We can bicker about whether 9/11 changed anything substantial in the politics of the West, but there is no doubt that in the Islamic world, especially among unassimilated Muslim minorities in non-Muslim-majority countries, it really did change everything. The attacks, and the American retaliation in Afghanistan, will probably turn out to have been as definitive in the history of political Islam as the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Just as the Iranian Revolution produced a regime based on Islamism, catapulting the ideology into the Middle Eastern mainstream, so has Bin Laden’s attack made his ideology respectable among alienated Muslims, inspiring a small minority of them to commit their own terrorist attacks.
In 1999, Bin Laden was a wanted terrorist who could blow up relatively unimportant American targets and who was best-known to the CIA and other intelligence organizations. In 2004, he was a notorious figure who symbolized Islamism and anti-Americanism and who could inspire attacks independent of his own network. 9/11 was the work of Bin Laden’s people; the Bali bombing was the work of a regional affiliate; the Madrid bombing and the two London bombings were the works of local extremists inspired by Bin Laden but not affiliated with his organization.
Bin Laden’s own organization might have been able to carry out its own attacks instead of merely inspire them had the United States not crippled it in the months following 9/11. There is much to be criticized about the way Bush handled the invasion of Afghanistan, but it did in fact succeed in preventing Bin Laden’s operatives from striking. Its main failures were mishandling the political aftermath of the Taliban’s fall, and failing to achieve a psychological victory by killing or capturing Bin Laden.
Al Qaida has then become more of an ideology than a real organization. Bin Laden’s influence extends as far as his tapes go, just like a radical writer’s influence extends as far as his articles and books go.
Writing about 9/11 a year ago, I noted that post-2001 Islamic extremism didn’t work as a military hierarchy so much as as a university biology department, where every professor runs his own lab. In fact, a better analogy would involve an anarchist cell: the Jihadists may have leaders, but ultimately their cell structure is spontaneous, and although there is an overarching Islamistic goal, the immediate goal is to cause mayhem rather than achieve something concrete.
In fact, like anarchism, Islamism has specific goals. First, it wants foreign influence expunged from the Islamic world, especially American military presence but also Western cultural influence. Second, it wants to establish Muslim theocracies in Muslim countries. Third, it wants to subject Muslims worldwide to traditional religious authority. Some visionaries may look forward to a unified Ummah, or even to spreading Islam throughout the world, but most Jihadists have a distinctly local character.
Bin Laden’s distinguishing feature is his global outlook. Al Qaida the organization and Hezbollah are the only two Islamist terrorist groups that operate globally rather than locally. With the severe blow it suffered, Al Qaida is now forced to operate as a distributed network based on shared values rather than as a single hierarchy; however, it merely outsourced its global outlook to local groups.
However, this movement is still more about frustration and violence than about social change. This is what differentiates extremist groups that focus on welfare operations and gaining political support for reactionary legislation, such as Hezbollah, from extremist groups that focus on killing people, such as the Al Qaida movement. Social movements, even violent ones, tend to draw inspiration from events showcasing their own oppression – in the case of Islamism, the War on Iraq could be such an event. But in fact the Al Qaida movement’s main source of inspiration is 9/11, not Iraq; its defiant figure is Bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein. While the origin of this movement is largely in the oppression of Muslims in Europe, the focus is not so much on the oppression as on the fundamentalism it bred.
There is a reason all of these developments have only happened in the last five years. There was plenty of alienation around earlier, and both Britain and France have been harboring Islamist extremists for decades. But up until 9/11/2001, there was no inspiration for violent action, just as before Rosa Parks defied bus segregation, there was no inspiration in the American South for non-violent direct action.
Ordinarily, terrorism aims to engage in spectacular action in order to evoke fear among members of the terrorized group. This is especially true for factional terrorism, which cannot engage in large-scale massacres the way state terrorism can. In that traditional goal, Bin Laden has certainly succeeded, for Americans fear terrorism far more than social ills that kill an order of magnitude more people. But he has also succeeded in a nontraditional goal, in that he got a reputation of someone who could bring America down, and destroy its essential symbols. It does not matter that the actual attack was spectacular but did not kill that many people; when it comes to ideological grandstanding, perception is reality.
Still, in many respects, the 9/11 attacks did not completely change the character of Islamism. As I mentioned before, it remains primarily local. All Islamists hate the United States, considering it the symbol of all that is evil in the world. But British Jihadists evidently blow up the London Underground instead of traveling to New York and blowing up subway stations; even Iraqi Jihadists, including foreign fighters inspired by anti-Americanism, concentrate more on killing Iraqis of the wrong denomination than on killing Americans.
And two possible trends that would have made the attacks even more of a watershed moment did not occur. It was entirely possible for the attacks to scar not the vast majority of Muslims, but a near-unanimous one. In such a case, the focus of Muslim cultural identity in Europe may have been greater integration, despite Europe’s uniformly integration-discouraging governmental policies; any radical fringe could have then turned to non-violent direct action. I suspect a big reason this trend did not happen is Bush’s virulent response, and governments’ not cracking down on subsequent anti-Muslim hate crimes, but it could have also been due to other reasons, such as the lack of a civic tradition in Islam.
The other possible trend is massive radicalization. At present, the most biased neoconservatives say that 1% of all Muslims are Jihadists; the American response, combined with overt racism in Western countries, could have easily turned that number to 15%. The clash of civilizations fundamentalists on both sides have been hoping for did not happen, is not happening, and will almost certainly not happen. Even Samuel Huntington’s more denouement-based conception of a clash of civilizations has not materialized.
So in fact, 9/11 did not change the level of support Jihadi extremism enjoyed among Muslims. Its significance lies in changing the nature of that support, from merely hating the West and being drawn to fundamentalism as a reaction, to admiring and seeking to emulate Bin Laden. In that respect, it really did change everything in the Islamic world, for never before had there been a coherent violent Islamist ideology. Even if that ideology is still based on its believers’ cultural isolation and oppression, it is still an ideology that serves as inspiration to many extremists. And certainly, this is an ideology that only rose after the watershed moment of Islamism that was 9/11.