The Arab World Geographer
Forum on 11 September 2001 Events

New York City and the Geopolitical Transition

Jan Nijman, Department of Geography, Box 8067, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, 33124-8152, U.S.A

My thoughts are presented in two parts. The first is a slightly modified version of a short column I wrote for WorldCity (a Miami-based newspaper) on 11 and 12 September. It was an instant reaction to the calamity that struck New York and it came from the heart, more than anything else. I think it is important to include here. The second part is longer and more calculated. It was written in the first week of October after I was invited to contribute to this collection of essays.

New York City transcends the nation

Throughout history, cities have been at the forefront of civilization and culture. Cities, before anything else, represent the unique creative milieus that have advanced societies in science, technology, architecture, and the arts. From classical Athens to present day New York, cities represent the ultimate cultural landscape.

The world’s great cities represent civilizations that transcend the nation. In that sense, New York is more than the United States. As so many foreign visitors to the Big Apple can testify, you don’t have to be an American (or a capitalist, or a Christian, or a Westerner) to marvel at the towering presence of this mother of all modern cities, to love New York.

When the historic 2 000-year-old Bamiyan statues of Buddha were exploded in the Afghan desert on 11 March of this year, that was an assault on civilization. And when New York’s skyline was ravaged on 11 September in addition to involving thousands of individual human tragedies involved—that, too, was an assault on civilization. This is not to suggest that the perpetrators are one and the same—it is to say that these were equally appalling and senseless acts from a strictly cultural point of view.

The course of human civilization is and has always been a struggle between creation and destruction. It is a lot easier to destroy than it is to create. Destruction can be swift and is driven by hatred and envy. Creation is an arduous process and is in essence driven by the artistic urge and a need to express a collective human identity and purpose. In the long run, creation prevails over destruction. And it has to be like that.

The much referred to “sophistication” and organization of the terrorist attacks is nothing compared to the creativity and dedication that went in to building this city or the twin towers alone. And I really mean “nothing.” Relatively speaking, such terrorist acts take just a little bit of organization and inventiveness in combination with unbounded ruthlessness and madness.

The building of a great city is the work of generations. It is the work of hundreds, thousands, millions of people from different backgrounds, religions, races, gender, ages, and professions. This is why a great city is by definition a place of diversity and tolerance. To be sure, New York, more than any other great city in the history of the world, represents such multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. It is estimated that some forty nations are represented among the casualties in New York.

New York’s creativity and innovativeness was (and is) multifaceted, to be sure, but by far the most important innovative development in the history of that city has to do with technological engineering: skyscrapers, elevators, bridges, tunnels, subways, and skylines—all the things, one might say, that have defined urban landscapes ever since. New York became the architectural mentor and pacesetter to the world.

What is more, many of these feats of engineering became symbols of urbanity and modernity: Brooklyn Bridge (1883), Grand Central Station (rebuilt in 1913), the Chrysler building (1930), the Empire State building (1931), and, of course, the twin towers (1973).

In his monumental book Cities in Civilization, Peter Hall describes the world’s great cities as places that ignite “the sacred flame of the human intelligence and the human imagination.” We may find consolation in the fact that, in New York City, this sacred flame is burning brighter than ever.

A geopolitical transition

I think we are now at a crossroads in global geopolitics. From here on, things will either slowly get better or they will quickly get much worse. At any rate, things will not stay the same. I feel quite certain that a decade or so from now, we will look back at the present time as a decisive turn in a global geopolitical transition that started in the late eighties.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, it was quite unclear what kind of new order would or could emerge. The United States had become the single most important player on the global stage, but it remained undecided what role she would assume and what type of global order would emerge. The main question, between 1989 and 2001, was whether we were witnessing the shaping of a new and invigorated American unipolar moment propelled by imperial temptations or the emergence of a more interdependent, multipolar, co-operative international system.

Through the 1990s, there were signs in either direction. But around the turn of the century there was a movement towards American unilateralism and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) imposition of a tense global order that reflected American values and strategies: from the Washington “Consensus” to Washington’s lone dissent in a range of international forums from Kyoto to Durban; and unilateralist initiatives to create an American missile defencee system. The trend of unilateralism accelerated between the inauguration of G. W. Bush and 11 September.

In the Middle East, United States policy had been faltering for at least three decades. It combined insensitivity (to put it mildly) to Arabs and Muslims with weakness (i.e., retreat) when confronted with reactionary aggression from local groups—this, at least, was the prevailing perception in the Islamic world. America’s dismal record in the Middle East should have spoken for itself: the revolution in Iran, the terrorist attacks against and killings of Americans in Lebanon throughout the 1980s, the American failure in Somalia, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, etc.

Initial reactions in America to 11 September reflected overwhelming ignorance. It was as if the history of the United States in the Middle East since 1979 simply had not registered. Of course, there was nothing that could ever justify the horrendous attacks of 11 September and any suggestions that the United States brought this on herself would have been a terrible distortion. But the events did seem to bear out that, under the weight of their own dominance, superpowers learn painfully slowly. The attacks on 11 September barbaric and illegitimate as they were, served as a wake-up call if ever there was one. “War comes to America,” read the 12 September headline in The Times of London. Did blood have to flow on the streets of New York City, to put the geopolitical transition into high gear?

The first challenge to the U.S. government was to define the conflict and the enemy. This continues to be a task of vital importance, with major geopolitical implications. The perpetrators of the attacks of 11 September are linked to Al Qaeda, a highly militant organization based in Afghanistan aims to attack what it sees as United States hegemony in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But whom does Al Qaeda represent?

The United States has sought to preclude a definition of the conflict as a clash of civilizations. The Administration has stated, time and again (and sometimes in the supporting presence of Islamic clergy from the United States), that the terrorists’ was a twisted and perverted interpretation of the Koran and that the terrorists themselves had violated fundamental Islamic teachings. The U.S. consulted extensively and conspicuously with governments in the Arab and Islamic worlds, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Egypt.

The U.S. government holds the Taliban responsible for harbouring Al Qaeda and claims, persuasively, that in fact it is hard to distinguish between the two. The U.S. has also stated that the Taliban is an illegitimate and repressive regime that does not represent the Afghan people and that the latter are not considered the enemy. Accordingly, the U.S. has stepped up humanitarian aid to Afghan refugees in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. has also allied with Afghan (Islamic) opposition groups in the north of that country.

What these American efforts amount to is a depiction of “them” as a terrorist organization with illegitimate political aims. The advantages of the strategy are twofold. Morally, the strategy denies the validity of insidious references to a clash between the West and Islam. Instead, the U.S. seeks cross-cultural co-operation in a global fight against terrorism. Politically, the strategy implies the essential co-operation of governments in the Middle East in the war against terrorism and is supposed to help avoid an “Islamic” backlash against American (allied) military actions in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

But there is also a major problem with this definition of the situation. Clearly, the attacks of 11 September did not represent “Islamic” terror and terrorists must not be equated with Islamic fundamentalists. However, when the US government suggests that the events had nothing to do with Islam or Arab identities, it makes a serious mistake: The Islamic religion does not cause or propagate any hatred or violence, but religion has been used significantly for decades now as a vehicle for political mobilization and extremism. Cultural and religious identities do matter in this conflict.

There was an odd juxtaposition of news television reports in the weeks following 11 September: One moment the U.S. government declared that Al Qaeda was a group of deluded criminals with no popular support; the next broadcast would have reactions from the man in the street in Cairo or Karachi saying that the United States was his enemy. It appears that U.S. leaders still do not fully understand the scope of resentment against the United States across the Islamic world. American leaders do not seem to grasp the image of the US as a powerful Western intruder in the “house” of Islam that, at best, has time and again offended and disrespected Islamic life, and at worst, is seen to have violated Islamic society and to have caused or contributed to repression, poverty, and war. These are broad-based sentiments in the Middle East that have formed a breeding ground for hatred and sometimes for extreme violence. And the hardest part for the United States to understand, it seems, is that people’s antipathy towards the United States is not the same as sympathy for Al Qaeda. There is more to it than a simple divide between “us and them.”

The main challenge to the United States is to come to understand that, besides swinging a necessary iron fist against terrorism, it has to address the roots of the problem: the nature of the U.S. presence in the Arab and Islamic worlds and of U.S. relations with Arab and Islamic peoples. The difficulty is that in the wake of the attacks, when vengeance is the mood of the day, it is tricky even to suggest a questioning of past U.S. policies. Such questions are likely to be derisively and erroneously dismissed as “unpatriotic,” or as excessive relativism.

This apparent inability of the U.S. government to see things through the eyes of Arabs or Muslims was particularly clear when it decided to engage in air strikes against the Taliban on 7 October with the direct and highly publicized involvement of the British, whose historical legacy in the Middle East is a significant part of the problem. Ever since the end of their own empire, British statesmen seem to have had an uncontrollable urge to take the Americans by the hand whenever big problems arose (Churchill 1946, Thatcher 1990, Blair 2001). In this case, at least, the Americans should not have obliged. If the Americans could not obtain direct involvement in the strikes from Arab or Muslim countries (as I am sure they could not) they should have conducted the air strikes alone. After all, the attacks of 11 September were on America alone. In Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, the pairing of the U.S. and Britain is likely to be perceived (or construed) as an attack by the West that will issue in calls for the defence of Islam.

But all is not lost yet, at least not at the time of writing. Overall, the American reaction to 11 September has been measured and balanced. I think that a number of U.S. decision makers do understand why U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has not been effective and realize that it must be changed, even if they do not (and perhaps cannot) say it in so many words. In the weeks and months ahead, much will depend on how the U.S. handles its operations in Afghanistan. At this point, it seems inevitable that the Taliban will lose power. The two foremost challenges to America in the Afghan war are to keep Afghan civilian casualties at a minimum and to retain support from Pakistan. And after the Taliban has gone, the U.S. must be seen supporting the Afghan people, regardless of the new government. All of this is short term. In the long run, what is required is a major strategic reorientation of the United States in global politics, and particularly in the Middle East.

The reorientation of the U.S. in the Middle East must involve, in the foreseeable future, the establishment of a Palestinian State and this, in turn, will require a (subtle and gradual) reorientation of the relationship with Israel. More generally, the United States has to assume a lesser military role (e.g., withdraw troops from most bases including Saudi Arabia) and decrease its dependence on oil from the region, while increasing its diplomatic stance for democracy and human development. But most of all, the U.S. should resist the role of superpower in the Middle East, so that political and economic responsibilities stay where they belong: with governments in the region.

In the organization of a “war against terrorism,” the United States has initiated unprecedented consultations and collaborations with a range of governments around the world. Many countries and governments around the world have long struggled with terrorism and its bloody consequences—to them, this is not new. In the wake of 11 September a unique opportunity has emerged for collective global security arrangements. At the end of each of the two world wars in the previous century, people aspired to such a global security system and it did not work. Now, the conditions could be right: Intergovernmental organization of resources and objectives has reached unprecedented levels and interdependence among states at the global level has increased significantly. In such a system, the U.S. would be a very important partner.

Since the ending of the Cold War, the U.S. has faced a fundamental choice between unilateralism and multilateralism, and it has wavered. The events of 11 September are forcing it to make a choice. Multilateralism and collective security will require an end to superpower behaviour. In some ways, the United States would become a “normal” country. In the long run, this is the only viable option.

(Submitted 11 October 2001)
© The Arab World Geographer

Flint (Intro) / Smith / Agnew / Abu-Nimer / McColl / Nijman / Marston & RouhaniFlint (conclusion)

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