Islamic Perspectives


Attack on the USA – A Sign of God to Reflect Upon

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(September 23, 2001)

The attack on September 11 by a group of hijackers on centers and symbols of American economic and military power was a nightmarish event in that it seemed so unreal. Yet it was real and its impact was massive. The number of victims was so staggering that it exceeded any that Americans have ever suffered from an attack on their country, although they suffered more casualties outside their soil during World War II and during the Vietnam War. And never before an operation lasting a few hours disrupted the economic and social life of the country in a comparable way. The impact was felt not just in the USA but throughout the world since the event was very understandably given a great deal of time on the television.

The American authorities have identified the hijackers as of Muslim background. There is some truth in this identification, but since American administration has put the USA in a state of war, truth, which is never a beloved of humanity, might have become the first casualty of this war. It may be long after the Americans have done a lot of violence, espionage, and sabotage in the Muslim world that the real truth may become known. There are past events that amply justify this suspicion. Thus just before the gulf war against Iraq a Kuwaiti girl was brought before the US congress and senate to testify how brutally Iraqi soldiers mistreated her. It was later established that the testimony was false. The girl was simply coached for her testimony to get increased support for the war.

While some Muslims are probably behind the attack, most others condemned it as un-Islamic reflecting how a vast majority of them understand and live Islam as a religion of devotion to God and of peace with fellow human beings. Most Muslims also felt a great deal of sorrow for those who have suffered as a result of the attack. Human beings burnt by fire or ripped apart by flying debris with some of them barely having time to scream, the injured groaning on stretchers and hospitals and family members looking or grieving for their loved ones with painful hearts touched Muslims like everyone else. The only difference is that Muslims also called to mind the much more massive and sustained suffering of the Palestinians and the Iraqis. Everyone in the world saw for hours – and will continue to see for months and years to come -- the victims of the attack on the USA and many shed tears on them, laid wreaths, lighted candles, and sent messages of condolences because they belong to a rich and powerful nation. But the poor Palestinians and Iraqis die or groan with injuries or otherwise suffer under occupation or other forms of oppression without many shedding tears for them or laying wreaths on their graves and without a worldwide clamor for redress or retribution by leaders. Muslims also called to mind how the USA and Israel can bomb Muslims at any time and at any place (recall for example the bombing of Iraq and Lebanon by Israel and of Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iraq by the USA) and the Muslim world cannot do anything. It is as if one man's hands are tied and two other men are punching him whenever and wherever they want. 

Although the attack of September 11 was of human devising, it seems to come from above in more than one sense. It can be considered a sign of God in the Qur`anic sense, since in the Qur`an human actions whether good or bad can become signs of God if their impact is far reaching and if it can teach something valuable. The impact of the attack on the USA is certainly far reaching and it can also teach the people the world over, both Muslims and Americans, some valuable lessons if they are willing to pay heed.

For the Americans the lesson is simple:  

You may be powerful but you have no real power, which belongs only to God. You cannot forever ignore how Muslims – not the ruling elite whom you manipulate to serve your interests but Muslim people -- feel about your policies. You have to at least know that a very large percentage of Muslims resent your disregard of Palestinian lives and their rights that are trampled by your moral, economic and military support. They also resent the way you continue to treat the people of Iraq. They are also unhappy about the way you turn against any nation that wants to live by the teachings of their religion as they see fit. You also support the kings and dictators that rule the Muslim countries and then praise and nourish Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East”.

If you do finally care to reflect as to what is going on with the relationship between you and the Muslim world, you will discover what you have been most unwilling to face -- the highly dangerous part that a segment of the American Jewish population has played in spoiling that relationship. In order to continue to receive moral, economic, and military support for Israel these Jews have found it necessary to paint the Muslims in the worst possible light and make the American public and leaders insensitive to the feelings of the Muslims. They have used the movie industry and other means of mass communication plus political lobbying to achieve this sinister end. As you move to safeguard your national security and interests do not look only for those Muslims who may potentially engage in terrorist acts but also look at those Jews who have been spoiling the relationship between you and the vast Muslim world, an enterprise that is sure to harm you. For in this age of globalization no country, no matter how powerful and wealthy, can afford to make a major part of humanity angry for too long, no matter how weak and poor that part of humanity may be. .

One may make a distinction between extremist Muslims and moderate Muslims. But while this distinction is important, it can also be easily used to hide reality. One such way to hide reality is to name those that are not friendly to you as extremists and others as moderate. Another way to hide reality is to pretend that the resentment against your policies is felt by only extremist Muslims. The truth is that this resentment is very widespread among Muslims. The difference between extremist Muslims and others is NOT that the former resent many of your policies while the latter do not. The difference is that the resentment among the extremists is much more intense and takes a militant form while others simply keep it in check or give it a peaceful expression because of a more enlightened or a more convenient understanding of their religion. 

Yet another way the attention is diverted from the real reasons behind anti-American sentiments among Muslims and many non-Muslims is to attribute it to envy. But this is like saying about an unpopular dictator that people resent him because they are envious of his power and wealth. The USA is like a self-appointed ruler of the world aggressively pursuing its own interests and executing policies that many in the world do not like. Envy has very little to do with it.

It is also important to keep in mind that there is no conscious and deliberate policy on the part of the Muslim world or any Muslim country to use “terrorism” as a means of changing American policies. What is at work is a very natural human process. American aggression against the Muslim world and its support of the Israeli aggression naturally produces resentment. Since the aggression is continuous and sustained, the resentment is also continuous and sustained. This sustained resentment produces militant extremists and then their acts of violence. These acts are usually described as “terrorist” but this term is not always entirely appropriate. For the term suggests that the primary purpose of these acts is to strike terror in a population and thus force a change in their policy. This can hide the possibility that some of these acts may be a last resort desperate response to a policy of real aggression and oppression that one group of people may be following against another group. In this way the aggressors and oppressors can focus on the victims produced by the “terrorist” acts and deflect attention away from their own policy of aggression and oppression.

If by your policies only 0.1% of Muslims become extremists while the remaining 99.99% stay moderate, you have about a million Muslims scattered around the world and willing to engage in militant acts. Even if you kill or jail half of them as retaliation for the attack in New York and Washington, you will still have half a million. Clearly, there is no military solution to this problem. You and the Muslim world will both be better off if you change your policies. Even the Israelis will be in the long run better off, since they will enjoy more peace and security.  

One sign that the USA may be showing greater sensitivity towards the feelings of the Muslims is that American leaders, including President Bush, who visited a mosque on September 17, have made a clear distinction between Islam and a particular interpretation that might have produced the attack. They have also advised the population not to make American residents of Muslim or Arab background as targets. But this does not seem to go far enough. For American leaders are also making misleading statements about the motivation behind the attack. They describe it as hatred for the democratic and civilized values for which America stands! What a massive deception! Will people overcome their fear of death the way the middle class hijackers with families did because America has democratic values? 

This explanation of the motivation of the hijackers shows that the USA administration does not want to face the real reasons behind the attack. Its primary response to the attack therefore is to go to war with the terrorists and some Muslim nations. Not surprisingly the same response is shown by the American public. In a poll, taken on September 15, 85% of Americans want to go to war to retaliate the attack and 75% would not mind if it means loss of innocent lives, which, incidentally is an attitude not substantially different from that of the hijackers although it may look different at first sight.
The USA is building a coalition to fight terrorists, which will maintain essentially the present policies. Cooperation of Muslim kings and dictators is being sought and is being readily provided, no doubt for some rewards that will further strengthen their rules. As a rule American “war on terrorism” will become a “war on opponents”. George Bush has told nations to be either with America or against her, no doubt with the implied threat that nations who do not come on board will be punished. The choice leaves no room for a nation to say, for example, “we will join you if you stop your unjust use of your might to pursue your self-interest at the expense of interest of other nations and civilizations.” By not allowing any room for such opposition the USA is playing the role of “dictator nation”, no doubt self-appointed. A similar effect will probably be seen within countries. In Muslim countries, most of which are ruled by dictators and kings the war on terrorism will further remove or weaken groups opposed to the rulers, thus pushing democratic reforms and hence economic and technological development still further into the future. In countries like China Muslim minorities and democratic movements will face further repression. Even in democratic countries like Britain it appears that Muslim groups that oppose the Western culture in strong language may be banned.

But as the war on terrorism sets the world backward in terms of its democratization, it will not solve the problem that it is meant to solve. Strengthening of American alliances with the dictators and kings and military strikes on Muslim countries and groups will definitely cause further resentment among the people (as distinguished from the rulers) and the extremists killed will be replaced by an equal or larger number of new volunteers. 


The most enlightened thing the USA can do is to enter Afghanistan and try to establish a truly democratic government – which implies that the election results would be accepted even if Islamic groups win the elections, not like Algeria where cancellation of elections by the military was supported when it became clear that an Islamic party was about to win.

But unless there is a radical departure from the past, such action does not seem likely. The past suggests that the USA will engage in an entirely self-serving military violence against Afghanistan. Even in normal times an American President must beat up at least one weak country during his term, be it Nicaragua or Gautemala, or Grenada or Sudan. Such attacks on other countries are almost always popular among the American people except in the rare event they cause heavy American casualties, as in the Vietnam war. George Bush has special need for a strike against Afghanistan His presidency had a weak mandate and was barely legitimate. His invasion of Afghanistan is sure to be popular unless something goes terribly wrong.

Before and during any war many Americans do raise voices against violence but in the end these voices almost never prevail. Only voices of retaliation and war prevail. In one newsgroup on the internet people were discussing about the invasion of Afghanistan. Some were against the war. Here is one contribution:

“ What I don't understand is we [Americans] have no clearly defined goals. 1) If we go in to stop terrorism altogether we probably won't succeed and get more servicemen and civilians killed at the same time. 2) How will we know if we do succeed? 3) We are entering a civil and religious war and looking like some imperialist regime. This is a textbook version of what not to do or get involved with a 10 or even 20 ft. pole, very much like Vietnam. 4) It's half a world away, terrible logistically and culturally.. 5) Economics: you are using a 1 million dollar missile to blow up a $14.95 TENT. 6) Blow them back to the stone age?? hell, they pretty much are already there.7) Immoral and not a defensive war but offensive war very much like Hitler or the crusades. 8) Squandering away our youth, wealth, prosperity and once a fragile peace is destroyed almost impossible to put back together, just look at Lebanon. 9). Destroying nations; look what happened to Cambodia during Vietnam. 10) This is utterly STUPID!!!”

But most contributors were for war. One honest contributor expressed the sentiment:

“We may say all we want but when the bombs will fall on Afghanistan we will all feel good.”

In the past this sentiment has almost always won in America. It remains to be seen whether this time it will be different.


The lesson taught by the attack to the Muslims is also simple:
Each one of us has to find a peaceful way to defend Islam and Muslims. It is because for the past couple of centuries not enough of us have done enough to defend Islam and Muslims that oppression on Muslims has increased to such a degree that some Muslims opt for suicidal militant missions. In a sense the extremists die for our lack of concern or lack of determination to do something, or lack of imagination to conceive of peaceful ways to help ourselves against mistreatment and oppression.

Some action in defense of Islam and Muslims is obligatory for believers as the following words of God teach us: 

(Believers are) those who when a wrong is done to them they help themselves (yantasirun) (by some action in self-defense)(42:39).

Action in self-defense mentioned here is not necessarily fighting back in a physical sense. It could be any action that is effective. It may sometimes be forgiveness that results in reform, as is stated in the next verse: “whoever forgives and amends (aslaha), he shall have his reward from God”. But what believers are not supposed to do is neither forgive and amend nor take some other effective action in defending themselves against wrong.


A striking feature of the attack on America was its efficiency. In terms of the resources spent on the attack and the results achieved the efficiency of the attack matches any operation that technologically advanced USA can ever launch. Using some knives, a few hundred thousand dollars for training and traveling etc, air planes of the enemy himself, and a loss of 19 lives, the attack inflicted thirteen thousand casualties, tens of billions of dollars of loss, and tremendous psychological wounds on the nation. Muslims have never before shown such efficiency and competence. I pray that some Muslims will learn similar efficiency in more constructive endeavors, such as building their businesses, hospitals, schools, and universities, promoting education and research in all fields of knowledge, and democratizing and Islamizing their countries and organizations according to the principles of shura and accountability.

Overcoming fear without throwing caution to the winds

Fear of being racially targeted started to grip many Muslims in North America immediately after the attack. And there was basis for fear. Despite the distinction being made between the extremists and other Muslims and pleas for not blaming all Muslims and Arabs for the attack, Muslims living in North America are being harassed in various ways by both the government and some segments of the public. The American authorities are interrogating people with the flimsiest of connections. Witnesses are coming forward claiming to see this or that hijacker visiting this or that Arab. Some times these witnesses saw an hijacker in the week of September 18, days after the hijacking which is possible only if the hijacker resurrected from the dead. Some members of the public are harassing Muslims by verbal or physical abuse. Muslim schools and mosques have been vandalized in many North American cities. In Cleveland, Ohio, a driver smashed his car through a wall about 3 feet high, knocked over three pillars, and landed atop a built-in fountain in the mosque rotunda, severely damaging it. Many Muslim schools throughout North America had to close for days after the attack. In the USA an Arab passenger was forced to disembark an airplane at the insistence of other passengers. In Montreal Muslim women with hijab have been harassed in elevators, including one in the Royal Victoria Hospital. A woman after being harassed in an elevator went to police and the police men started to laugh at her. One woman told me that she was waiting for a bus when a man came and started to go around her in circles, yelling and spitting. Reports of Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off and having guns pointed at them have surfaced. A Christian employee of a Muslim organization received a call telling her to leave "the terrorist Muslims". One of my own Muslim students called me to say that he could not come to the class because he cannot leave his mother alone. She was afraid because of threatening calls. Muslims who work in businesses and jobs where they have to have a close contact with people of varied sort, such as Muslim taxi drivers, felt the pressure in a sustained way. In some cases people targeted non-Muslim individuals and places simply because they looked Muslim to the attackers. There are reports that non-Muslim men with beards have been killed or physically attacked, including some Sikhs and Christians, because they looked like Muslims. At least one Hindu temple has been burnt, apparently because it looked like a mosque to the arsonist.  Callers to radio talk shows have been heard as saying that all the Arabs should be deported.

Some Muslim women have stopped wearing hijab, a result that is sure to delight and encourage the haters of Islam and Muslims, since they desire that Muslims stop taking the commandments of their religion seriously. 

But those Muslims who carry on peaceful struggle to defend Islam and Muslims should not be diverted from their efforts by what has happened. We should know and follow the law of the land as far as is possible and then continue to serve Islam and Muslims in all possible peaceful ways.

Let not fear stop us, for the book of God says that the believers’ ideal is to fear none but God. Fear of God strengthens us while the fear of other than God debilitates and weakens us. It is because we have not fought enough against this latter fear that today we are ruled by tyrannical dictators, against whom even most of Islamic scholars cannot dare raise their voice in the light of the Qur`an.

In North America let fear not stop us from speaking up for the rights of the oppressed Palestinians or of the Iraqis or asserting our own rights here in the West. One of our rights is to be able to criticize American or Canadian policies if we do not agree with them, especially if we believe that those policies are not in the interest of the people of these countries and/or the rest of humanity.

Let us not stop practicing our religion out of fear. A Saudi scholar has given the fatwa that Muslim women who feel threatened because of hijab may take it off until such time as they feel more secure. A better approach would have been for all the Muslim women to start wearing hijab and all the Muslim men to start growing beards, even those who previously did not practice such these traditions. This would frustrate those who want to create fear in our hearts (which qualifies them as terrorists of sort). Their purpose is to drive us away from religion and when they will see that their methods only drive us closer to Islam many of them may abandon their tactics.

Finally, let us not stop working for a just Islamic order in Muslim countries. In particular, we should not let whatever efforts may be going on for the democratization of those countries be abandoned now that the American response to the September 11 attack will further strengthen the dictators and kings that rule the Muslim world.