A year on and we still have not fully absorbed the enormity of what happened on Sept. 11. We have simply failed to grasp what a momentous event it was. Had we been more perceptive, we would have organized seminar after seminar to analyze what happened, try to understand the reasons behind it, predict its outcome and plan ahead in order to protect our own countries from what Washington has been planning for them.
Osama bin Laden’s hijacked planes not only attacked the Twin Towers of the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon. They also attacked Islam as a faith. They attacked the values of tolerance and coexistence that Islam preaches.
Bin Laden and his band of followers targeted all Muslims wherever they happened to be. In particular, they attacked Saudi Arabia and its people. It was a cruel blow, so terrible that we have yet to recover from its aftereffects.
But despite the enormity of what happened, we are still in denial. We still cling to unlikely conspiracy theories and eye the truth with suspicion. We still believe that “others” (it matters not who) did it. We close our eyes to the fact that 19 Muslim young men mostly Saudis whose names and addresses we know, decided years ago to leave home and head for what they described as jihad, or holy war. Following that fateful Tuesday, however, their faces were printed on the front pages of newspapers everywhere. It transpired that they had traveled to America without their families’ knowledge.
Nevertheless, many Saudis are still asking questions.
Are you sure they were the kidnappers? Perhaps their passports were stolen just to implicate Arabs and Muslims.
Perhaps they were just passengers on the planes?
What about the Frenchman (Thierry Meyssan, author of The Horrifying Fraud) who wrote that it was no plane but a missile that hit the Pentagon?
Enough. We must move on to a form of action that benefits us. First of all, we have to admit that 15 Saudis were duped into perpetrating the Sept. 11 attacks, and that hundreds of others were killed far away from home on the slopes of Afghanistan. Some were buried alive after being captured, while others suffocated in airtight container trucks.
What can we tell these boys’ mothers when they learn that their sons died such terrible deaths after they were misguided by extremist ideas?
Will we repeat the lie that they were martyred for Islam? This does not hold water, since the Prophet said that when two Muslims fight one another to the death, both will rot in hell. Those Saudis initially went to Afghanistan to kill their fellow Muslims.
We must find out why Taleban-ruled Afghanistan seemed such an attractive destination for Saudi young men in the few years before Sept. 11. Afghanistan was a country in which Muslims fought each other, and any Muslim knows his duty in this case lies in trying to reconcile the combatants not take sides in a conflict with which he has nothing to do.
Were we so knowledgeable as to be able to decide which Muslim was an infidel, and thus declare the Taleban to be Muslims who were fighting against infidels? To have done so involved three sins: declaring Muslims to be infidels, encouraging Muslims to fight them and kill them, and encouraging young impressionable Saudis to travel to Afghanistan to take part in this Muslim tragedy.
When Arab (especially Saudi) volunteers first went to fight in Afghanistan in the mid-80s, that campaign was politically and religiously correct. Afghan Muslims were confronting foreign aggressors who imposed communism upon them.
Saudis donated large sums of money with the full agreement of the Saudi state and public opinion. Doctors, engineers and teachers volunteered to go to Afghanistan. Youngsters eager to take part in jihad followed later. But those mujahideen were overseen by responsible clerics who gave a shining example of Saudi youth.
Those young men did not take part in the extremism that later came out of Peshawar. They left Afghanistan at the time the Afghan mujahideen entered Kabul and began the bitter infighting that led to the Taleban’s rise. They returned home, and were welcomed as heroes. They were not persecuted; on the contrary, they were honored because they went in the way of God and had returned the same way.
Were those youths wiser than today’s counterparts? What happened in the last 10 years to allow extremists to find eager followers among Saudi youth?
Since Sept. 11 we have busied ourselves trying to counsel the Americans, trying to point out where they went wrong but to no avail. We have therefore lost valuable time and effort. So why not try to remedy the deficiencies in our own society? Why not try to answer the question that the Americans have been asking us incessantly: Why did 15 of your young men take part in the attacks?
We must find an answer to this question, not for the Americans’ sake but for the sake of our own youth. But we must add a few more questions of our own:
Why are most of the Guantanamo Bay captives Saudis?
Why did hundreds of Saudis travel to Afghanistan after the Soviets left in order to fight their fellow Muslims?
Why did they join an organization that was angry at the entire world?
How did some unknown and dubious characters succeed in persuading Saudi young men to travel to Afghanistan to kill Muslims?
Why did a young Saudi man record his will denouncing his own government and parents?
It is simply not enough to say they were a bunch of duped youngsters and that the rest of Saudi youth are different. They were indeed a small bunch, but the damage they inflicted was momentous in the sense of the amount of negative publicity their actions received.
It is far better to try and understand their motives. After Sept. 11, and in our attempts to defend and justify ourselves, we Saudis learned of the Branch Davidian massacre at Waco, Texas. We learned of Timothy McVeigh and how he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. We wrote about the Michigan militia and other American extremists. Certainly, there is extremism in America extremism as ugly if not uglier than that which we have at home.
But the Waco and Oklahoma City incidents were studied and analyzed minutely by the Americans. To make sure such events are never repeated, the motives behind them were examined thoroughly.
Have we done the same?
To reiterate: We have not dealt correctly with the events of Sept. 11. We have not done enough (by probing and pondering the causes and motives) to make sure similar incidents don’t take place. We should do this for our own sakes; the Americans, after all, know how to take care of themselves even at the expense of others.
We busied ourselves with blaming the Americans (who have a lot to be blamed for, by the way). But America is not the only reason for extremism. We should look at ourselves; it is far easier for us to put our own house in order than to reform others.
The most pressing issue now is to ensure that our children can never be influenced by extremist ideas like those 15 Saudis who were misled into hijacking four planes that fine September day, piloting them, and us, straight into the jaws of hell.
Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi is a Saudi political analyst and the deputy editor in chief of Saudi Arabia’s English-language Arab News. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star