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9/11: Facts and Narratives
9/11: Facts and Narratives
Our challenges in the Middle East are not simply about policy; they are about narratives, and our failure to understand their importance. I was reminded of this again last week, when some relatives from Egypt were visiting for a wedding. I had mentioned 9/11 in the context of civil rights for Muslims in America.
Tuesday, July 1,2008 02:18
by Shadi Hamid Democracy Arsenal

Our challenges in the Middle East are not simply about policy; they are about narratives, and our failure to understand their importance.  I was reminded of this again last week, when some relatives from Egypt were visiting for a wedding. I had mentioned 9/11 in the context of civil rights for Muslims in America.

Then, quickly, the conversation took a different turn. My aunt said something about Arabs not being responsible for September 11th. She suggested that it was probably an “inside job,” and began listing a variety of non-Arab groups that could have been involved. I got annoyed. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” “Those are just baseless rumors and conspiracy theories,” I said. “I mean, after all, Bin Laden himself admitted his involvement and congratulated the 19 hijackers for what they did.” (Then the creative response, “Bin Laden was a double agent.”)

Then my uncle chimed in. He’s exactly the kind of person (some) U.S. policymakers appear to like. Privately religious, but adamant about the separation of religion from politics; distrustful of the Egyptian masses and what they would do if they were allowed to actually vote in free elections; and goes into near seizures whenever the name of the Muslim Brotherhood is mentioned (“they’ll destroy the country!”). But, even here, the same old narrative popped up. He argued that when you’re trying to determined who did 9/11, you have to look at who benefited most from it (“The U.S. and Israel”). Then he started talking about one of those 9/11 truth viral videos about how a couple planes couldn’t have made the towers collapse the way they did. 

But then there was another point he raised which was interesting to me, because it’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear, but you actually hear it quite a lot from Arabs. He said that Arabs are so backward and hopeless that there was no way they could be responsible for anything which required such advanced planning, organizational discipline, and technical knowledge, etc.

After about 10 minutes of trying to counter what they were saying, I gave up. The facts were irrelevant. If anything, the more I countered with evidence, the more adamant they were that I was wrong. This is not surprising, and there has been a growing, and quite fascinating, literature on how challenging misconceptions with facts can actually have the effect of hardening those misconceptions (see, for instance, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler’s excellent paper on this). The statements of my aunt and uncle may appear to be irrational and stupid, but they are totally in keeping with the predominant narrative that exists in the Middle East. Facts are interpreted within the context of this narrative, and everything is bent to fit it. The narrative is this – that the U.S., through its policies, has consistently undermined the will of Arabs and Muslims, and contributed to the underdevelopment of the region. Whether or not this narrative is actually accurate is almost beside the point. 

The point is that it happens to be the dominant narrative. It is based on a certain degree of exaggerated extrapolation – that if we were capable of 1953 and 1991 (not to mention the Iraq war), then we are capable of anything; that if we can consistently support brutal dictatorships with billions of dollars, then we are capable of anything. So, even if we do good things in the region, those things will likely be re-interpreted by Arabs as examples of negative involvement. That is why we need to have a debate about why and how this narrative – one which happens to be almost the opposite of how perceive ourselves – came to be. Once we have a better understanding of the current narrative, we can then begin to take serious action to offer a new story to the region,  one that will require a difficult, and perhaps tortured discussion, about sometimes destructive American policies over the past five decades.


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