20 years on from 9/11, western democracy is still winning

Anshel Pfeffer | Saturday, 11 September 2021

The Google photos app on my smartphone reminded me that six years ago this week, I was in central Europe, reporting on the hundreds of thousands of migrants making their way from Turkey, through Greece, the Balkans, and then Hungary, Austria and finally Germany.

At the time the media mainly referred to them as "Syrians," which most of them were, but among them were plenty of Afghans and a smattering of Iranians and Iraqis as well.

It wasn't the first time I'd interviewed Syrian refugees. During the previous four years of the civil war, I'd met them in border towns and camps in Turkey and Jordan, near, at least physically to their homeland. At that point they were still hoping that the Assad regime which had displaced and nearly killed them, would soon be toppled and they could return.

By 2015 that hope was evaporating, and even if Assad would lose, it looked extremely likely that instead of his dictatorship, a Caliphate run by Islamic State would arise.

With every step of the way, every train and truck ride, they were further away from home than they'd ever been. But it wasn't a disorganised exodus, despite the chaotic scenes on the Aegean coast and at Budapest's Keleti train station. The hidden hands of governments were at work, pushing them on to Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel had promised on August 31, 2015, that, "We'll manage this."

And neither were the refugees themselves devoid of agency. They had prepared; planned their route; many had bought smartphones, downloaded maps and kept in contact through social media with others who had gone on ahead, and informed them of the border-crossings to aim for.

Each of the migrants I spoke to had a very clear idea where they were heading for: "München," the Bavarian city across the border where they would be processed and granted asylum, and from where they each had another destination in mind.

A city in western Europe or northern America. A place which for some reason they were fixated on getting to, eventually. Because they already know someone who had settled there, or they had heard something, anything, about a university or a neighbourhood or even a local restaurant that had appealed to them, where they thought they could have a future.

From all the conversations I had during that week on the refugee trail, that is what stuck with me. Each one had an individual story of what had befallen them back home and forced them to flee. And each had their individual plan. It may not have been a realistic one, most of those migrants have ended up staying in Germany, but they were not heading out into the great unknown.

Human beings set out with a destination in their minds. Whether or not they reach it is another matter, but we are purposeful creatures.  We tend to think of refugees as people who are aimless and helpless, seeking only survival. But that is only ever part of their story.

Over the last few weeks, before Kabul fell and the airport was closed to rescue flights, the emphasis in the news coverage was naturally on the dangers that would face those Afghans left behind in the clutches of the Taliban. When desperate men clinging on to the undercarriage of an American C-17 and fell to their deaths, or were crushed in the wheel wells, we naturally thought about the dangers they were escaping that made them risk their lives in this fashion.

But where exactly did they think they were escaping to?

For all the talk in the last few weeks following the shamefully chaotic American retreat from Afghanistan, of how the United States "lost the war" and is "no longer a dependable superpower," very little attention, if any, has been paid to the fact that those who were seemingly abandoned and let down by the US, were still the most eager to escape to it.

Pundits and analysts have pronounced the American debacle as a "victory" for its Chinese and Russian rivals, but there doesn't seem to be much concern in Beijing or Moscow that they will have to deal with an influx of Afghan refugees in the foreseeable future. We're so busy dissecting the west's "failure" in Afghanistan that we're taking it for granted that the Afghans who are escaping all want to get to those 'failed' western democracies.

Of course, that so many Afghans want to flee their homeland after the US and its allies spent over a trillion dollars trying to build up the country only serves to show just how failed the entire enterprise has been. But the fact that they have also seen at first-hand the west's failure and still want to emigrate there, should tell us something.

On September 9 2001, Al-Qaida launched from its Afghan base a devastating direct attack on the US. 20 years later, the Taliban, which sheltered the perpetrators, is back in power again in Afghanistan and Al Qaida and other like-minded organisations are re-establishing themselves there.

But Al-Qaida, Taliban and ISIS, haven't won. For all its failures, western democracy, despite the mess it's in, is still the winner. For every "volunteer" in the west who travelled to join the jihad, a thousand made the journey in the opposite direction. That hasn't changed.

Because as much as we grumble and criticise the supposedly decadent west, it still offers freedom and opportunity, which is why it poses such a threat to religious fundamentalists.

They hadn't chosen to attack the Twin Towers in New York or the Pentagon in Washington merely as symbols of American power and capitalism. That isn't the real threat of the west.

If Al-Qaida and ISIS just wanted to strike back at the infidels who kill and persecute Muslims, there would be a grave threat to cities of China and Russia, two regimes responsible for, between them, the deliberate decimation of entire Muslim communities in Chechnya, Syria and Xinjiang.

The US and its western allies have not come under attack because of their Islamophobic tendencies, but because they recognise Islamophobia and in their clumsy way have been trying to deal with it.

In Russia and China, they don't call it Islamophobia. It's state policy there. The west has come under attack because it has absorbed millions of Muslims and because it believes there is absolutely no reason they cannot live in the west as equal citizens, while keeping their identity, culture and religion.

The Taliban and its ilk may have made their comeback, for now, but they remain on the losing side of history. 9/11 failed to change that, and neither will the scenes of the last few weeks in Kabul.  Democracies, just like dictatorships and autocracies, make mistakes. Unlike them, they are prepared to acknowledge them and, sometimes, even learn from them. Which is why western democracy remains so dangerous to those who insist on there being only one truth that will never change.

Just as the refugees know where they want to go, the jihadists knew what they wanted to strike at, and why.

The piece is excerpted from www.haarez.com