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Across Muslim world, attacks and aftermath leave profoundly mixed emotions
By Laura King, Associated Press
JAKARTA, Indonesia — From half a world away they watched, mesmerized by televised images of the soaring twin towers of the World Trade Center disintegrating into pillars of smoke, dust and ash.
Nearly a year later, a group of doe-eyed, headscarved teen-age girls -- students at a strict Islamic boarding school on the steamy outskirts of the Indonesian capital -- recalled their emotions, blurting them out in the hectic, headlong manner of adolescents everywhere.
"Scared! I was so scared!" said one. "Was I dreaming?" asked another. "All those people dying, what sorrow," murmured a third. And through the hubbub came a girl's clear piping voice: "I was happy!" "Yes, me too -- happy!" echoed another, before their teacher cut them off with a sharp warning shake of the head.
The cataclysm of Sept. 11 sent reverberations into every corner of the Muslim world, from the spice-heaped souks of North Africa to ragged refugee camps along the Pakistan-Afghan border, from satellite-dish-topped villas in Persian Gulf emirates to skyscraper corporate suites in Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur, from the smoky nightclubs of Beirut to the somber roadside mosques of disputed Kashmir.
Opinion about the attacks and their legacy is almost as varied as the peoples who count themselves among the world's estimated 1 billion Muslims and their dizzying diversity of cultures.
But as the Sept. 11 anniversary approaches, broad common themes emerge in interviews with dozens of Muslims of many nationalities and walks of life -- physicians and street vendors, housewives and Islamic insurgents, students and schoolteachers, bankers and beggars.
In such talks, a heartfelt and genuine sympathy over the human suffering caused by the attacks is often tempered by the belief that the United States had for too long been shielded from the world's harsh realities, and that some of these realities are of its own making. However strong the revulsion aroused by the attacks, they also are widely viewed as a powerful rebuke to an all-too-powerful America.
"I was shocked on Sept. 11 ... such a terrible loss of life," said Djamila Guerrabi, a 32-year-old doctor practicing general medicine in the Algerian capital, Algiers. "I told myself that the cause of this was of course Islamic fundamentalism. But equally to blame is American arrogance, which assumes the right to make decisions for others."
In far-flung parts of the Islamic world, the passage of a year has done little to alleviate a stinging sense of shame over the fact that the attackers were Muslim. Even now, conversations about the events of Sept. 11 are frequently punctuated by a shake of the head, a twisting grimace of distaste, an emphatic exclamation of "Haram!" -- a word describing that which is forbidden under Islam.
"What happened distorted the image of Islam in the West," said Samir Makkawi, who works for a computer outlet in the Lebanese port city of Sidon and says he deplores any form of terrorism.
But despite the wish to dissociate Islam from the acts of the attackers -- or perhaps because of it -- strident denial persists in some quarters that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network were responsible for Sept. 11.
"What proof is there against Osama? None!" said Ismail Yusanto, a leader of a moderate Islamic political party in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. As one piece of evidence after another was cited by an interviewer, he simply shook his head.
Among what appears to be at least a substantial minority scattered throughout the Muslim world, elaborate conspiracy theories are continually brought forth to counter the blame assigned to bin Laden.
"Nobody has taken the time to investigate ... that the attack could be the handiwork of the CIA," declared Falilat Ayorinde, a 24-year-old student at a polytechnic school in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, repeating what she said was a view held as well by her friends and teachers.
Even among those who accept bin Laden's responsibility as a matter of course, there are fears that Muslims everywhere have been tarred by the attacks. That belief helps feed a gnawing sense of disaffection that many across the social spectrum say has strengthened in the past year.
In conversations about the causes and consequences of Sept. 11, one sentiment surfaces with striking regularity -- sometimes conveyed with a threatening scowl and harsh words, sometimes voiced with the gentlest admonitory touch of hand on wrist -- but unvarying in its essence: You don't know us.
"We understand America so much better than it does us," said 63-year-old Yildirin Sakarya, a mustachioed Turkish pensioner sipping coffee with friends in the shadow of Istanbul's famed Blue Mosque. "That's normal, because it is a superpower and we are not. But then, you see, the entire world feels itself a stranger to them. Especially we Muslims."
In many Muslim countries, the popular view holds that the attacks and their tumultuous aftermath -- the war in Afghanistan, the long and inconclusive hunt for bin Laden and his lieutenants, President Bush's declaration of a worldwide war on terrorism -- have wrongly overshadowed a another tragedy: the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about to enter a third bloody year.
Graphic, grisly images of the intefadeh, or uprising, are the predominant round-the-clock news fare in nearly all the Muslim world, aided by the reach of satellite channels like Qatar-based al-Jazeera. In almost any Muslim country, few conversations about Sept. 11 can go on for long without an interlocutor drawing forceful attention to the Palestinians' plight, and to American support for Israel.
In an echo of that, the U.S. war on terror is perceived by some as an excuse for any government aligning itself with America to crack down hard on Muslim separatists or domestic political opponents, or at the very least to discredit their cause.
"I'm not Osama bin Laden. I'm not a terrorist -- I just want self-determination for my people," said Javed Ahmad Mir, a frustrated one-time Kashmir "jihadi" who is now active in an independence-minded political party. He said he believed the attacks had unfairly hurt his movement's standing in the West.
For some, the events of Sept. 11 and the intervening year brought troubling questions of Muslim self-identity to the fore, together with renewed contemplation of the wisdom and perils of a greater intertwining with the West.
And as elsewhere, feelings about Sept. 11 are inextricably bound up with feelings about America itself.
Malise Ruthven, author of "Fury for God: the Islamic Attack on America" (Granta Books), cites "the attraction of repulsion, the repulsion of attraction" -- his adaptation of a phrase from Dickens -- to sum up the lure of American popular culture in the Muslim world, existing side-by-side with the belief that the West is spiritually barren.
In much of the Islamic world, he argues, political repression, economic stagnation and social ossification have created almost unbearable pressures as traditional ways of life are overlaid with Internet cafes and mobile phones, hip-hop clubs and skintight skirts.
"It's an unholy mess," Ruthven said.
Such ambivalence, such internal contradictions, find ready expression in countless small daily encounters across the Muslim world.
A young Indonesian cafe worker's angry harangue against American heavy-handedness in global affairs is topped with a dreamy paean to Britney Spears. A Palestinian supporter of the radical group Hamas praises the attacks of Sept. 11 as an entirely appropriate reminder to Americans of his own people's sufferings -- then wonders aloud how difficult it would be for him to immigrate to the United States.
As the first anniversary of the attacks approaches, bringing with it an outpouring of sorrow in the United States and elsewhere, some in the Muslim world are uneasy at the thought that fallout from Sept. 11 will continue to dominate world affairs.
"However much we sympathize, Sept. 11 wasn't the great watershed for all of us that it was to America," said Ilter Turan, a Turkish university professor and political analyst. "We are all beginning to move on. And as painful as it might be, it might be time for the United States to look outward, not inward."
And tragedy did not beget only tragedy. The events set in motion on that fateful day changed lives for the better as well. Aullah Mohammed, a 25-year-old Afghan father, recalled his confused impressions of the faraway attacks that would trigger the American war on al-Qaida and the Taliban.
"All I knew was that these people were in something called the World Trade Center," he said, interviewed on a late-summer day at a crowded refugee center outside Kabul. He was jobless and in need of food, but glad enough to be among the flood of uprooted Afghans seeking to reclaim homes and lives after the Taliban's fall.
"I'm happy to be back," he said. "It's my homeland."
Contributing to this report: Hassane Meftahi in Algiers, Algeria; Zeina
Karam in Beirut, Lebanon; and John Alechenu in Kano, Nigeria.
A sampling of comment from Muslim world on Sept. 11 and its aftermath
"That day changed the world, unfortunately for the worse." -- Mohammed Zahour, a Lebanese dentist.
"I believe the attacks were inhumane and morally unacceptable...(but) I do believe America's participation in Israel's crimes against Arabs and Muslims were to blame for what happened." -- Fatima Daoud, a 36-year-old Palestinian refugee mother of five in the Gaza Strip.
"The stricter religion is, the harder women's lives are. Sept. 11 was a terrible thing. But to respond to it with a war that hurts civilians is as bad as other violence, including that at home." -- Pervin Buyrukcan, who helps run a shelter in Istanbul for battered women.
"I said to myself, 'That's good that the Arabs are capable of doing harm to the country of Rambo...But if I could go there, to America, I would do so without regret. Here, there is no hope." -- Hakim Benabdellah, a 14-year-old Algiers boy who helps support his family of 10 by peddling cigarettes in the streets.
"I do not believe anybody was particularly delighted that so many innocent people including Muslims, Christians, women and children lost their lives, because even in war, according to the holy prophet Muhammad, this category of people should be spared... . But I urge the West, especially America, to look at itself in the mirror." -- Aliyu Sani, a Nigerian civil servant from the predominantly Muslim state of Zamfara.
"When I saw the buildings come down, I thought about all the destruction and war in Afghanistan ... . Muslims and Christians don't have any problems between each other. And the people of Afghanistan don't have any problems with people of other countries. If there are problems, it's between governments and not people." -- Noorullah (one name only), a 22-year-old Afghan refugee who returned home after spending the Taliban years in Pakistan.
"If we hurt America, America will hurt us. We should think of the future. Who wants to destroy everything?" -- Aisyah (one name only), a 14-year-old Islamic school student in Jakarta, Indonesia, who hopes to study medicine.