Eric Trager: Why Does the Mideast Buy 9/11 Conspiracies?

Roundup: Talking About History

Eric Trager, the Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is writing his dissertation on Egyptian opposition parties.

The 9/11 attacks catalyzed a tremendous shift in American foreign policy in the Middle East. Rather than prioritizing petrol, Washington targeted terrorist organizations, dethroned a dictator, and lobbied throughout the region for liberalization. Yet despite the billions of dollars spent policing Baghdad and protecting Benghazi, the unpopularity of the United States in the Arab world continues to be fueled by the belief that Islamist terrorists had nothing to do with 9/11, with many claiming the attacks were an American, Israeli, or joint American-Israeli conspiracy. In this sense, overcoming 9/11 revisionism is, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing American public diplomacy in the coming decade: So long as such conspiracy theories persist, Arabs will continue to view American policies aimed at preventing “another 9/11” as thoroughly illegitimate since, as they see it, 9/11 is just a big American lie.

In a report on Muslim-Western relations released on July 21 of this year, the Pew Research Center asked Muslim respondents in eight countries—including Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan—whether they thought groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks on the United States. In every country, less than 30 percent of respondents professed their belief for the idea, and in Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey the level of acceptance is lower today than it was in 2006. Indeed, the same revolutionary Arab Street that toppled Mubarak in Egypt also registered the highest level of denial among all the countries surveyed, with a full 75 percent of respondents recording their disbelief.

Pew’s poll numbers from Egypt track closely with my own experience in the country, where I lived and conducted doctoral research during parts of its tumultuous spring. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that 9/ll revisionism was particularly prominent among Islamists, for whom rewriting history is necessary for deflecting the accusation that their ideology motivates mass murder. “There is no Al Qaeda,” former Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mehdi Akef told me in complete seriousness. “It’s an American expression. It’s just an ideology, Al Qaeda. This ideology comes from America and their coalitions.” In Akef’s inversion of reality, 9/11 constituted an American attack on the Middle East, followed by an Islamist policy of self-defense. “When they fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Al Qaeda thinks it’s a jihad because the fight is against occupation,” he said. “And it is jihad to fight occupation. And when Americans kill civilians everywhere, it’s a big crime against humanity.”

Younger generations of Muslim Brothers echo Akef’s distortions without fail...  ..

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