Making Sense of Our Times


(The following is an excerpt from M. SHAHID ALAM’s new book Is There An Islamic Problem?)

I have brought together in this book some of the essays I wrote after September 11, 2001, essays in which I have tried to make sense–historical sense–of the events which transpired on the morning of that fateful day, between 8:45 AM and 9:43 AM, when three hijacked airliners, converted into missiles, crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing 2752 people. (1)

Articulating their fear and dread, many Americans felt that the attacks of 9-11 had “changed the world forever.” In large measure, this was true. Most Americans had never known what it felt to be victims; they had never lived in fear of attacks, from bombs, missiles and artillery shells. Only Americans had the right to deliver destruction to others; only they had the power to do this to anyone, at any time. Now, for the first time, death and destruction had been delivered to two iconic addresses in America. This was not expected. It was unfair. It was unnerving.

There are few moments in history, few horrors, that crystallize the contradictions of the reigning capitalist paradigm–contradictions that are concealed, papered over by the ideologues of that paradigm–the way that the attacks of 9-11 have done. I am referring here to the symbolism of these attacks. They would retain their symbolic value even if the attacks had occurred at night–when the Twin Towers were empty–and they inflicted no human casualties.

Only a few years back, Francis Fukuyama had announced to the world that man had finally reached the ‘end of history,’ that Hegel’s Zeitgeist, after successively wrestling and defeating the fascist and communist challenges to freedom, had delivered history into the long-awaited Valhalla of liberal capitalism. The American model, combining free markets and democracy, had triumphed. (2) There might be a few road bumps ahead, but henceforth, it would be a straight and narrow path, paved with peace, prosperity, and, not to forget, unchallenged American supremacy.

Perhaps, the attacks of September 11 have ended this end-of-history fantasy. At least, some oracles are now proclaiming that history could not be sent into retirement; not just yet. Sorry, there is one more dragon to slay. A new fascism has reared its ugly head. It is fascism in its Islamic variant. Saint George must again sharpen his lance to slay the Islamic dragon. Why this unseemly retreat from a triumph that seemed complete just a few years back?

The attacks of September 11 are like an eruption, a volcanic eruption that has thrust lava and ashes from our netherworld, the dark netherworld of the Periphery, into the rich and tranquil landscape of America. In the past, we had succeeded in containing these eruptions inside the Periphery. The attacks of September 11 speak of a massive failure in a paradigm that has worked for two hundred years to keep the Periphery in its place, to contain the resistance against the Core within the bounds of the Periphery.

At first, and for the longest period, the Core kept the Periphery in check through colonization: through massacres, ethnic cleansings, concentration camps, apartheid and racism. We sent our men into the Periphery to do the job, telling them that they were on a civilizing mission; they were bringing good governance to the savages. We could always find natives to collaborate with us against their own kin and class. In time, the natives understood the game; they understood that they only labored for our profit. Taking advantage of our squabbles, the Periphery broke lose, starting in the 1940s.

This setback was temporary. In large part, the system managed to restore the status quo ex ante. Steadily, inevitably, Core capital took over the capital in the Periphery or bound it in a hundred ties of clientage, in unalterable relations of dependence. The Periphery was now run by native thugs who were our men. We armed them, trained them, provided them with intelligence, and, when they misbehaved, we knew how to get rid of them. The CIA took care of that.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Core was free, as it had never been before, to impose global rules that best served its corporate interests. Henceforth, all capital would be privatized; capital, goods and services would be free to move across all borders; indigenous capital in the Periphery would receive no preferences; and property rights in intellectual capital would be strengthened. In 1994, the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created to join the IMF and World Bank in imposing these rules on the Periphery.

Once this new framework was in place, the Core encouraged elections everywhere, barring the Arab world. Democracy in the Periphery was now functional. It gave a measure of legitimacy to the branch-plant governments in the Periphery while ensuring that they would have no real power to challenge Core capital. Core capital never had a better deal. This was Valhalla.

Why did September 11 disturb the bliss of this Valhalla?

Directly and indirectly, the essays in this book provide answers to this question. September 11 brings into the open, forcing into the daylight of consciousness, the legacies of history–of racial hubris, of disequilibria imposed by wars, of messianism, of reincarnated fossils, of tribalism sanctified by religion, of racial hubris, of social science in the service of power, of naked greed disguised in the rhetoric of the civilizing mission, of citizens fed on lies and sedated by amusements, of cruelty cultivated as a racial virtue, of injustices that cannot be allowed to stand. September 11 establishes beyond reasonable doubt that the United States is deeply, irrevocably connected to the Arab world, the Islamicate world, in ways it cannot ignore or deny. These essays map out the connections.

Notwithstanding its horror, September 11 was a symbol that spoke unmistakably of the manifold connections that tie the United States–through Zionism, through its messianism, through its links to an older past, through wars, through sanctions, through tens of billion of dollars in military aid, through coups, through partnerships with corrupt monarchies, through vetoes at the Security Council, through demonization of Islam, through the brothels of corporate media–to Palestinians, to Iraqis, to the Arab world, to the Islamicate world, to Africa, Asia and Latin America: in a word, to the Periphery. September 11 was a souvenir from the dark dungeons of our secret history, a digitized, televised image from the lost and forgotten Abu Ghraibs of decades past.

The symbolic power of 9-11 had to be suppressed. Instantly, the President, followed by the brothels of corporate media and the ideologues who pimp for authority, was spinning a thick web of lies and obfuscations around 9-11. The hijackers were emissaries from an evil place, a demon world, whose inhabitants worship false idols, and in daily rituals of blood sacrifices imprecate our democracy, our freedoms, our rights, our traditions of infinite justice. These devils hate us because we are so good, so virtuous, and so Christian.

September 11 was also welcomed by some in Israel and America. Yes, it was welcomed. The words are unmistakable. In an interview he gave to the New York Times, Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister of Israel, said the attacks are “very good” for relations between the United States and Israel. (3) The attacks were also very good for the neoconservatives, many of them friends of Israel, who were waiting for a “galvanizing event” to launch their Project for a New American Century, which would make American power unchallengeable. (4) September 11 was their dream come true. In April 2003, they succeeded in leveraging 9-11 into an invasion of Iraq. That is now history. A few of the essays in this book are about this war too, its lies, its language, its links to the past, and its bitter legacy rapidly, unexpectedly unfolding before our eyes.

I hope that these essays will bear witness, faint witness though it be, that I have endeavored to be true to my Rabb, the single Lord of all Creation, to whom belong the most beautiful names, and, conversely, that I have labored to reject the false deities of tribe and cult, of racism and bigotry, because He, who is Rahman and Raheem, created us “from a single soul and from it created its mate, and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.” (5) As a Muslim, to believe is to bear witness to our single humanity: our creation from, and connection to, a single soul.

“Our Lord! Cause not our hearts to stray after Thou hast guided us, and bestow upon us mercy from Thy Presence. Lo! Thou, only Thou art the Bestower.” (6)


(1) Phil Hirschkorn, “New York Reduced 9/11 Death Toll by 40,” October 29, 2003: http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/Northeast/10/29/wtc.deaths/

(2) Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, (Summer 1989): 3-18. This was later written up into a book, The End of History and the Last Man (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992).

(3) James Bennet, “Spilled Blood Is Seen as Bond That Draws 2 Nations Closer,” New York Times (September 12, 2001), section A, p. 22. col. 5.

(4) David Fitts, “Those Who Don’t Remember History,” Ace Weekly (April 10, 2003)

(5) Qur’_n: 4:1.

(6) Qur’_n: 3:8.


M. SHAHID ALAM, professor of economics at Northeastern University, is a regular contributor to CounterPunch.Org. Some of his CounterPunch essays are now available in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He may be reached at m.alam@neu.edu.


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M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

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