Juan Cole on the spread of democracy in the Muslim world, and the anti-democratic legacy of 9/11 at home

As reluctant as I am to jump on the “Let’s Milk the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks for Ratings and Ad Revenue” bandwagon, I just read a very thoughtful piece by U-M history professor Juan Cole, and felt as though it deserved to be passed along. Here’s a clip. I’d encourage you, however, to visit his site and read the whole thing.

The September 11 attacks have been revealed as a last gasp of a fading, cult-like twentieth-century vision, not as the wave of the future. They were the equivalent of the frenetic dashing to and fro of a chicken already beheaded. Al-Qaeda’s core assumptions have been refuted by subsequent events and above all in 2011 by the Arab Spring.

Al-Qaeda was grossly over-estimated in the wake of the horrific September 11 attacks. It was a relatively small terrorist group that spent less than half a million dollars on the operation. It should have been dealt with as a police matter, not as the enemy in a trillion-dollar “war” conducted by the Pentagon. It did, however, have a clever over-all strategy and political ideology. It adopted a form of pan-Islamism, a dream of making Islam a basis for a national idea, so that an Islamic superpower could be created, in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be provinces. This superpower would be a dictatorship, and would come into being through the actions of pan-Islamic guerrillas in each country who would violently overthrow the national government. The point of attacking the United States was only that it was seen to stand behind the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and so forth, making them impossible to overthrow.

All the major assumptions of Bin Laden and his associates have fallen by the wayside in the Arab world. First, it has been shown that dictators such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia can be overthrown by peaceful crowd action, emulating Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The cry in Tahrir Square last winter in downtown Cairo was “Silmiya, Silmiya!” — Peacefully, peacefully.

Second, it has been demonstrated that the leading edge in political change in the Arab world is relatively secular youth who support labor unions and dignity for working people– i.e. that the most effective revolutionaries are a kind of Arab New Left, not small cells of fundamentalist terrorists. Muslim fundamentalist political parties may benefit from the political opening achieved by the Arab New Left youth movements, but they have mostly tagged along behind the latter.

Third, it has been shown that the United States and Western Europe can be constrained to support the overthrow of even pro-Western dictators if the masses persistently come out and demand democratic change. That is, it is not necessary to attack the US militarily in order to achieve political transition in pro-American regimes such as that of Mubarak…

Fourth, it has been demonstrated that most publics in the Arab world see parliamentary democracy as the most suitable political system going forward. They are thus rejecting the Leninist critique of parliaments as mere tools of oppression by the rich and as ultimately undemocratic because only representative– a critique that had been taken into both leftist and Muslim fundamentalist Arab ideologies. The dream of direct democracy has over and over again revealed itself to be a mere illusion enabling a ferocious dictatorship. Qaddafi even maintained that he had stepped down from power and wasn’t ruling, an absurd assertion credited by his more gullible useful idiots in the West. No one has suffered more from the anti-democratic utopianism of the twentieth century, which most Arab countries implemented on becoming independent from their colonial masters (the British, French and Italians). But the age of dictators and Supreme Guides who incarnated at once the will of the people and the will of God is passing in the Middle East, leaving authoritarian movements like al-Qaeda in the dust of history.

Ironically, American politicians attempted to pull the wool over our eyes by saying that al-Qaeda hated us for our values. But it turns out that the Arabs are now the peoples sacrificing most for a rule of law, accountability, transparency, and parliamentary governance. One wonders, indeed, if they do not now value those things more than most Americans…

Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, however, saw the attacks as “an opportunity.” They were an opportunity to assert American dominance of the oil fields of the Middle East, and therefore, they reasoned, of the energy future of the entire world, ensuring the predominance of the American superpower throughout the twenty-first century. They thus followed a successful overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan with a disastrous military occupation of that country. They coddled the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. They threw international law into the trash compactor and invaded and occupied Iraq, kicking off a massive insurgency and then a civil war, and leaving the country a political basket case. They left hundreds of thousands dead and some 4 million displaced. In northern Pakistan and then in Yemen and elsewhere, a covert program of drone strikes was carried out lawlessly and with no oversight; because it is done by the CIA and is classified, our elected officials cannot even confirm that it exists, much less conduct a public debate as to its legality, constitutional validity, or wisdom.

The political leaders of the United States refused to look in a cleared-eyed way at the roots of Middle Eastern anger at Washington, and they missed the opportunity to deprive al-Qaeda of its recruiting tools. Had the US moved the region quickly to a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, it would have resolved 80% of the dissatisfaction with the US. Had it lifted the blockade on medicine and chlorine in Iraq, it would have forestalled charges of being implicated in the deaths of half a million children. But the Bush administration believed in beating people into submission, not in working toward political compromises that might repair the American reputation.

At home, our politicians, bureaucrats and even many judges actively pursued a profound betrayal of the US constitution and its bill of rights, virtually overturning the fourth amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure of private correspondence and effects. Nearly a million Americans were put on a travel watch list and their travel often interfered with, most of them for no reason other than that they had attended peaceful demonstrations. The US government advocated for torture, assassination, and extra-judicial kidnapping. Via Abu Ghraib it became the world’s largest purveyor of prison pornography. A vast and labyrinthine national security state was constructed that appears to be under no one’s control, and the intelligence estimates of which are too numerous and too closely guarded for them ever to be given practical effect by our legislators…

And it’s because of stuff like this, my friends, that the Bush administration tried to destroy Cole.

Oh, and a new survey by Gallup seems to indicate that people in Muslim nations are less likely to support violence against civilians than westerners.

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  1. K2
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Paul Theroux has a good piece in the Telegraph too.


  2. Edward
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Ironically, American politicians attempted to pull the wool over our eyes by saying that al-Qaeda hated us for our values. But it turns out that the Arabs are now the peoples sacrificing most for a rule of law, accountability, transparency, and parliamentary governance. One wonders, indeed, if they do not now value those things more than most Americans…

    It’s too bad this wasn’t the message that most Americans heard yesterday. It would have been a great opportunity to initiate a nation-wide conversation on the meaning of democracy.

  3. Meta
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    From Chris Hedges:

    There would soon, however, be another reaction. Those of us who were close to the epicenters of the 9/11 attacks would primarily grieve and mourn. Those who had some distance would indulge in the growing nationalist cant and calls for blood that would soon triumph over reason and sanity. Nationalism was a disease I knew intimately as a war correspondent. It is anti-thought. It is primarily about self-exaltation. The flip side of nationalism is always racism, the dehumanization of the enemy and all who appear to question the cause. The plague of nationalism began almost immediately. My son, who was 11, asked me what the difference was between cars flying small American flags and cars flying large American flags.

    “The people with the really big flags are the really big assholes,” I told him.

    The dead in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania were used to sanctify the state’s lust for war. To question the rush to war became to dishonor our martyrs. Those of us who knew that the attacks were rooted in the long night of humiliation and suffering inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians, the imposition of our military bases in the Middle East and in the brutal Arab dictatorships that we funded and supported became apostates. We became defenders of the indefensible. We were apologists, as Christopher Hitchens shouted at me on a stage in Berkeley, “for suicide bombers.”


  4. mSS
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    One member of congress, incidentally running for president now, did want to approach it as a police matter. Five points to anyone who can name and explain.

  5. Demetrius
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Those behind the 9-11 attacks ended up being more successful than they ever imagined — but not because of the terrifying destruction they caused, nor because of the despicable suffering, terrible loss of life and unspeakable grief their actions set forth.

    As the last decade has shown, nothing the 9-11 hijackers did TO us ended up to be as epically tragic and indefensible as we did TO ourselves, as many Americans — prompted largely by craven politicians and a complicit corporate media — allowed their understandable shock and fear to be twisted and manipulated in order to fuel the so-called “War on Terror.”

    The result, it seems, was a collective, national nervous breakdown: Undertaking unnecessary wars based on blatant lies; compromising or relinquishing many of our most cherished values; and selling-out our (and our children’s) future by leaving the country financially, economically (and perhaps morally) bankrupt.

  6. Meta
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Would that be Ron Paul, mSS?

    I also wanted to share a link to the following video. Here’s the background first, from Mediaite.

    The media coverage this week (and coming weekend) that dutifully aims to commemorate the “fateful day” of 9/11 has, in many ways, ironically cheapened its memory, at least in the eyes of some. Don’t mean to offend, but the events of that day — in particular the lives lost — deserve a memorial somehow more befitting than that which is currently being served by the mainstream media. Of course, this my personal opinion, but I think MSNBC contributor Touré said it better than I could, at least on this issue. During an appearance on The Dylan Ratigan Show, Touré called out the 9/11 nostalgia in such a way as to literally move his host to a speechless moment of self-reflection that rarely seen on live television.

    There is no question that 9/11 is a tough, tough subject to discuss. Or at least, it should be, in the eyes of many of New Yorkers who lived through it firsthand. But cable news isn’t exactly known for nuance or restraint, and if you’ve been watching any television this past week, you will have noticed the same ghastly imagery repeated so regularly that, yes, its meaning has been blunted, if not completely lost. This is an unforgivable action for those who still see that day in terms far beyond “selling soap. Yes, in defense of all cable news outlets, they are “giving the people what they want,” right?

    Touré’s turn today was particularly jarring to Dylan Ratigan, who had just wrapped a one-hour show dedicated to the memory of, yup, 9/11. His pensive gaze and the speechless seconds that followed Touré’s essay were as fitting a tribute to the victims of 9/11 that I have seen on television this week thus far.


  7. Star Child
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I for one am a bit disappointed in Obama for following in Bushes footsteps a bit too much in regards to anti-terrorism policies. I was really hoping for a new directions once he was elected.

  8. Meta
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I think we were all surprised by what Obama, a professor of constitutional law, did when he got into the White House.

    Which reminds me….. I was reading something a week or so ago about why he didn’t prosecute the Bush administration for their actions leading up to the war in Iraq. Someone involved with his transition team has gone on the record saying that they feared doing so might lead to a coup.

  9. mSS
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Ron Paul. This thread sounds about like what he’s been saying for 9 years and 364 days.

  10. mSS
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Or, if you strip out some of the specifics, what he’s been saying for about 40 years.

  11. Mark
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Ron Paul is right about some things. I think in his case, however, the good outweighs the bad. I prefer that my politicians believe in things like science, the separation of church and state, the importance of the EPA, and the right of any American to be served regardless of what lunch counter he or she sits down at.

  12. mSS
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    And continuing the drug war, and the drone wars?

  13. mSS
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    In all sincerity and goodwill, please google “law, property rights, and air pollution.” It’s a paper by Murray Rothbard. PLEASE read it before thinking he’s crazy for wanting to abolish the EPA. It’s an absolutely phenomenal summary of true libertarian views on the environment, and will raise many points that you have probably never considered. It, and a lecture he delivered based on it, were what pushed me over the edge from my lifelong liberal ways.

  14. dragon
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Ron Paul newsletters were part of a larger strategy:

    The most detailed description of the strategy came in an essay Rothbard wrote for the January 1992 Rothbard-Rockwell Report, titled “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement.” Lamenting that mainstream intellectuals and opinion leaders were too invested in the status quo to be brought around to a libertarian view, Rothbard pointed to David Duke and Joseph McCarthy as models for an “Outreach to the Rednecks,” which would fashion a broad libertarian/paleoconservative coalition by targeting the disaffected working and middle classes. (Duke, a former Klansman, was discussed in strikingly similar terms in a 1990 Ron Paul Political Report.) These groups could be mobilized to oppose an expansive state, Rothbard posited, by exposing an “unholy alliance of ‘corporate liberal’ Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.” […]

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