9/11 anniversary: across the Islamic world opinion is against the militants

Attacks on US, and the violence after, drew Muslims away from militancy, but new events are of more concern

Syeda Anjum Afree, now 21, clearly remembers the day. Coming from school to her home in a small town in a far-flung corner of north-east India she found her family and neighbours grouped around the television.

The region had experienced separatist violence for decades, so terrorism was not new to her. But this was different. "I was really shocked. I thought immediately of the common people who are always the victim of these things. The innocent people. That it could happen in America amazed me. It seemed so far away," she said.

Afree is the daughter of cosmopolitan Muslim bureaucrats. Her siblings have married Hindus and Christians. She had never seriously thought about her faith and identity. However, the events of 11 September 2001 had an immediate effect.

There was a new atmosphere at her convent school. "There was nothing explicit directed at me but I felt it. I heard people saying that Islam was an evil religion and full of terrorists. I was suddenly aware of being Muslim in a very different way," Afree said.

She was one of the 20 students talking with the Guardian last month at Jamia Millia university, a Muslim institution in New Delhi, about 9/11 and its consequences. Young people among the 160 million Muslims in India, a Hindu-majority country with secular democratic institutions, are not necessarily representative of followers of Islam worldwide. But no one person or community is, and scores of interviews conducted by the Guardian in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Palestine reveal that Afee's experiences, and the views of the students, find echoes elsewhere.

They show how 9/11 forced many who had thought little about their faith and identity to do so; that anti-US and anti-western sentiment remains at historically high levels in much of the Islamic world; that support for al-Qaida and its methods has declined substantially over the past decade, despite initially rising during the Iraq invasion; and that conspiracy theories are prevalent, with hundreds of millions believing that the US government, the CIA or the Mossad, the Israeli overseas intelligence service, were responsible for 9/11. They also show that the desire for democracy, often with a deep religious identity, is widespread.

On America

Several of the themes that emerge anecdotally from our interviews are supported more scientifically by polling. In 2002, the Pew Research Centre started surveying public opinion in the Islamic world for its Global Attitudes project.

Statue of Liberty from Jersey City
The Statue of Liberty from Jersey City, as the lower Manhattan skyline is shrouded in smoke four days after the attack. Photograph: Dan Loh/AP Photograph: Dan Loh/AP

"We've seen a decline of support for terrorism, America's image in decline during the Bush years, a lot of support for democracy in general and certainly we see high levels of religiosity in societies that we survey," said Richard Wike, the project's associate director. But he added that the Muslim world is far from monolithic and warned against making sweeping conclusions.

"Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan tend to be more traditional or conservative in their views on law and the teachings of the Qur'an, gender issues and so forth than Turkey or Lebanon for example. We've tried to correlate views on gender with age, socioeconomic [status] or education levels and it's pretty tough to make generalisations," he said.

Opinions have evolved over the decade and any snapshot can be misleading. So, whereas the image of the US reached a low in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, it has since recovered in some areas. Pew reveals that in Indonesia in 2000, 75% of people saw the US positively; six years later, approval levels fell to 30%. More recently, helped by President Barack Obama's own links with the country, they have climbed back to 54%. Elsewhere, though many still remember their anguish over the scenes in New York City and Washington DC and prefer Obama to his predecessor, feelings towards the US remain generally negative. In Pakistan and Turkey in 2000, levels of favourable sentiment towards the US were 23% and 52% respectively; but is now, according to Pew, 11% and 10%.

Before 9/11, Zia Akhtar, 43, a Pakistani mechanic, held a positive view of the US. "But now I'm afraid they could attack us at any time," he said.

Like many others, Akhtar makes a distinction between government and people. "I'm not against the people of the US, I'm against their government," he said.

Amira Salah-Ahmed, 28, an Egyptian journalist, said the difference "between the American people and the US government … has gotten muddled … for many people. At a younger, more naive age I definitely had a more idealistic view of the US as a world power and its role in promoting peace and democracy. Now I think US foreign policy is the bane of our existence, especially in this part of the world," she said.

Beyond the widespread anger at wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, another element frequently cited as damaging relations, at least amongst the wealthy and educated, were the tightened visa regimes and cuts in exchange programmes that were immediate consequences of the 9/11 attacks.

"I used to see Europe or even the US as a dream destination as a student or one day for a holiday. Now I'd got to Dubai or Malaysia where I don't feel like a criminal," said Khaled al'Otaibi, who runs a mobile phone business in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah.

Resa Aprienengseh, 25, a teacher from West Sumatra, Indonesia, claimed that when friends had tried to go to America they had been "turned away because their names sounded Islamic".

She added: "People in France bumped into me and tried to knock me down because of my headscarf."

There were some exceptions. Iyad Krunz, 38, an NGO worker in Gaza, remembers watching the attacks on TV in his office. "My colleagues started to scream [for me] to watch the TV. I had mixed feelings and reactions, shocked disbelief mainly," he said. "I was shocked by the action itself‚ the killing of ordinary people‚ but I was more shocked by the US reaction, the destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq." New security arrangements meant it took three months for Krunz to get a visa to visit his brother in the US, instead of the usual three weeks, but his feelings about the country have not been changed. "I visited the US and I loved the community, the people and the freedom. I'd like to go back."

On al-Qaida

One key factor in the rejection of militant extremism from Morocco to Malaysia appears to be the proximity of violence. In country after country, support for Osama bin Laden, for al-Qaida's methods or for violence against civilians, relatively high when the attacks occurred thousands of miles away, declined steeply when militants struck at home.

"When it was a long way away it seemed somehow unreal. But when it was on the streets of my own town then that was very different," said Mohammed al'Najdi, 31, a vegetable seller in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital. "I knew the brother of one of the policemen who was killed. That really shook me up and made me think."

One of the most dramatic examples of this shift of opinion happened in Jordan: before the hotel bombings in Amman, in November 2005, support for suicide bombing (outside Israel-Palestine) stood at 57%, according to Pew; that declined to 12% by 2009, dropping by more than half in the months after the hotel attack.

In Indonesia, support for radical violence fell to 20% after the first Bali bombing, in 2002, from 26%, and then dropped further, to 11%, after the 2005 bombings. The steepest drop in support for terrorism happened in Morocco: in 2006, after successive waves of bombings in previous years, nearly 80% of people surveyed said violence against civilians was never justified – more than double the proportion who expressed this view in 2004. In Turkey, despite the growing chaos in Iraq, confidence in Bin Laden to "do the right thing in world affairs" dropped from 15% before the 2002 Istanbul bombing to 7% in the year, then to 3% by 2005. In Egypt, the attacks of 2004 and 2005 led to 68% of people remaining "very or somewhat concerned" by 2006 about the rise of Islamic extremism.

On religion

Afghan women shout slogans during a demo
Afghan women in Kabul at a rally for the legislator Malalai Joya. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Rejection of extremism has not necessarily translated into more support for western-style secularism though. Large majorities in many Muslim-majority countries – including Egypt and other nations in which regimes have been overthrown in recent months – still want political systems to include significant religious elements. Religion is also gaining new prominence in people's lives and identities. Some observers and researchers even talk of a new wave of social and religious conservatism emerging from the polarisation of recent years.

Ali, 29, the manager of a computer shop in a high-end, multi-floor electronics bazaar in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, was a refugee in Peshawar, the frontier city over the border in Pakistan, in September 2001. He was too young to immediately understand the significance of the event, he said, but he was pleased with US invasion and the ousting of the Taliban, which he and his family thought would improve their lives and end the war.

"It's been 10 years that we've lived in Afghanistan. My life is improved, I have a better job than I would have had in Pakistan, but if you look at the national perspective, I think the future is dark," Ali told the Guardian.

He said people still think of the Taliban with fear and hatred – "They are only supported in rural areas, and even there it is because people are ignorant" – but there are signs of a new conservatism more generally. "In Kabul I see a lot of young men growing their beards and going to the mosques. It is not like they are supporting the Taliban; they have become more religious just for Islam itself. There is no alternative for these young people – the government is failing them, the foreigners are failing them, so there is nothing left to embrace except for Islam."

Ali said that one should not "be fooled by the cool kids in designer clothes".

"They have all the style, they use iPods, and maybe they buy Mac computers, but they are still very religiously minded."

Dr Sajid Abbasi, 35, a nephrologist in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, told the Guardian: "Religion is more important and vital than before. There are people trying to promote the idea that Islam is a terrorist religion. We need more commitment and attachment to the religion so we can stand against those people."

For Saadine Lamzoua, 25, a Moroccan journalist in Rabat who watched 9/11 unfold on al-Jazeera, religion has become more important in his life. "It gives me a sense of belonging to a very large community and brotherhood with people from different countries and races with whom I share the same faith," he said.

As ever, the situation is complex. Maryam Zaweej, 28, is a Pakistani aid worker. Her view of Islam, however, has changed little during the decade and described her religious commitment as "mediocre". Zia Akhtar, the Pakistani mechanic, said for him, "Islam remains the same". He did not fast during the holy month of Ramadan and does not regularly attend a mosque: "Sometimes I go, sometimes I don't." He shrugs.

On the perpetrators

Then there are the conspiracy theories. These are not limited to the Islamic world but, Wikes said, year by year they are becoming increasingly prevalent among Muslim communities.

Among the students gathered by the Guardian at Jamia Millia university, more than half did not accept the "official version". And the conspiracy theories span social strata: in Saudi Arabia, a wealthy female university lecturer and a 44-year-old male labourer both said it was "too early to be sure" who was responsible for 9/11. Neither wanted to be named. "It can't have been Arabs. You need a powerful organisation to do that. And you have to look to see who has gained the most benefit," the lecturer said. A Moroccan businessman, Nourdean, 57, and Selma Batenang, 47, a drinks seller in Jakarta, Indonesia, described al-Qaida as "puppets".

And Aprienengseh, the Sumatran teacher, said the fault lay with "someone else trying to make war, create problems between Christianity and Islam".

On the future

Egypt comment weekly
Egyptian democracy demonstrator in Tahrir square, Cairo. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Some, even after so many years of violence, reveal a guarded optimism for the future, in part due to the Arab Spring. For the journalist Salah-Ahmed, as for most Egyptians, the events of 9/11 are made more distant by this year's dramatic political upheavals, which she believes could have a lasting impact on global power structures. "A few months ago I could have listed the major events of the past decade in order of importance – but then the revolution came along and overshadowed everything that's happened since 2000."

Ismail Gad, 41, an Egyptian clothes shop owner, said his life had improved during the decade. "I'm now married, I have two kids, and Egypt has had a revolution. Terrorism seems [now] to have been reduced and in many ways things feel safer and more secure."

For most interviewees the focus is simply on the gritty business of getting through life.

Zaweej, the aid worker, is worried about the economy. "We have gone down financially, and our politicians are so corrupt. Hopefully in the next election better people will be elected, and foreigners will start investing here again." For Akhtar, the mechanic, "if business is good, then everything is good".

Personal events and problems loom larger than geopolitics. Asked what major events she remembered from the decade, Aprienengseh, the Indonesian teacher, listed 9/11 but also the 2004 tsunami and her boyfriend's death a year later.


Jason Burke in Delhi and Riyadh, Declan Walsh in Islamabad, Harriet Sherwood in Gaza, Jack Shenker in Cairo, Kate Hodal in Jakarta, Nora Fakim in Rabat, Jon Boone in Kabul and Giles Tremlett in Madrid

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