Op-Ed

9/11 Plus 5: Hope Not Hate?

Peter W. Singer

Related Event (September 8-10, 2006)
9/11 Plus 5: A Hope Not Hate Summit

How do you make something good come out of 9/11? This weekend, as America marks the fifth anniversary of the attacks, some 300 student leaders from colleges throughout the U.S. and the Muslim world will converge on Washington, D.C. to try to answer this difficult question. They will gather at a unique meeting called 9/11 Plus 5: A Hope Not Hate Summit, organized by the non-partisan student group Americans for Informed Democracy, George Washington University’s Elliott School, and The Brookings Institution. The students’ goal is to honor the anniversary by developing a blueprint for long-term engagement between the U.S. and the Muslim world towards preventing future 9/11s.

They will have much to talk about. In the five years since 9/11, we’ve had two major ground wars, spent over a trillion dollars, and suffered more than 20,000 American casualties to prevent its repeat. Unfortunately, few are optimistic it’s paid off at this point. Indeed, 73% of Americans expect another 9/11 like attack within the year and 69% of Americans expect that we will still be fighting a war on terrorism at least a decade from now.

This is in large part because the long-term impact that history may weigh the most is the sea change that has occurred in relations between the world’s undisputed superpower and the world’s community of 1.4 billion Muslim believers. The 9/11 attacks have created a new prism of global affairs, a tension between a state and a religion that plays out on an international level as never before. Now, nearly 90% of publics in Muslim states view the U.S. as the primary security threat to their country. Around 60% have said in polls that weakening the Muslim world was a primary objective of the United States. At the same time, the number of Americans who have a negative view of the religion of Islam itself has grown each year since the 9/11 attacks, to now constitute nearly half of the American body politic. We are in the midst of a building schism driven by themes of hurt, fear, and suspicion that feeds both the forces of terrorism and our own resulting insecurity. Knocking down this growing wall will be the major challenge of “9/11” Generation, akin to that faced by the generation coming of age in the 1940s.

Things are not going well so far. In the five years since 9/11, there have actually been twice as many al Qa’ida attacks as before. More importantly, Bin Laden’s ideology has spread into a global network ranging from Algeria and Belgium to Indonesia and Iraq. As attacks from Bali to Madrid to London reveal, its capabilities may even be growing through its metasis, changing from a specific organization that was fairly centralized to becoming self-organized, self-inspired and cellular. This change from al-Qa’ida to al-Qa’ida-ism makes the deep and rapid deterioration of America’s standing in the Islamic world not merely an issue of unpopularity but a very threat to our security.

For such a strategic problem, our government has struggled to find its footing. In response to the attacks, instead of creating long-term pillars like the Marshall Plan and NATO, we went down the path of Iraq. Regardless of one’s partisan position, we can now agree that it has been an immense drain on U.S. resources and reputation in the world, and a boon to terrorist recruiting. But the challenges extend beyond the debate over whether we should now “cut and run” or “stay the course.” We still lack a grand strategy for winning the wider 9/11 war and programs to match it, whether political reform or a public diplomacy effort that has been largely absent without leave.

Rather than just complaining from the sidelines, however, the student leaders represent the twenty-first century version of America’s do-it-yourself spirit. In a blend of age-old conservatism and new age student activism, they are looking beyond government for the solutions; as part of attending this event, each student has agreed to organize one event in his or her community designed to raise awareness and build bridges between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

Their sessions will try to fill in the missing gaps in how we leverage America’s strengths, capitalizing on the areas and issues for which we are admired rather than hated. For example, American political values are well-regarded in the Muslim world. How then do we help create a culture of open discourse? Likewise, America is still looked up to for its prowess in science and technology – how do we then help create a new generation of scientists who might help jumpstart economies in poor states that now foster radicalism? How do we take advantage of the enormous influence that Hollywood still wields to build bridges to the Islamic world through arts and culture? And, how do we better tap into the strengths of the Muslim-American community, whose very success is a remarkable demonstration of what citizenship and integration is all about, and proof that the U.S. is not anti-Islam?

At the same time, the students will weigh how to shore up weaknesses that still beg for action. Areas they will question include whatever happened to the 9/11 Commission recommendations and how can America do a better job at preventing recruiting by terrorist groups, so that the next generation will not be facing the same threats and dangers?

These are the issues student leaders will grapple with over the weekend. Will our own national leaders have the foresight to do the same?