Just ten days before that day in 2001, I’d begun my MPhil at the University of Birmingham where I was looking to explore the phenomenon of Islamophobia. Recently graduating from the University of Wolverhampton with a dissertation on Western perceptions of Muslims and Islam, I was ‘advised’ – I use the term loosely – by those who will remain un-named, not to continue to look at the situation faced by Muslims and Islam because it would all soon ‘blow over’. I believe that this was probably the worst piece of advice that I have ever been given.
Having just begun my Masters (it was immediately upgraded to a PhD after 9/11), I was at home working on putting together a few short pieces of writing to try and impress my new supervisor, the acclaimed and highly respected scholar, Jorgen Nielsen. As well as doing this, I was listening to the radio and heard a news story that a plane had flown into one of the ‘Twin Towers’. Being the master of displacement activity and being easily distracted by almost anything, I immediately went to the television and tuned into BBC News 24.
Unsurprisingly, I was amazed by what I saw. Instead of a small single man aircraft, a passenger plane was hanging out of the building. And then to even more amazement, I watched ‘live’ as the second plane flew into the second tower. I then sat and watched for the next few hours in amazement as reports about other planes and other attacks steadily trickled through. It seemed that the world had gone into a state of panic and the news channels were struggling to make sense of it.
And that really is the phrase which has stuck with me; ‘make sense of it’. Since 9/11, we’re still trying to make sense of its magnitude, its impact, its fallout and consequences. Jorgen wrote shortly afterwards describing the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as a period of ‘urgent history’: one where that which underpins us being able to understand ‘history’ – namely analytical and reflective assessment – were nowadays quite impossible despite an ever more pressing need to have that analysis and reflection. Because of this, serious, desperate and disparate consequences have since emerged.
I would go even further than this and suggest that we’re still in that same period of urgent history. In fact we might have even entered an era where normative and traditional modes of history are no longer possible, forever replaced by an urgent history that is dependent and informed by ever increasing globalisation and the ever more immediate information and news received through mediatised forms and messages.
So much of our thinking today – whether individually, collectively, globally or politically – doesn’t appear to have that same period analytical and reflective assessment underpinning it that is so vital and necessary. Today, we seem to want ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ as soon as we – or maybe more appropriately ‘they’ – identify them as being a ‘problem’. And because of this, we fall into the trap of seeing what amounts to being little more than a knee-jerk reaction as a long term solution which of course, is without any doubt whatsoever destined to fail.
The ongoing legacy of 9/11 is a legacy of responsive urgency, a legacy I hasten to add that requires more thinking to be able to voice and explain it more effectively. But as I wrote shortly after the events of 9/11:
“amid the hyperbole and sheer overstatement that has become such a necessary requirement of any analysis of 9/11…commentators regularly swing between the theoretical poles of ‘the end of history’ and the beginning of the long anticipated ‘clash of civilisations’”
Some would argue that we are most definitely in the first throes of what Huntington described as the ‘clash of civilisations’ – something I would refute – whilst elsewhere, many have likened the post-9/11 foreign policy of the US administration to Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, for which correlations do exist. Both of these therefore fall into the category of responsive urgency as indeed does the now terminally ill ‘war on terror’, the burgeoning legislative portfolio relating to security and anti-terror, the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) programme, and a whole host of other sometimes unrelated policies, practices, events and occurrences that exist in between. All ‘responsive’ to identified ‘problems’ and all implemented with a sense of ‘urgency’: by-products of a period of urgent history and the lack of the analytical and reflective assessment that we all so desperately need.
To mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11, I have added one of the first pieces of writing I did shortly after the events for the Muslim Council of Britain produced book, ‘The Quest for Sanity’. Whilst outdated, I thought that it might be a useful resource in capturing a very particular time and context. Click here to read.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.