I recall the morning of September 11th 2001. I was director of IPPR and we employed an intern from New York who was that day helping us organise a conference. I vividly remember her shock and distress when I took her to one side to describe - as best I could - what was unfolding in her home town. (As an aside, it is interesting to recall that just ten years ago - before mobile phones and laptops were routinely connected to the internet - it was possible for people to go some hours before being aware that a major world event had occurred. Now, everyone would know within minutes.)
There was also a broader personal context. The attack occurred a week before the showing of a film I had made earlier in the summer for Channel Four, provocatively entitled ‘I’m not racist, but’. The programme involved me touring the country talking to various people who had misgivings about the growing diversity of modern Britain and trying to get to the bottom of whether these concerns were more than simple prejudice. What excited Channel 4 about the programme and – I have to admit - made me nervous, was that I had reached the conclusion that, alongside what was clearly good old fashioned racism, there were genuine issue about people in Muslim communities who apparently rejected integration in British society. This was then a very controversial thing for a leftie like me to say.
TV stations are always looking to make material as topical and controversial as possible so it is also poignant to recall that the producers had already cut out a scene in which I confronted a group of young men who had set up a stall in Brick Lane and were hawking various extremist literature including material promoting Al Qaeda. Presumably they didn’t think this kind of extremism was particularly significant.
There has already been so much comment on the consequences of 9/11 i am wary of adding more but it seems to me that since the Twin Towers were brought down, two new towers - of misunderstanding and fear - have grown. They stand apart but it is as if they are in a race to be the highest. The first of these towers is the belief among many Muslims that they are subject to a deliberate and co-ordinated attempt by the West to attack their communities and their religion. From this perspective wars in Iraq or Afghanistan are portrayed as Western assaults on Muslims when they are in fact wars between an alliance of external (national) powers and local groups on one side, and a different alliance of external (terrorist or fundamentalist) forces and local interests on the other. Equally from this perspective it is somehow forgotten that the overwhelming target and victim of ‘Islamic’ terrorism is other Muslims. This sense of victimhood and paranoia is vividly illustrated by the number of people in predominantly Muslim countries who apparently believe the September 11th attack was undertaken by some combination of the CIA and the Israeli secret service; the number ranges from 30% to up to 70%.
The other rising tower is the idea that the West and its values are under genuine threat from Islam. This is not to say there aren’t Muslims who would like to create a global caliphate nor that the West doesn’t genuinely need to defend itself from terrorism and its apologists. But the idea that terror incidents (which are still very rare in non-Muslim countries), the views of extremists or even the hypothetical answers given to opinion poll questions by the minority Muslim community can be put together to represent a credible threat to our way of life is surely nonsense. It may be true that some young Muslims will be radicalised but over time a much more significant trend will be the gradual integration of third and fourth generation Muslim migrants into the diverse mainstream of British life. Whilst the murders of Anders Breivik were the acts of madman, those who encourage paranoia about a Muslim take-over must answer the question: ‘if we are – as you say - genuinely threatened by a Muslim conspiracy to destroy our way of life then presumably violence is among the legitimate responses?’
And so the towers of victimhood and paranoia keep climbing. How might they be dismantled? Of course, those who reject such thinking must say so loudly and clearly at every opportunity. We can also hope that the emerging Arab democracies represent a chance for a new narrative for the development of Muslim nations. Although, of course, those who live in tower two will point to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and argue the West was crazy to help topple friendly dictators and open the door to the threat of democratically-sanctioned extremism.
I am not in any way complacent (how could anyone be when looking once again at the images of the 9/11 attack?), but my sense is that history will take its course and eventually the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim will diminish and fade in significance. The question is how much needless suffering must take place before then; how high will the towers grow?
This is very much a matter of leadership. But for those of us who engage on a smaller scale there is still work to be done. Indeed it may be in towns and cities, where people can, more easily than at the national level, have 'hyphenated identities' (sikh-Brummie, Muslim-Glaswegian, East End Jew) that it is most possible to disrupt sectarian narratives. It may take a long time, but while we wait for change at the global and national level, we should chip away in our own communities at the foundations of the new twin towers.
This is one reason why I am so delighted that RSA Fellows have been at the forefront or organising a major civic day in Leicester this Sunday. Leicester is the first majority non-white English city. Some people will see this as a problem, for me it is an opportunity. Leicester could become a global symbol of how diversity can work. Even when the nighmare of the bigot comes true and the indigenous population becomes a minority (although, of course, white English continues by a long margin to be the biggest single ethnic group) the people of the city respond by becoming more proud, more dynamic and more united. That those hard at work building towers of fear will see such an event as misguided and futile should give the organisers even more determination to make it succeed.
PS As you would expect, we have some fascinating events here at the RSA to mark the anniversary of 9/11.
2021's second round Catalyst Award winners have been announced. We award £100,000 annually, supporting Fellows to test social change innovations and scale the social impact of their projects.
Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Foresight Lead)
What mix of soft, technical, and digital skills will be needed in different sectors or local economies in the future?
Riley Thorold explains how recent RSA work on public participation can inform this broader shift towards a more active and empowering democracy when levelling up.