Spending a week of Ramadan this year in Egypt and Saudi Arabia was even more intense than usual.
It was different, not only because this is already a spiritually charged time for me, and every Muslim, but because it has come so close after the terrible events of September 11. Reflecting amid the traditional holy places of Mecca and Medina, I felt very much closer to the world’s hotspots.
The experience of this journey has left me with a strong motivation to reflect upon how the post- September 11 world is shaping up. And my conclusion is that it is not changing for the better.
Not since Jews were so horrifically targeted in Europe half a century ago, has the West targeted an “enemy” group from within so assiduously as its Arab and Muslim populations.
Even as the ruins of the New York World Trade Center towers smouldered in the hours after their devastating September 11 collapse, people everywhere quickly affirmed that “nothing will ever be the same again.”
But who ever thought that Western civil liberties and human rights would be subjected to such radical and regressive reinterpretation by our own democratically elected governments? Yes, the gap is finally narrowing between our valued civil liberties and human rights, to meet those of the world’s still-developing countries. But sadly, it is not due to advances made by the latter, but because of regressive, panic- driven legislation enacted by the former.
Under so-called “emergency laws” in the U.S., U.K. and Canada — including secret military trials, certain laws for citizens and others for non-citizens, and different standards for law enforcement according to citizens’ ethnic and religious identities — 1,000 people have been held for more than two months in the U.S. alone, without charge or trial.
The situation is further confused and compounded by appeals to loosen legislation prohibiting torture, and to give the state a freer hand in invading people’s privacy through unrestrained surveillance, racial profiling, and more. And, above all, we are increasingly being told that a “terrorist” is whoever the government decides is a “terrorist.” Who needs definitions in this Brave New World? In short, Western democracy is being led to the slaughter.
Yet I was still embarrassed to explain to my Saudi and Egyptian hosts that these anti-civil liberties and human rights measures are only “temporary.” They will last 5 years in Canada and 4 years in the U.S. But we in Canada are still more reasonable, for under Egyptian law, joining a terrorist organization — as defined by the government — is punishable by life imprisonment, or death.
Late last month in Cairo, for example, 94 defendants faced a military trial. They claimed they were victims of the post-September 11 “fallout” that has resulted in hyper-reactive judicial response to perceived terrorist threats.
One was accused of “using the Internet to coordinate group activities.” The rest were charged with “joining an illegal organization aimed at assassinating public figures and security officers and using violence to target public and economic establishments.”
But there was media hyped “good news” on the war front. “The curtain has been lifted,” announced a triumphant U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He drew world attention to “the joyous pictures of liberated Afghans, of women throwing off their burqas, children happily flying kites.”
Less joyous were the parallel images of “liberators” committing assorted lynchings — and so easily blocked out of the larger picture. After all, these are bearded Afghans and, even worse, Arab Afghans.
Mr. Powell was also not informed that, Taliban or not, the vast majority of Afghani women wear the traditional burqa out of habit and will not take theirs off unless the Americans force them to.
And so, with the help of American B-52 bombers, all these different commanders and ethnic warlords have once again divided Afghanistan’s various parts among themselves, with their control ending only a few miles outside their respective domains. The situation has reverted back to 1996, when civil war raged through the country.
The city of Kabul and its surrounding areas are under the control of Tajik leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan. Until 1996, Mr. Rabbani was the top man in this fragmented country, but his refusal to accept a power-sharing deal launched a political crisis that ultimately led to his ouster from Kabul by the Taliban.
Meanwhile, in Mazar-i Sharif, Uzbek commander General Abdurrashid Dostum is running his own administration, and the Bamiyan area is controlled by the Shi’a Hazara tribe. Herat is under the command of popular leader Ismail Khan. And with all this factional confusion reaching critical mass, the United States is still busily tracking down Al-Qa’eda leader Osama Bin Laden, Taliban founder Mullah Mohamed Omar, and other assorted Al-Qa’eda bit players inside Afghanistan. And until the U.S. is done with its Bin Laden fixation, or Kandahar falls [which has happened since this article was written], effective efforts to install a broad-based, multi-ethnic government in Afghanistan will go nowhere fast.
To demonstrate (or, perhaps, distract from) U.S. leadership, Powell recently returned to sharing his Middle East vision of a “viable Palestinian state” — alongside Israel — grounded on UN resolutions 242 and 338 and “rooted in the concept of land for peace.”
But the only real American engagement was a pledge to dispatch to the region Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and new envoy Anthony Zinni, with the “immediate mission (of getting) a cease-fire in place.” It was pretty clear, however, whom Powell believed had prime responsibility for making the cease-fire stick — none other than the Palestinian victims of the continuing Israeli occupation.
“The Palestinian leadership must make a 100 per cent effort to end violence and terror. There must be real results, not just words and declarations. Terrorists must be stopped before they act. The Palestinian leadership must arrest, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of terrorist acts,” said Powell. And as for the Intifada, this “is now mired in the quicksand of self- defeating violence and terror directed against Israel… (which) must stop, and stop now.”
Yet Mr. Powell, aside from the thrice-mentioned word “occupation” — a rare semantic acknowledgment — has called on Israel to lift the closures on Palestinian lands, halt settlement-building activity, and withdraw a militarized presence where “too many innocent Palestinians, including children, have been killed and wounded.” All this, he said, “must stop.”
Back in Afghanistan, the Taliban are not finished yet. But then, they’re not supposed to be finished. At the madrasas, they are destined to keep a low-grade conflict alive, thereby also keeping U.S., allied (and yes Russian) forces committed to expending personnel and costly resources in the region for years to come.
A better post- 9-11 world? Not a chance.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.