A few weeks ago, Americans “observed” the eighth anniversary of 9/11—that day in 2001 when the Twin Towers were brought down by Al Qaeda. In a few weeks, Germans will “celebrate” the 20th anniversary of 11/9—that day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was brought down by one of the greatest manifestations of people power ever seen.
As the Obama team tries to figure out how to proceed vis-a-vis Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, it is worth reflecting for a moment on why Germans are celebrating 11/9 and we are reliving 9/11—basically debating whether to reinvade Afghanistan to prevent it again from becoming an Al Qaeda haven and to prevent Pakistan from tipping into civil war.
The most important difference between 11/9 and 9/11 is “people power”. Germans showed the world how good ideas about expanding human freedom—amplified by people power—can bring down a wall and an entire autocratic power structure, without a shot. There is now a Dunkin' Donuts on Paris Square adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, where all that people power was concentrated. Normally, I am horrified by American fast-food brands near iconic sites, but in the case of this once open sore between East and West, I find it something of a balm. The war over Europe is indeed over. People power won. We can stand down—pass the doughnuts.
The events of 9/11, by contrast, demonstrated how bad ideas—amplified by a willingness of just a few people to commit suicide—can bring down skyscrapers and tie a great country in knots.
I toured Paris Square the other day with Ulrike Graalfs, a programme director at the American Academy in Berlin, where I am a visitor, and she mentioned in passing that she was in the US on 9/11, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and she was a 9-year-old schoolgirl standing on the Berlin Wall on 11/9. I was struck by her recollections.
On 9/11, she said, she was overwhelmed by the sense of “anger and hurt” that so many of the Penn students around her felt—feelings so intense it made it impossible for them to see, what she, a foreign student could see, “how much the rest of the world was standing with America that day”.
By contrast, on 11/9, “there were people singing and dancing and someone lifted me up on the wall,” she said. “I still get emotional thinking about it. I saw my father jump down on the other side. I was terrified. It was very high. I thought it was going to be the end of my father. He started debating with an East German soldier. But the soldier didn't do anything. He just stood there, stiff.” People power won, and Germany has been united and stable ever since.
The problem we have in dealing with the Arab-Muslim world today is the general absence or weakness of people power there. There is a low-grade civil war going on inside the Arab-Muslim world today, only in too many cases it is “the South versus the South”—bad ideas versus bad ideas, amplified by violence, rather than bad ideas versus good ideas amplified by people power.
In places such as Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Pakistan you have violent religious extremist movements fighting with state security services. And while the regimes in these countries are committed to crushing their extremists, they rarely take on their extremist ideas by offering progressive alternatives.
That’s largely because the puritanical Islamic ideology of the Saudi state or segments of the Pakistani military is not all that different from the ideology of the extremists. And when these extremists aim elsewhere—like at India or at Shiites or at Israelis—these regimes are indifferent. That is why there is no true war of ideas inside these countries—just a war.
These states are not promoting an inclusive, progressive and tolerant interpretation of Islam that could be the foundation of people power. And when their people do take to the streets, it is usually against another people rather than to unify their own ranks around good ideas.
There have been far more marches to denounce Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad than to denounce Muslim suicide bombers who have killed innocent civilians, many of them Muslims.
The most promising progressive people-power movements have been Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, the Sunni Awakening in Iraq and the Green Revolution in Iran.
But the Cedar Revolution has been stymied by Syrian might and internal divisions. The Tehran uprising has been crushed by the iron fist of the Iranian regime, fuelled by petro-dollars. And it is unclear whether the Iraqis will set aside their tribalism for a shared people power.
So, as we try to figure out how many troops to send to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, let’s remember: Where there is people power wedded to progressive ideas, there is hope—and American power can help. Where there is people power harnessed to bad ideas, there is danger. Where there is no people power and only bad ideas, there will be no happy endings.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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