The Fire This Time: On 9/11 in the Long Term

By Reza AslanJanuary 9, 2012

    The Fire This Time: On 9/11 in the Long Term

    Image: Ground Zero 9/11/2010 (cc) Derek Rose

    THE POLICEWOMAN WHO CONFISCATED the unlicensed produce stand of a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi in the tiny Tunisian village of Sidi Bouzid could not have known that her actions would light the fuse of revolution, not just in Tunisia, but across the Arab world. The twenty-six-year-old Bouazizi was one of millions of unemployed youth who make up the vast majority of the population of the Greater Middle East. This young, educated, and severely disenfranchised generation has come of age burdened by bone-crushing poverty and marginalized by corrupt, authoritarian regimes that have been funded and armed by western governments — most notably the United States — for decades.

    The unemployment rate in Bouazizi's hometown is upwards of 30%. Like most of his fellow Tunisians — those without personal connections to the country's long running dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — Bouazizi survived by doing odd jobs for a few dollars a day. Yet at every point in his young life, as he struggled to scrape a living out of the most menial and dehumanizing work, Bouazizi was confronted with the stark nepotism of Tunisian society, the rank corruption of government employees, and the hard fact that there wasn't, and would never be, anything to do about it. 

    That final thought — that this was the way of the world, that it could not be otherwise — must have gone through Bouazizi's mind when the policewoman approached him on the dusty streets of this impoverished town, 190 miles (300 km) south of the capital Tunis, and asked to see his license to operate the produce stand. In Tunisia, as in much of the Arab world, "license" is code for bakhsheesh. Bribe. What the policewoman meant was that she had not yet been paid to look the other way as young Bouazizi peddled his overripe fruits and vegetables for a few pennies each. 

    But Bouazizi had pooled all of his savings into just enough cash to buy the stand. He had nothing more to give. And so the policewoman shuttered it, roughing him up in the process. When the young man tried to seek recourse by going to a local municipality building and demanding an audience with a government official, he was told to go home. He would not even be heard. 

    That should have been the end of the story. There is, after all, nothing unique about what happened to Mohamed Bouazizi. His is the lot of the young and dispossessed of the Arab world. Three quarters of the region is under the age of 35; two-thirds is under 18. The median age in Tunisia is 30 years old, making it one of the oldest countries in the region. In Egypt the median age is 24. In Syria it is 22. In Yemen it is 18. Thanks to poor governance and a total lack of transparency, youth unemployment rates hover around 30% across the region. Those who have jobs, including university graduates, face low wages, extreme work conditions, and almost no chance for advancement. 

    Yet something had snapped in Mohamed Bouazizi. He had suddenly had enough. Enough of the clubby elite who engorged themselves on the flesh of the poor. Enough of the decrepit autocrats who pillaged the country's resources for their own profit. Enough of the lumbering bureaucracies whose sole purpose seemed to be to frustrate the hopes and ambitions of the people. This was not just about a produce stand. It was not about corrupt police or a lack of economic opportunities. It was a far more primal need that drove Mohamed Bouazizi to action. The need to be heard. Raging inside of him was an anger born of years of humiliation and marginalization — the very same anger that had fueled a decade of violence and extremism among his fellow Muslim youth. 

    Knowing he would not receive any kind of redress for his grievances, a determined Mohamed Bouazizi returned to the government building with a can of gasoline and a match. He was not there to burn down that concrete symbol of his degradation. No, Bouazizi had a different symbol in mind. Standing tall amidst a frenzy of traffic just outside the municipal building, where he could not possibly be ignored, he shouted at the top of his voice, "How do you expect me to make a living?" He then poured the gasoline over his own body and lit the match. 

    The fire that enveloped and ultimately killed Mohamed Bouazizi spread from the village of Sidi Bouzid to the rest of Tunisia — to Kasserine and Gafsa and Sousse — until it reached the capital Tunis and devoured the government of Ben Ali. From there it spread to the cities of Egypt — to Cairo and Giza and Suez — where it engulfed the thirty-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Through satellite TV, social media, and the Internet, the fire swept across the Arab world, from the western shores of Morocco to the desert sands of Yemen, from the tribal fiefdoms of Libya to cosmopolitan Syria. 

    And the fire is still burning.


    Mohamed Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011. Ten years earlier to the day, another man, not much older than Bouazizi and also named Mohamed, flew from the United States to Spain to put the final touches on an ambitious plan to hijack four commercial airliners and fly them into a handful of carefully chosen targets in New York City and Washington DC. 

    At 33 years old, Mohamed Atta was the oldest of the 9/11 hijackers. The rest were young men barely in their twenties. These men lived far different lives from that of Mohamed Bouazizi. They were not themselves dispossessed, marginalized, or poor. But it was precisely on behalf of such people that they claimed to speak. They viewed themselves as the voice of the voiceless. They wanted their actions to be so loud that they would be impossible to ignore. 

    So much has been written about the men responsible for the attacks of 9/11, about the organization (al-Qa'ida) that financed them, and about the man (Osama bin Laden) who inspired them, that it is easy to forget the fact that these men were in thrall neither to an organization, nor to an individual, but rather to an idea. They were animated by the simple premise that the world does not have to be as it is. The social order can be overturned and re-imagined. No matter how immovable they may seem, governments can crumble, dictatorships can fall. The sclerotic religious leaders, the crooked politicians, even the voracious superpower behind it all: these can be brought to ruin with just a few box cutters and a will fortified by God. 

    Of course, such cataclysmic change can only be ushered in through violent revolution. It would take a cleansing fire to purge a world overgrown with, in bin Laden's words, "oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction, and devastation." The fire would start in New York and DC, where it would bring down the towering symbols of America's financial and military hegemony. But it would not end there, the hijackers were told. It would spread to the rest of the world. It would consume the wicked and the corrupt. It would rekindle the spirit of the people and rouse them to their cause. 

    These two fires — the one lit by the hijackers on September 11, 2001, the other sparked by a single individual in a small Tunisian town ten years later — form the bookends to the 9/11 decade. Indeed, you can draw a straight line from one to the other. Their kindling was the same: humiliation, lack of dignity, a smoldering frustration with the ways of the world, and the overwhelming urge to set it all alight. Their fuel was the same: both fires spread through satellite television and social networking sites, something al-Qa'ida had pioneered long before there was any talk of a "Facebook revolution." 

    Yet, on this 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, when Americans are embroiled in debates about what that day meant for us and how it changed the way we see ourselves in the world, perhaps we should pause for a moment and recognize the single most significant thing that the fires sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi and Mohamed Atta share in common, which is that neither of them had anything to do with us.


    To say that the attacks of 9/11 "changed the world," is only partly true. 9/11 did, of course, change the world; it just did not change America, certainly not in any positive way. It is difficult to think of any aspect of American life that has been made better in the aftermath of the attacks. An incalculable body count from a decade of unwinnable war, an anesthetizing political contest over national security, the curtailment of civil liberties in exchange for the illusion of safety: for Americans, these are the lasting legacies of 9/11. 

    The fact that ten years later the attacks have left such a small psychic footprint in our collective conscience is somehow fitting, considering that 9/11 was never really about us in the first place. I do not mean to make light of the three thousand lives that were lost on that tragic day. But the one thing we can be certain of after a decade of research and scholarly analysis is that the young men who hijacked those planes ten years ago were not trying to advance a political cause or to redress a particular wrong. It is true that a litany of grievances was unfurled after the fact to justify the attacks: the suffering of the Palestinians, the presence of American troops in the Middle East, western support for Arab dictatorships. But these were not so much genuine grievances as they were abstract symbols to rally around. Only a fool would think that the hijackers believed their actions would bring peace to Palestine or result in the removal of American troops from Muslim lands. This is the fundamental truth about terrorism in all its forms: these are not acts in pursuit of a political end; they are symbolic statements of power directed at a specific audience. 

    When I say the attacks of 9/11 were not about us, I mean that while we were the victims of that theatrical display of public violence, we were not its intended audience. The audience was the Mohamed Bouazizis of the world: the young and dispossessed of the Middle East, those who agree with bin Laden that "death is better than a life of humiliation." 

    On this point, there was never any doubt. Al-Qa'ida has repeatedly admitted that the attacks of 9/11 were conceived of and carried out with one strategic purpose in mind: "to awaken the Islamic Nation, which has been drugged, put to sleep and been absent from the confrontation," to quote the most formidable of Jihadist thinkers, Abu Musab al-Suri. 

    The noxious truth is that the lives lost on 9/11 were merely the medium through which the hijackers sent a message to young Muslims across the globe. (And make no mistake, it was Muslim youth that they were targeting: "We find that the only age group capable of giving and waging jihad is the fifteen to twenty-five age bracket," bin Laden said. "It is they upon whom this duty primarily devolves.") That message, again in the words of bin Laden, was that "the voices of the shadows have spoken up, their eyes [have uncovered] the veil of injustice and their noses [have smelled] the stench of corruption." 

    The brazen attack on New York and DC was not meant as a punishment for America's actions in the Middle East. And it certainly was not an attempt to change American foreign policy. It was a call to action, an attempt to awaken the political activism of young Muslims by channeling their vague feelings of anger and disaffection over their miserable lot in the world toward a single, tangible, easy-to-define symbol: 9/11. 

    Angry about Israel? The answer lies in 9/11. Oppressed by a bloodthirsty dictator? Look for the solution in 9/11. Can't get a job? 9/11. 

    But that's not all. What about those of you upset about global warming? There, too, can the answer can be found in 9/11, as Osama bin Laden scolded America after the attacks: "You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases, more than any other country. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries." 

    Incensed about America's campaign finance laws? So is al-Qa'ida, which railed against them as favoring "the rich and wealthy, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts." Wondering what to do about it? Look to 9/11. 

    Again, while any of these may be legitimate grievances, they were not the reasons for the attacks of 9/11 (I think we can all agree that campaign finance reform is not one of al-Qa'ida's top priorities). For al-Qa'ida these grievances are nothing more than a means of casting as wide a net as possible over as large a group as possible. The sole reason for the attacks of 9/11 was to mobilize Muslim youth under an all-encompassing symbol of divine power and righteous resistance, to convince them that the answer to all their problems — their degradation and humiliation, their unemployment, their lack of opportunities, the injustices and inequities they see around the world — the answer to all of it lies in the image permanently etched into our minds of those two seemingly impregnable towers crumbling into a pile of ash and smoke. 

    And it almost worked.


    "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," President Bush warned the world in the days after the attacks of 9/11. "In this conflict there is no neutral ground." 

    Looking back on the last ten years, it is a miracle that al-Qa'ida's plan did not succeed in the way bin Laden had hoped. Certainly the United States did almost everything in its power to popularize its message: the grotesque overreaction that so indelibly marks the so-called "war on terror"; the religiously polarizing rhetoric of "Crusades" and "good versus evil"; the unnecessary war in Iraq; the demonization of American Muslims. By mid decade, the image of those two burning towers had been replaced by a far more indelible image: a black-hooded Iraqi prisoner standing barefoot on a box, his arms outstretched, electric wires extending from his fingers. 

    As numerous terrorism experts have shown, it was our reaction to 9/11 and not anything al-Qa'ida itself did that helped spread its message and ideology across the world. After all, when the president of the United States says you either agree with him or you are a terrorist, even those who abhor violence and reject terrorism may have a difficult time picking sides. 

    To be sure, the U.S. military has done a spectacular job in rooting out and killing al-Qa'ida leaders, dismantling its infrastructure, and nearly decimating its rank and file. Al-Qa'ida may still maintain some level of operational control over independent cells but it does not possess the resources or influence it enjoyed before 9/11. More importantly, it in no way managed to inspire the global Muslim uprising it intended when it attacked the United States. On the contrary, poll after poll across the Muslim world reveals that overwhelming majorities among all classes, ages, and sectors of Muslim society have rejected al-Qa'ida and turned away from its message. 

    But just as the attacks themselves had little to do with America, so did America play little role in the defeat of al-Qa'ida's ideology. It was not the invasion of Iraq, or nation-building in Afghanistan, or Bush's "freedom agenda" that deafened young Muslims to al-Qa'ida's call. It was al-Qa'ida's bloodlust in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the fact that between 2004 and 2008, Muslims accounted for 85% of the casualties from al-Qa'ida attacks (between 2006 and 2008, that number surged to 98%). Above all it was the youth themselves — the very kids that the 9/11 attacks were meant to mobilize. Though fed up with their dictatorial regimes and spurred by 9/11 to do something about it, by the end of the decade, these kids had discovered a far more effective model for action, a different symbol to rally around: that of young Mohamed Bouazizi, standing in the middle of traffic, holding a small, flickering flame in his hand.


    We like to call the youth of our own country, those who grew up in the shadow of September 11th, the "9/11 Generation" — as though the attacks had created some fundamental shift in their view of themselves and the world around them. It did not. Ten years ago, we confidently proclaimed that this generation would be roused to action and service, that it would chart a new path for America to take into the 21st century. It has not. 

    The real 9/11 Generation does not reside in the United States. Rather, it can be found on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli. It can be seen bravely facing down bullets in Syria and Bahrain. It is the generation that is forcing concessions in Oman and Morocco, transforming the Middle East and the world. It is the generation that defeated al-Qa'ida by accomplishing in the span of a few months what al-Qa'ida's leaders have been struggling to do for decades: topple the dictators of the Middle East. 

    Many years from now, when the history of 9/11 is written from a far enough distance, it may consume a hefty chapter in America's national narrative. But in the Arab world, it will be seen as a watershed, a moment of awakening unlike any the region has seen in more than a century. 

    As I write this, Muammar Qaddafi, the world's longest serving dictator, is hiding in a hole somewhere waiting to be found and hanged. Good riddance to him and to all who thought they could extinguish the flames of people power with guns and bombs. The fire that Mohamed Bouazizi lit cannot be so easily extinguished. It is still consuming despots, still purging the region of a century of cultural rot, still sparking the revolutionary spirit that gave birth to the Middle East in the first place. And no one — not the comfortable despot in Damascus, nor the aging autocrat in Mecca, nor, for that matter, the feckless American politicians who will forever see the entire Muslim world through the lens of 9/11 (just as bin Laden hoped they would) — no one will be able to escape it. 


    Dr. Reza Aslan's latest book is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

    LARB Contributor

    Dr. Reza Aslan is the founder of, an online journal for news about the Middle East and the world, and is the author of No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age). He is editor of the anthology Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, among others, and serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and the Pacific Council on International Policy. A professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, Dr. Aslan lives with his wife and their two sons in Los Angeles. His latest book is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.


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