly ever mentioned in integration debates. Very few commentators have asked the Chinese to give up their ideas about patriarchy, or insisted that the Polish respect gay rights. Talk about integration is really talk about Muslim integration, and hence directly reflects the presumed tension between Islam and us.

photo: dapd
"If integration used to be thought of as a matter of uplifting immigrants socio-economically, the last decade has completely reconfigured the issue in terms of culture," Somsen observes. Pictured: A Muslim family in Berlin, Germany

​​The reverse side of the debate on integration has been the increasing scrutiny of what our own culture stands for. What exactly is it that we are asking Muslims to adapt to? In many countries this question has led to serious soul-searching for one's national identity. But a more general underpinning has also emerged, for example, in discussions about the "preamble" of the EU Constitution up to 2005. This short text was meant to characterise European civilisation at large, and the big question was what it would contain. Is Europe rooted in Christianity or are its core values the fruits of the Enlightenment? And, in the latter case, was this an Enlightenment of tolerance and religious freedom or an Enlightenment of strict secularity?

Opinions differed widely, but at the core of the debate lay the assumption that there are certain typically European values. And the corollary was that there are other cultures which have not produced these values, and to whose members they don't come naturally.

A change of paradigm in academics

9/11 has even impacted on academic scholarship. Philosophers over the last decade have said good-bye to postmodern relativism and revisited questions of what modernity actually stands for. Criminologists have added ethnicity and religious background to their lists of variables. The whole field of Kulturwissenschaften (cultural sciences) has begun to see its subject in a different light. Whereas culture used to be the expression of diversity and a cause for celebration, it has now come to be regarded as a potential source of clashes and strife.

Perhaps the clearest change has taken place among historians. While their most exciting work in the 1990s demonstrated how national identities were politically and culturally constructed for often strategic reasons, in the 2000s they were asked to contribute to such constructions, and help to re-reify a national past (Dutch historians have, for example, produced a "Canon of the Netherlands" and helped plan a National Museum for the first time). Many of them readily obliged, although the backdrop of this renewed nationalism was clearly political and unmistakably the product of concerns with integration – Muslim integration, that is.

Even my own specialty, the history of science, has not been left untouched. Fierce debates have taken place over how much modern science owes to Islam. Did the famous Muslim scholars of the Middle Ages prepare the way for the Scientific Revolution or did they actually fail to achieve it? Again, at the heart of these concerns lay questions on the relation of Islam to Western modernity.

And so the message of 9/11 has permeated political and intellectual discourse, parties and voters as well as scholars and opinion makers. Strikingly, its most vocal proponents have been anti-Islamists as well as Muslim extremists. If there is anything that al-Qaeda and Geert Wilders actually agree on, it is that there is a deep-seated Clash of Civilisations – that Islam and the West are indeed fundamentally opposed. And between them we have all been captured by that theme.

The message of the Arab Spring

But now the situation is starting to change. Quite unexpectedly, the claim of the fundamental antithesis is ceasing to sound so self-evident. All of a sudden, the drum of Islam versus Western values has begun to lose its beat. It looks as if 9/11, after all, was not the start of a whole new era, but merely the beginning of one decade – a decade that is now coming to an end.

photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Antagonistic commonalities: "If there is anything that al-Qaeda and Geert Wilders actually agree on, it is that there is deep-seated Clash of Civilisations," writes Somsen. Pictured: Scene from Geerd Wilders' propaganda film "Fitna"

​​What made this transformation happen is not the death of Osama Bin Laden – his leadership had withered long before he was shot. Nor was it caused by Barack Obama – his speeches have promised outreach and reconciliation, but his foreign policy yet has to deliver. What has really undermined the 9/11 antithesis are the popular uprisings of the current Arab Spring. It is these revolutions that have shown that the dichotomy of Islam and Western values does not actually hold.

And they have done so very simply. For months now, the whole world has been watching ordinary Arab people rising up against their oppressive regimes. And among the most prominent things these protesters want are freedom, democracy and human rights – or, to put it more concretely, to be able to speak their minds without being arrested and tortured for it, not to live in constant fear of the state, and to have a government that actually represents them. If that does not sound like "Western values", what does?

Some commentators have argued that all this is deceptive, and that what Arabs really want is Islamism and Sharia. But that has not been evident on the streets of Tunis and Damascus. Others have claimed that all this is happening too early, and that Arab culture is not ready for freedom and democracy. But that is hard to match with the fact that the protesters are risking their lives for these ideals. New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof witnessed the crowds in Cairo bite the bullet and concluded "How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?"

Still, most of the marching millions are Muslims, and it does not seem as if they are claiming freedom and democracy against their faith. Neither are they rising up against Islamist governments, for almost all of the Arab autocracies (except Saudi Arabia) are secular states. What has supported these regimes and their blocking of democracy and human rights is not Islam – it is the backing of the West itself, a backing that has gone on for decades.

Mubarak received billions of dollars from the United States; Ben Ali maintained warm relations with France; the Bahraini regime hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet; the Saudis recently bought $70 billion worth of weapons (more than ten times the Iranian military budget) from their American allies. The list could easily be expanded. Almost the only Arab dictator without Western support is Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Even maverick Gaddafi had – before his downfall – been embarrassingly chummy with statesmen (and intellectuals) in Britain, Italy and France.

If the West ever asked for reforms from these dictators, that request was hardly successful. But their failure to advance democracy and human rights has never resulted in a withdrawal of Western support.

And so the antithesis of 9/11 is being doubly refuted. Muslims are fighting for "Western" values, and Western states are failing to advance these themselves. Freedom and democracy are claimed by Islamic populations, while they have been withheld from them by allies of the West.

Anti-Mubarak protester in Cairo, Egypt
'Thank you for not shooting me': During the protests in Egypt Barack Obama addressed the Egyptian military and praised them for their "restraint"

​​And all of this is happening right in front of our eyes. If some of the above facts were already known to experts, they have now become widely apparent to millions of viewers watching BBC World and Al Jazeera reporting live from Tahrir Square. As a result, public perceptions are already starting to change. For a decade now, the stereotype of the political Muslim was a bearded man with an explosives belt. Now we have seen much more familiar types – youngsters, businessmen, housewives – making demands that we can easily sympathise with ourselves.

At the same time the press is reproducing painful pictures of Western leaders posing with their dictator friends: Sarkozy hugging Ben Ali, Barroso with Gadaffi, etc. Tony Blair even came out to defend his old partner Mubarak as "immensely courageous and a force for good". Another sign of these warm relations were Obama's hesitant responses during the first weeks of the protests. Instead of admiring the protesters for their courage, he addressed the Egyptian military, who were trained in the US, and praised them for their "restraint" – i.e. for not shooting demonstrators immediately.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the end of 9/11 has been the silence of the antithesis' proponents. Al-Qaeda seems to have been dumbfounded by the Arab rebellions. The Western anti-Islamists have been struggling for a response as well. The main answer they have come up with is that these are not democratic revolutions, but that they will lead to the establishment of fundamentalist states. Websites like are constantly reporting how the Muslim Brotherhood is gearing up for elections. But in doing so they ignore the fact that these elections themselves are not the Brotherhood's doing; they have been fought for by protesters who are not fundamentalists, but democrats and Muslims nonetheless.

It may be that the anti-Islamists do have half a point here. It is as yet unclear what the political transitions will lead to, and it is not at all certain that we will soon see fully-fledged liberal democracies flourishing all over the Middle East. If things go wrong, these critics will no doubt take the chance to ascribe the failure to Islam. They will probably not point to economic instability, voters' illiteracy, or the counter-revolutionary forces of the pre-revolution establishments that still hold considerable power. For anti-Islamists, nothing can jeopardize democratisation but the Muslim faith.

In doing so, they may think to preserve one half of the antithesis of 9/11: the idea that Islam does not square with democratic and liberal values. However, the other half of the antithesis – namely that the West is the natural guardian of these values – is still refuted by the actual behaviour of our governments in the region. For defenders of freedom and democracy, critics of Islam have had remarkably little to say about Western support of Arab dictatorships. Even in the one instance where this support is for a Muslim fundamentalist Arab dictatorship, Saudi Arabia, the anti-Islamists have remained silent as well.

Why have they not chastised the Bush administration for sustaining an autocracy with Sharia law? Why has that kind of criticism only been reserved for America's enemy Iran? The only plausible answer is that they rather ignore these relationships since they do not fit the self-complementary antithesis of Western values versus Islam.

Lessons from the past for the future

It is instructive to dwell on these relations for a moment, however. For it could too easily be said that the world happens to be a bad place, and that Western governments sometimes have no choice but to do business with existing regimes they do not like. But that would be to underestimate the closeness of the cooperations. Egypt is a case in point. Not only did the regime receive $1–2 billion per year, plus the same amount in weapons, for not going to war with Israel, its military elite (and hence its political leadership) has been trained in the US for decades. In return, Mubarak gave the US Navy prioritised access to the Suez canal at any time. And he courteously offered his torture chambers for American use.

This is something that still escapes the attention of the broader public: the fact that the American government cooperated with several of the repressive Arab regimes in the torture of terrorist suspects, both before and after 9/11. People caught in Afghanistan or on the streets of European cities were shipped to prisons in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and even Syria, as part of the "extraordinary renditions" programme. In these countries, they were tortured in ways far worse than waterboarding or other Guantanamo Bay methods and much more in line with what was customary in Arab dictatorships.

Protests in Yemen (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
"How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?" The antithesis of 9/11 is being doubly refuted, writes Somsen: "Muslims are fighting for 'Western' values, and Western states are failing to advance these themselves"

​​The American liaison overseeing these practices in Egypt was the head of the Intelligence Service, Omar Suleiman. Incidentally, he was also the man who, in the midst of the Tahrir Square protests, was appointed as Mubarak's vice-president in order to lead what the Obama administration called an "orderly transition" to democracy. Evidently, he was not the leader the protesters were waiting for. But the incident neatly illustrates the ties between the American and Egyptian governments.

It is important to keep these relations in mind as we eagerly look to the future. For we cannot act as if this track record does not exist. Western leaders are now eager to forget about their former ties to the faltering dictatorships, or perhaps even ignoring their continuing existence – for who knows, for example, if the Pentagon does not still train Arab military elites?

In Obama's recent Middle East speech, he made no reference to any of these relationships; it was simply as if they were never there. There was only one hint, when he called it a "suspicion" of ordinary Arab people "that the United States pursues its own interests at their expense." The rest of his eloquent talk was full of hope and plans for America in its "natural" role as a promoter of freedom and democracy. Suddenly the US "core interests" were squarely in line with these loftier ideals.

It is one thing if a political leader employs a selective memory; his aims are after all rhetorical. But it is quite another if independent analysts suddenly forget all about the West's role until now. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, David Ignatius acts as if Arab democratisation is purely a matter of their own mental change. "Arabs are now embracing a culture of activism and self-determination, as opposed to one of passivity and victimisation." He discusses the Western role in the region solely in terms of help.

Similar analyses are made by Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. He presents a complicated set of advice on what we can do "to ensure that autocracies do not snuff out this democratic chain reaction". But the one option he forgets to mention is that we could simply stop helping these autocracies to snuff out democratisation, because that is what we have done for the last few decades. Yet Mr. Gershman writes as if we never did.

We need to keep a much closer eye on our governments. As their citizens, we should see to it that they stop supporting autocratic regimes and their military elites. One way of doing that is to bring such support out into the open into public view. Such publicity may shame our leaders into adopting more ethical foreign policies. As members of free and democratic societies, it should be our duty.

Geert J. Somsen

© Geert J. Somsen 2011

Geert J. Somsen, born 1968, PhD 1998, historian and publicist, History Department, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University, the Netherlands. editor: Lewis Gropp