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Post 9/11 and the Need for a New Narrative in West-Muslim World Relations

Commentary, 6 September 2011
Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
American and European policymakers need to construct a new foreign policy framework and narrative if they are to improve the fractured relationship with the Muslim world after 9/11.

American and European policymakers need to construct a new foreign policy framework and narrative if they are to improve the fractured relationship with the Muslim world after 9/11.

By Professor John Esposito, Georgetown University

9/11 Retrospectives: This commentary is part of a series of contributions from eminent policymakers, academics and commentators offering their thoughts on the significance of 9/11.


The war against terrorism convinced many in the Muslim world that it was a war against Islam and Muslims, as one Egyptian expert put it, 'an attempt to redraw the map of the Middle East'. Several factors reinforced this perception and belief, contributing significantly to a widespread anger and anti-Americanism that cut across Muslim societies. These included the broadening of the American-led military campaign's scope beyond Afghanistan, the pursuit of second fronts in the Philippines, Yemen, and Pakistan and the designation of Iraq, Iran and Syria as an axis of evil and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In diplomatic terms, the disparity was seen in the Bush administration's lack of parity in rhetoric and policy in Palestine/Israel, its failure to condemn Ariel Sharon's provocation of the second intifada through his visit to the Temple Mount and the Israeli sustained invasion and devastation of Palestinian cities and villages in its war against 'Palestinian terrorism' all fed a rage that has been witnessed across the Muslim world.

The impact post-9/11 resulted in needed Western government responses to countering international and domestic terrorism.  But it was also exploited by neoconservatives, the hardline Christian Zionist Right and xenophobic and anti-Muslim forces. Islam and mainstream Muslims were brush-stroked and equated with the actions of a fraction of violent extremists and terrorists. Major polls by Gallup, PEW and others reported the extent to which many Americans and Europeans have a problem with Islam and Muslims, not just the terrorists. Islamophobia grew exponentially as witnessed in European and American domestic politics, anti-Muslim and violence. The massacre in Norway is a tragic signal of the danger of this metastasising social cancer and the need for a new narrative.

The current transformation in the Arab world offers new opportunities for rebuilding West-Muslim world relations. The challenge for American and EU policymakers today is to construct a new narrative and framework to replace a failed paradigm and conventional wisdom, based on support for authoritarian regimes and the 'democratic exceptionalism' in the Arab and Muslim worlds which has fed anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism, fears of Western intervention, invasion, occupation and dependency.

Gallup's 'Egypt from Tahrir to Transition' report offers important insights that underscore the need for a new narrative and the extent to which a past history of influencing or intervening in Arab politics has backfired and sown the seeds of distrust. Two-thirds of Egyptians surveyed think the US will try to interfere in Egypt's political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide alone. A similar number disagree that the US is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region. Almost 90% of Egyptians, who see the US as a political model for their country, oppose US aid to political groups in their country, more than those who hold this view among the general public (75%).

The challenge for American and European policymakers will be to move beyond equating protection of national interests with the stability and security of regimes, beyond fear of the unknown, of a process whose outcome it cannot control. Instead it should move to a policy based on American and European principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights. A new framework based on working with democratically elected governments in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region does risk a less predictable future, working with more independent governments with their own vision of their national interests. As we do with many other countries, allies and non-allies, around the world, our relations will be based on national interests and common strategic political, economic and military interests.

EspositoProfessor John Esposito is Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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