History is made by people who seize the moments that circumstances offer and bend them to their purposes. When the conditions are adverse, they nurse their purposes, their dreams of freedom, dignity and power, so that when their moment arrives, they are ready to seize it, even at the cost of their lives.
On April 19, 1775, 700 British troops reached Concord, Massachusetts, to disarm the American colonists who were preparing to start an insurrection. When the British ordered them to disperse, the colonists fired back at the British soldiers. This “shot heard ‘round the world” heralded the start of an insurrection against Britain, the greatest Western power of its time. And when it ended, victorious, in 1783, the colonists had gained their objective. They had established a sovereign but slave-holding republic, the United States of America.
The colonists broke away because this was economically advantageous to their commercial and landed classes. As colonists, they were ruled by a parliament in which they were not represented, and which did not represent their interests. The colonies were not free to protect and develop their own commerce and industries. Their bid for independence was made all the more attractive because it was pressed under the banner of liberty. The colonial elites had imbibed well the lessons of the Enlightenment, and here in the new world, they had an opportunity to harness liberty in the service of their economic interests. Backed by the self interest of their landed and commercial elites, and inspired by revolutionary ideas, the colonists had a dream worth pursuing. They were prepared to die for this dream – and to kill. They did: and they won.
On September 11, 2001, nineteen Arab hijackers too demonstrated their willingness to die – and to kill – for what they believed was their dream. They died – so they thought – because they wanted their people to live, free and in dignity. The manner of their death – and the destruction it wreaked – is not merely a testament to the vulnerabilities that modern technology has created to clandestine attacks. After all, skyscrapers and airplanes have co-existed peacefully for many decades. The attacks of 9-11 were in many ways a work of daring and imagination too; if one can think objectively of such horrors. They were a cataclysmic summation of the history of Western depredations in the Middle East: the history of a unity dismembered, of societies manipulated by surrogates, of development derailed and disrupted, of a people dispossessed. The explosion of 9-11 was indeed a “shot heard 'round the world.”
The parallels between the American war of independence and the global Islamic insurgency are not exact. The colonists did not deliberately target civilians; the nineteen hijackers did. Nevertheless, this difference should not obscure the more basic fact -- when viewed from the perspective of the protagonists in each case -- that there exists a similarity of aims. Both insurgencies seek to overthrow what they perceive to be foreign occupations. If we choose to ignore this, as most Americans have done, we may fail to arrive at a correct response to this insurgency.
Most Americans heard the shot clearly – what they heard was deafeningly clear to them. They had heard this message before: that Islam is a problem; that Muslims are terrorists; that they have failed to modernize; that they hate America for what it is, for its freedom, its progress and promise of democracy. They declared that 9-11 had changed their world forever. They demanded vengeance for the world they had lost, a secure world, a haven, eternally protected from the other world they should be forever free to ravage. And they are still not satisfied – with more than 100,000 Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghans dead.
How did the Muslims hear this shot that reverberated around the world? Did they hear the accusations carried by this shot, a hundred accusations pointing to the dereliction of Muslims: their dereliction in defending their homeland; their failure to live honorable lives, as sons and daughters of Adam who named the names, as free agents, accountable now and forever for their choices, their actions, their lives? Have they strained their bodies, hearts and minds to carry out the trust that their Creator first offered to the mountains – which the mountains sensibly refused? Have they heard the cry of the strangers – the men, women and children in the oppressed city – crying for the Muslims to redeem them? Have they heard the cry of the female child buried alive? Have they fed the indigent? Have they freed their slaves? Have they taken care of the orphans placed in their care? Have they opposed the bondage, the pulverization of human lives, produced by a system that places capital and profits before human needs?
Above all, the question that the hijackers of 9-11 pose to their Islamic compatriots is this: “What have you risked to oppose your own tyrants, your own ruling cliques, tribes and sectaries, who are so easily co-opted by foreign powers, who have worked so treacherously to enslave their own peoples, who sell off their national treasures, and who have secretly worked with Israel to complete the dismantling of Palestinian society?”
“We engage in this violence against the United States,” they say, “because you force us to, because you have failed to act against the American surrogates in your own countries. Because you have failed to act politically and with courage, we send you this message of horror, of shame. We advertise your shame before the world. We announce the failure of a billion and a half people – keepers of the Qur’aan and heirs to a moral civilization – to overthrow the craven ruling classes who commit treachery against their own societies, their own history, every day that they cling to power.”
“Mobilize now,” they repeat, “and we will join again your political struggle at home – in the Islamic lands stretching from Mauritania to Mindanao, from Bosnia to Borneo, from Jerusalem to Jakarta, from Tangier to Tanzania, and from Karachi to Kasghar. If you are willing to struggle, to fight, to secure your own homes, your own societies, your enemies cannot bind you through surrogates. America and Israel will have to fight you in your lands. Is America ready to fight a billion and a half people in their own streets, their own squares, their own backyards?”
“God,” the hijackers taunt, “does not change the condition of a people unless they want to change it themselves.” At this juncture, if the Muslims don’t change their conditions, the Americans and Israelis have set in motion the machinery that will rearrange their world.
One thing is certain now: the Islamic world will change. Will it be the change the Americans and Israelis want? Will the Islamic world be smashed into a collection of micro-states – ethnic, sectarian and tribal entities – allied to and dependent on the US and Israel for their survival? Or will the Muslims oppose this new ‘civilizing mission’ and regain the freedom to shape their destiny in ways that allow the integral Qur’anic society, just, inclusive, creative, seeking knowledge, taking the middle road, to once again enrich our common human sojourn on earth?
M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His political essays are now available in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He may be reached at email@example.com. Visit his website at http://msalam.net. Copyright © M. Shahid Alam
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