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The West and Islam 20 Years After 9/11: Paranoia, Now

When the dust from the towers settled, it not only settled on the dead. He also buried the illusion of the invulnerability of the American heartland, buried notions of the happy end of history. Buried the delicacy of exclusion and gradual disparagement, buried a whole world of concepts. “Guest workers” belonged to them, “Kümmeltürke” and “Kanake”, “Asylant”, “Ali”, which of course was often called differently. In their place came, mentally in capital letters: “the Muslim”.

Rhetorically, the name saved a lot of time and meant a considerable reduction in complexity. On September 11th, “the Muslim” was to blame for integration problems, the oppression of women, gay hatred, European anti-Semitism and, most recently, the faltering fight against the pandemic. The Muslim, even the secular, belonged to a religion that allowed neither democracy, equality nor individuality and which carried out total control over the life of the individual.

Immerse yourself in the world of “Muslims”

The Muslim was an enormously useful figure in contemporary debates.

Ayad Akhtar, US writer and son of Pakistani immigrants, circles the repulsive reactions of Muslims and those around him in books and plays with painful thoroughness. In his biographical novel “Homeland Elegien” he features Riaz, a Pakistani investor who has made his fortune in the USA and commissioned a study on attitudes towards Islam. The five most frequent associations of the respondents: “Anger – apart – suicide – bad – death”.

A whole flood of books, films and series plunged into the world of “Muslims”.

Similar to his successful piece “Geschändet”, there are also passages in “Homeland Elegien” with open approval of Osama bin Laden. “This man is right. Our blood is cheap,” it says at one point: “They” – the Americans – “deserve what they got. And what they will get in the future.” The character who speaks like this is Akhtar’s mother.

Above this scandal, the fact that the son did not share the glee and even took it personally took a back seat. “Even if the American empire treated us so badly,” writes Akhtar, the attack on the towers hit him too. The symbol of America as the “shimmering realm of refuge and renewal” – it was also its symbol. After all, he, Ayad Akhtar, was an American, albeit an American with a more complex identity stratification than the usual redneck.

Insurmountable strangeness and insatiable anger

Akhtar’s works are part of a whole flood of books, films and series that plunged into the world of “Muslims” after the attacks and almost always found disturbing things. In anti-terror epics such as “Syriana” (2006) by Stephen Gaghan or “Body of Lies” (2008) by Ridley Scott, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio lost themselves in a labyrinth of secret services, militias, assassins and courtiers. Although their own people in Washington did not look good in the films, although the CIA played sinister games as always, although the directors tried to achieve authenticity and balance with some Arab sympathizers, the message was that of an insurmountable alienation of that world and of insatiable anger of their residents.

The series “Homeland” increased the uncertainty to paranoia. Eight successful seasons presented the danger of jihadist infiltration of America as a logical consequence of an almost global Islamist complicity. The hatred of the USA even connected the Shiite Hezbollah with the Sunni al-Qaeda, completely unrealistic. The fact that criticism of US politics acts as a kind of gateway drug for future terrorists has long been a fixed topos.

Earlier portrayals of Muslims were also not flattering, such as the “Indiana Jones” series or, an early pearl, “The Sheikh” from 1921 with Rudolph Valentino. After all, there was still a certain joy in oriental colors or even sensual joy in these works. In the meantime, the Muslim screen villain has established itself as the successor to the “Russian” – even earlier: the “German” – in Hollywood. And one has to wait and see whether he will be ousted by the “Asian”.

“Dangerously foreign”: the concept of “Islam as fate”

Academically, the years after September 11th were a fruitful time. The attacks gave Islamic and Arabic studies a similar influx as perestroika did to Slavic studies. The interest of the general public also increased to feverishly. But countless rounds of talks and hypocritically alarmed cover stories (“Allah in the West”, “Mecca Germany” or “Dangerously Foreign”, all mirrors) did not lead to a deeper understanding of the historical, cultural or social differences of over a billion people. Rather, they corroborated the concept of Islam as fate.

The New York shock wasn’t the only reason. The development had become apparent. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, the fight of the mujahideen against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the Palestine-Israel conflict had created the outlines of a collective entity that the supporters of political Islam gratefully embraced.

After the end of the Cold War had plunged large parts of the world into great confusion, the new sorting promised clarity. “The first half of the 20th century was the era of the world wars, the second the era of the Cold War. The era of the Muslim wars began in the 21st”: This is how the political scientist Samuel Huntington put the world in order in a 2007 interview.

Cities, countries, entire continents disappear as places of origin in the black hole of the “Islamic world”

No more profane niches: The “Islamization of Islam”

The Islamic scholar Thomas Bauer describes the relationship in his book “The Culture of Ambiguity” in a more differentiated way, tracing a reciprocal dynamic of imitation and demarcation that spanned centuries. The “Islamization of Islam” goes back to the 19th century. Even then, the western construction of an “Islamic” culture meant that even everyday objects or techniques were understood under the term “Islamic”. The Skills of Arab Doctors? “Islamic Medicine”. The wine cup in the museum? Presented as “Islamic Metal Art”. Not even the last secular niches escaped sacralization.

Today the category of religion has completely replaced other descriptions. Cities, countries and entire continents are disappearing into the black hole of the “Islamic world”. In the meantime, even those Muslims must first identify themselves as Muslims – i.e. religiously – who strive for distinction and actually reject this classification.

You ought to thank the Taliban very much. For three weeks, amorphous groups have been weighing over the screens, with their beards, weapons and wide robes giving off such a uniform image as if they came from the same men’s outfitter. For women’s rights activists and journalists, IT managers and fitness trainers who are currently stuck in Doha or Spain and would like to travel on to Germany or the USA, this is a stupid thing. For some, they are refugees. For all other Muslims.

Sonja Zekri

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2021

Sonia Gupta
Soniya Gupta, who joined the Technical University in October 2015, continues his education life at Technical University. As the passion for aviation increases day by day, it has a great interest in technology and gaming.


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