Western perceptions after 9/11: The view from a UAE resident

(c) _PaulS_

Georgia Lewis

In the 10 years since the 9/11 terror attacks, the world has changed and not necessarily for the better. The way we travel has been laced with paranoia – removal of half our clothes as we go through security and the farcical disposal of half-used tubes of toothpaste is now part of going to the airport. Measures to combat terrorism include everything from the removal of bins at Tube stations to invasions of entire countries based on prejudice and assumptions rather than real evidence of any involvement in 9/11.

I can’t help feeling that a better response by America would have been to quietly mourn their dead with dignity , treat the attacks as domestic mass murder cases and move on, but it is too late for that now.

The one thing that has remained much the same over the last 10 years has been the western perception of the Middle East and Islam in general. In 2006, I moved to the United Arab Emirates where I then lived for five years in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It was a pretty whimsical decision I made to pack up my life in Sydney and take a job in a city that I’d only ever visit in transit, but I fancied a change of scenery.

At the time, there were bizarre reactions to my decision – the blatant fear expressed by many people made it clear that for many in the west, the Middle East is seen as some sort of big, homogenous blur of terror, female oppression and wholesale Islamic fundamentalism. People were worried that there’d be bombs going off on every street corner, as a woman I wouldn’t be able to drive a car (because people confuse Saudi Arabia with “all of the Middle East”), I wouldn’t be able to have a glass of wine (again, see Saudi Arabia…) or I’d come home married to a Muslim (as if that was a crime or a fate worse than death).

Instead, I spent five years there, married a British man and left the UAE for London this year. I didn’t witness any acts of terror, I drove many cars because I spent most of my time there working as a motoring journalist and, despite the high price of alcohol and bars hidden in five-star hotels, I managed to consume more than my share of vino. In my time there, I visited Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman

I also made many Muslim friends – from the devout to those who were born Muslim but were far from observant. Not one of them condoned the 9/11 attacks. Nobody thought it was constructive. Plenty told me the people involved should not be considered as Muslims. Many resented the increased suspicion with which they are now treated whenever they travel.

And certainly, almost unanimously, it seemed that nobody was impressed with the American-led response to 9/11. Since 9/11, so many more people have died needlessly, the world is not necessarily a safer place, London was attacked, Madrid was attacked, Bali was attacked – and for many people, the easy excuse was to simply blame Islam.

But in the meantime, American and her allies are bogged down in a new Vietnam-style war – a long, bitter, expensive struggle where the soldiers don’t properly understand the people or the culture of the lands they have invaded.

Afghanistan is especially tragic – with the world’s second highest maternal death rate after Sierra Leone, a generation of women who have missed out on a proper education, an economy reliant on opium poppies and a government that had a chance to improve things but has been crippled by corruption, invasion by a foreign army isn’t really solving much.

Iraq is a better place for the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime -even though we will never know how much intelligence died with him (or with Osama bin Laden for that matter) – but it is still one of the most dangerous and unstable places on Earth.

Not too far away, there is still no peace between Palestine and Israel and the events of the Arab Spring have achieved varying results, from hope to horror, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Bahrain. Every person in every country that has been affected by these events has a different story to tell. The current situation in Bahrain where there is strong support for the monarchy status quo as well as support for revolution is very different to Tunisia where the transition to a form of democracy appears to be much smoother and more open.

Yet still there is a fear of the Arab world and Islam that fails to take into account that the Middle East is a complicated region of incredible variety in culture, language, politics, faith and even in food and dress. Stereotyping an entire region or an entire religion is unconstructive and breeds further anger, resentment and extremism.

Instead, it is fitting to end these observations with the words of Ali Al Sayed, an Emirati comedian based in Dubai. His Facebook status update for this year’s 9/11 anniversary summed up a complex situation nicely:

“Today, let us remember the victims of 9/11 and all the other innocent people who have died in wars proceeding that, in Afghanistan and Iraq and lets not forget those in Palestine, Somalia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. And to my Arab friends, its not a competition, Americans have the right to mourn too. The question is, what are we doing to raise awareness of the victims in the Middle East?”


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