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Reflections on a War of Terror

As a staggering 20 years has now passed since 11 September 2001, it is bewildering to think that we have an entire generation of fully grown adults who were not even born when the passenger planes struck the Twin Towers that fateful day.

The immediate consequences of that day pummelled the world with brute force, and then mellowed into more insidious waves of harm-permeating dysfunction on so many societal levels. The planes were struck, innocent civilians were killed, Americans rained down bombs on Afghanistan, many more civilians were killed.  The battle cry was launched, and the world was divided. New governments were installed with donkeys carrying ballot boxes up mountain terrain. People were captured, many were sold, and others were plain disappeared. Laws were passed, rhetoric bludgeoned everyone, and rigid narratives were constructed, spun and reinforced with dizzying force. And in the midst of all this, young Muslims in the West were trying to find their way.

The memory of September 11 will always invite a lurching sickness deep within my gut, not dissimilar to the pain of taking strong medication on an empty stomach. The events were seismic by any global measure, but also carried ramifications right down to the individual level. For many of us, it became an event on the world stage that provided a startling jolt from an inertia we didn’t even realise we were in.

Whatever you knew (or didn’t) about your religion, simply existing as a Muslim in a post-9/11 world invited regular, insistent lines of questioning. “So do you support what happened?” “Does Islam allow suicide attacks?” “Do you think they had it coming?” These among the usual slew of questions from neighbours, classmates, colleagues and sometimes, even friends. But here is the thing: what if – despite being a Muslim- you actually didn’t know the answers? What if you were floating through your adolescent years just like ‘everybody else’, but now suddenly became a vocal authority on a major world religion? What if you now had to come up with answers, since the questions were only increasing in both intensity and frequency daily? This is where many of us were.

Only the narrative of the War on Terror could turn us regular teenagers – non-observant Muslims from irreligious households – into representatives of a faith tradition that we had zero clue about.  But there we were, cluelessly answering questions, knowing full well we were ignorant and pathetic salesmen for a product we had never even got a Tester for.

The privilege of time did not exist to unpack what was playing out in a tense and electrifying climate because – in real time – the bombs started dropping.

Mohamed Atta, Camp David, Ground Zero, “You’re either with us or against us”, Donald Rumsfield, Condoleeza Rice, Mullah Omar, Flight 93, Operation Infinite Justice, whoops no, Operation Enduring Freedom, Martin Bell in his white linen suit in Kabul, “the worst of the worst”, anti-terror legislation, welcome the surveillance state, civil liberties now optional, flying while Muslim, Geoff Hoon, angry Question Time audiences, ‘Muslims should wear see-through rucksacks on the train’ campaign, Islam and the West, the West and Islam,  Islam full stop. These all became ingredients in a swirling bowl of trauma-from-afar, as we seemed to watch 43,000 Afghan civilians slow motion perish in the ‘bullseye, precision war’ of 2001.

The world is now at war with ‘terror’. Terror is an abstract noun with no beginning, end, or direct denotation. In fact, pretty much anything can be conveniently shoved under that umbrella. Creative neutral terms emerged as a cover for deadly misdeeds. Dead families became ‘collateral damage’, prisoners of war were ‘enemy combatants’, and torture was ‘enhanced interrogation’. Sending men to secret CIA black sites for torture – or just to never resurface – was ‘extraordinary rendition’. Extraordinary indeed. You see, you cannot construct new realities without first constructing new language to legitimise it. And the War on Terror spun for itself new terminology at a rate of knots.

And like your brain does when battered with intense and overwhelming realities; all that comes back on reflection are memories spliced together from the time period following 9/11 to the decade afterwards.

Among these jarring memories was catching the beginning of The Graham Norton Show, where the host directly addressed the camera in a mock-sombre tone, saying, “Tonight they were meant to start bombing Afghanistan, so I tuned in with my popcorn ready for some proper WAR…but all I saw was a couple of faint fireworks in the background and… I felt completely robbed” while his audience gallantly laughed along. This was broadcasted just an hour after relatives called from Jalalabad, saying they had been issued a warning to take their children and clear their homes. The reason? A bombing raid was imminently scheduled; and no life or properties were safe.

I remember watching white BBC journalists mispronouncing terms like ‘loya jirga’ as if they now had some spectacular cultural insight into how a ‘tribal and fractured’ society meted out justice. Journalists would interview poppy farmers like “Mr Haji Gul”, as if Haji was a first name and not a title and Gul was a surname and not a term of endearment. Tone-deaf faux understanding of reality was the order of the day. And one could only watch through clenched fists and a sinking heart.

During a weekend job in retail, I remember my white American manager standing in the middle of the shop floor doing a celebration dance while singing, “We caught the b******!” Saddam Hussein had apparently just been dug out of an 8-foot-deep hole in Tikrit. My unenthusiastic querying of that spectacle earned me a disciplinary notice for my troubles and a further warning to ‘keep your politics off the shop floor’. Justin could jig and jive his politics anywhere however, even in the Body Butters aisle.

‘Keep your politics out of here’ was also politely – but firmly – repeated by a professor during a philosophy lecture at university on the concept of freedom. My fellow doctoral students were stunned that such a request was made so boldly; they were actively encouraged to share their own ‘politics’ on a daily basis.

I remember my mother coming home from a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, saying nobody wanted to talk about fly-tipping in the area. All they asked her about was “Osama Mosama”. This is because, of course, they desperately needed a middle-aged Afghan aunty in Northwest London to point them to the cave in Afghanistan where the world’s most wanted man was.

But she was unfazed.  In fact, she found it borderline comical. You see, I had the kind of mother who would happily host the neighbourhood racist when she found him on his doorstep locked out of his home. I came home to find him sitting in our lounge, guzzling copious amounts of green tea, and plying himself with handfuls of pistachios, raisons, and almonds. “Good combination that,” he would say with a thumbs up and his mouth still full.

He’d sit there – aged arms sagging under the weight of smudged Swastika tattoos – as she cheerfully enquired how the honeysuckle cuttings she gave him were faring in his garden. I had less sympathy for the man, who I had previously heard call local shopkeepers “bloody terrorists”. But since he was on our sofa; I had to resist, as my mother frantically motioned for me to bite my tongue. “We honour guests,” she told me as he left. “Maybe he will learn something.” I honestly do not know if Racist Ronnie ever learnt a thing, but I cannot deny that I did.

So here we are, a surreal 20 years later, speaking in past tense about 9/11. This is while we and our children live out the political and cultural consequences of that event. Cultural climates are ever-shifting, yet 9/11 propelled young Muslims to take a position and consciously unpack what was playing out in front of them. There were some that resorted to simply not being who they were – the Sameers became Sam and the Maymunas became May. Shallow television debates pit apparent ‘reformed’ extremists against ‘moderate’ voices. Frothing-mouthed protestors holding up placards threatening to turn Buckingham Palace into a mosque were plastered on front pages. Profiles of radicalised youth invited Britons to view their Muslim neighbours and friends as a fifth column within society. Can you really trust even the “good” Muslims now? I mean, one minute they’re holding your parcel for you, the next minute they want to behead you.

Muslims were Othered in every conceivable way possible; they were exceptionalised and dissected as a dehumanised specimen always open for public debate and scrutiny. Some rose to this challenge, others fell at it. For some it was an awakening, for others it was a catalyst to jump even harder through the hoops in the hopes that you they may one day be viewed as equals.

Anniversaries encourage us to reflect back and take stock – but I will always see 9/11 as an ongoing, rumbling implosion that unleashed a catalogue of lessons for believers to unpack. Politics is dirty, oppression comes in many open and hidden guises, and religion requires sure knowledge and sincerity. And more than anything for me, believers must be people of confidence and courage. These realities are just as true today as they were two decades ago, if only we summon the integrity to reap these timeless life lessons.


About Zimarina Sarwar

Zimarina is a freelance writer and researcher currently based in London. She holds an MRes in Linguistics from Kings College London and her interests include language, spirituality, social justice and … a bit too much baking.


  1. Whether it’s events like September 11 or the niqaab issue, these examples show us that when a certain narrative is pushed right from the top, that is, from the government (and when the media are part of it), then ordinary people turn on you overnight. I had colleagues who became visibly aggressive towards us after September 11 and after the niqaab issue was first raised by Jack Straw, an old English lady, who one day was putting me on a pedestal for agreeing to work voluntarily for her organisation, sounded like she was frothing at the mouth in our next telephone conversation.

    These reactions remind me of two things. The first is what we hear from the Bosnian Muslims about the massacre of their people at the hands of the Serbs: that their friends, neighbours, colleagues and teachers all turned on them overnight. The second thing they remind me of is the ayah of the Qur’an in which Allah Ta’ala says,
    O you who believe! Take not as (your) Bitanah (advisors, consultants, protectors, helpers, friends, etc.) those outside your religion (pagans, Jews, Christians, and hypocrites) since they will not fail to do their best to corrupt you. They desire to harm you severely. Hatred has already appeared from their mouths, but what their breasts conceal is far worse. Indeed We have made plain to you the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses) if you understand. (TMQ 3:118)

    I have no complaints about the disbelievers. I have seen nothing from them that our loving Lord did not already warn us against. What I don’t understand is what we as Muslims are waiting for or expecting from them. These are people who don’t even acknowledge let alone honour their covenant with their Creator and our Creator, Allah, so why do we think that they will honour their covenants with us?

    Yet, every solution that is proposed involves working within the systems already created by them, which don’t work for us. As a young teenager, I used to be glued to the news about Palestine and Rwanda, worrying about the suffering people. I used to watch the late Saeb Erekat passionately talk about resolution this and resolution that, whenever the Palestinians were being bombed. I soon realised that I could stop watching for a year or many years, and still find the same pictures and the same speeches when I watched again. Nothing had changed even until he breathed his last breath only last year.

    I don’t have to be a religious Muslim to know that this is just rubbish. Even with the Uyghurs, all this effort is being made to simply reach the stage that the Palestinians are at, where the United Nations can pass resolutions that aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

    And now we have another group, the Taliban, trapping themselves within the systems created by the disbelievers and in the agreements made with them, and tomorrow, just like militarily stronger nations like Turkey and Pakistan, they will also be saying that they can’t help oppressed Muslims or make the right decisions according to what is pleasing to Allah, because their hands are tied. What a waste.

    Despite the years of courage and sacrifice, Afghanistan has become another Muslim land in which the scent of musk has been replaced by the stench of politics.

    Finally, if there are any disbelievers that you believe are genuine and kind towards you then, instead of faffing around with all these other so called solutions, the best thank you gift that we as Muslims can give them is to work even harder to establish the Islamic system so that, eventually, they have the best chance of witnessing the Truth of Islam without all the confusion created by the prejudice and propaganda of disbelieving media and governments, and so that they can choose Islam and feel the sweetness of faith in this world and have everlasting Paradise in the Hereafter. However, if we as Muslims keep falling for the propaganda, then what hope do they have of not falling for it?

  2. Why does no one, including Muslims, know, remember or talk about 9/16 (1982), when 3,500 Palestinians died? Just as names are being read out today and are every year, each of the Palestinians was a person with a name. That massacre wasn’t just working people, but included the elderly, children and babies. Generations of entire families were wiped out. Yet somehow, that doesn’t seem so important.
    It’s jmportant to raise awareness of these massacres, otherwise Muslims fall into the trap of thinking that predominantly white American lives are the ones that matter more when it comes to atrocities. If we felt lost and felt we had to be experts, one could mention to people bigger atrocities to make them realise they aren’t the most important people on the planet. While the former was carried out by misguided individuals, the latter was carried with effectively Americas 53rd state’s approval. We can talk to colleagues etc about these kind of things.

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