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September 11, 2001

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    September 11, 2001

    On the morning of September 11, 2001, two passenger jets heading from Boston to Los Angeles changed course and smashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon, outside Washington, D.C., and a fourth crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania after its passengers attempted to subdue the hijackers who had taken control of the cockpit. By 10:28 a.m., both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed in a roar of smoking debris. The terrorist attacks—the most deadly ever on American soil—killed more than 3,000 people and marked a major turning point in the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world.

    Although no group claimed immediate responsibility for the attacks, investigators soon linked them to al-Qaeda, an Islamic extremist organization headed by Saudi Arabian militant Osama bin Laden . In 1996 bin Laden had declared a jihad against the United States in order to force the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia, where they had been stationed to protect the Saudis from Iraqi aggression during the Gulf War ( 1990 – 1991 ). He later endorsed several fatwas, stating that Muslims should kill Americans wherever they are throughout the world. Bin Laden has been charged with organizing attacks on American targets, including the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 , and the attack on the USS Cole, docked in Yemen, in 2000 . He may also have been involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed 6 people and injured about 1,000.

    But the events that became known as “9/11” jolted Americans out of a false sense of security in their own country. Until then the United States treated terrorist activities primarily as law enforcement matters. By contrast, President George W. Bush declared that the 9/11 attacks were “acts of war.” He determined that the United States would fight and defeat terrorism, making no distinction between unaffiliated terrorist groups and governments that supported them.

    President Bush insisted that the response to 9/11 was directed against terrorists, not against Islam itself or against law-abiding Muslims. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda became the first targets in the American war against terrorism. In late 2001 , the United States led a military campaign in Afghanistan to destroy the al-Qaeda network and to oust the ruling Taliban regime that had harbored the terrorists. Surveillance of other militant groups also continued. Some groups operated in Western countries and were actively seeking nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Arguing that Iraq possessed such weapons and also supported terrorist groups, the United States and Great Britain led a military coalition to oust the government of Saddam Hussein in early 2003 .

    The American response to 9/11 inspired complex reactions throughout the world. Arab and Muslim leaders condemned the attacks as violations of Islam and insisted that the vast majority of Muslims did not support terrorism. They objected to stereotypes that portrayed Muslims as violent and denounced the growing number of hate crimes directed against American Muslims. Moreover, they condemned racial profiling measures that violated the civil rights of Muslims. Yet 9/11 also led to an increased awareness of Islam in the United States. Americans began to educate themselves about Islam and about current problems in the Middle East. Seminars, interfaith services, and media coverage addressed matters of importance to Muslims.

    Despite their sympathy toward the United States immediately after 9/11, many Muslims noted that American support for Israel contributed to feelings of anger and frustration. These feelings, in turn, bred terrorism. Some criticized the American-led bombing of Afghanistan as a campaign against their faith. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused even more outrage across the Arab and Muslim world, and many condemned it as a new crusade to destroy Islam, a reference to the Christian campaigns against Muslims in the Middle Ages. Opponents of the war around the world argued that it was immoral and illegal and would increase terrorism against the United States. Supporters contended that the war demonstrated America's resolve to act and that it would eventually lead suspect regimes to abandon terrorist tactics and their support for extremist groups. They also suggested that the war would inspire renewed efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and that a democratic Iraq would provide a model of stability in the Middle East.

    Whether the American responses to 9/11 will lead to greater security or increased violence remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that 9/11 has created a new sense of urgency about issues that have caused conflict between the Muslim world and the West. See also Bin Laden, Osama; Jihad; Qaeda, al-; Taliban; Terrorism; United States.

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