Let’s learn from our sorrows: A call for change

TEHRAN, Dec. 04 (MNA) – Iranian academician believes Ayat. Khamenei’s letter is shattering the dominant binaries presented to Westerners through the Islamophobic discourse.

The devastating events of 11th September 2001 had a lasting impact on the whole globe. Whilst the terrorist attacks traumatized Americans who had got used to the sense that war would never reach their shores, they were also the beginning of an era of “shock and awe” style bloodshed in the Middle East, an era that does not seem to have a clear end in sight. The attacks were also framed as adequate evidence for the representation of Muslims as irrational and inherently violent, leading to rising levels of islamophobia, and making life more and more difficult for Muslim minorities living in Western countries. The terrorist attacks in Paris, whilst reviving the bitter memories of 9/11, appear to have the potential of bringing about all the negative outcomes as well. American presidential candidates have already begun suggesting Nazi-style policies such as mass surveillance and special ID for Muslims[1], excusing such racist bigotry with claims of Muslim joy in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks[2].

Ayatollah Khamenei’s second letter to Western youth seems to be a caution against just that, suggesting alternative ways of addressing the ‘common enemy’ of terrorism. It should be clear by now that the ‘war on terror’ response to 9/11 not only did not solve any problem, but in fact backfired and produced a new, more lethal breed of terrorists.

What the Leader’s letter is trying to convey is the simple reality that has been obscured so much by Islamophobic propaganda waves: that the ongoing battle today is not one between Islam and the West, as adherents of the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory so earnestly want us to believe, but one between vice and virtue. Virtuous people exist in both the Islamic and Western world, and extremism exists in both places as well. Muslims do not hate Americans and Europeans because of who they are, and because of their liberal and democratic values, as people like George W. Bush[3] and Liam Fox[4] want us to believe[5], but they question what American and European governments actually do; the aggressive colonial and neo-colonial policies that have effected their lives in negative ways for generations. The majority of Muslims do not view the blind violence carried out by al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists as relevant response to their legitimate grievances. Terrorism is in contradiction with both their human nature and religion, needless to say that Muslims themselves constitute the largest population of ISIS victims.

The 9/11 experience has demonstrated that defeating terrorism will not be achieved through hate-based policies that do not address causes and roots of the problem in an unbiased manner and often begin with the wrong definitions, and analysis that do not go deeper than simple Otherization and essentialization. Ayatollah Khamenei is urging Western youth to take a different stance that would have more peaceful and promising outcomes than what Western politicians have so far achieved. Such positive change could be achieved through:

- Changing the way terrorism is defined. In today’s popular and academic discourse, it is usually the subject that defines which type of violence is illegitimate. If we are the victims, its terrorism, whilst if it’s the Other, the act is defined as necessary retaliation, preemptive strike, etc.

- Acknowledgement of the devastation that colonialism, foreign occupation and Western intervention in the Middle East has brought about for generations, and of the plight of Palestinians, a people robbed of their homeland and facing terror and  discrimination/oppression on a daily basis. ISIS, the monster which has killed, maimed, and displaced millions of Middle Easterners before extending its activities to Europe, is the direct outcome of such illegitimate foreign intervention.

- Admitting to and accepting differences, which can be the beginning of constructive dialogue. Forcefully imposing Western values through illegitimate means and tools, as is evident today, leads to radicalization and eventual confrontation. Peaceful coexistence does not mean that everyone should be westernized; people should be able to choose their lifestyles. Many Muslims do not embrace the violence and promiscuity of the Western culture and prefer a larger role for religion in their everyday lives, this should be respected without resorting to stereotyping and Otherization.

- That the rise of extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS would be impossible without the support of the American government and its closest friends such as the Saudi monarchy is by now an undeniable fact, and people should try and look deeper at such facts. The West should stop portraying global terrorism as an essentially Islamist phenomenon and start accepting its share of the blame, and Western youth should start seriously questioning their governments on such issues, and on their seriousness in fighting terrorism. The commonness of the threat implies that the solutions should come from both sides.

In effect, the letter is shattering the dominant binaries that have been presented to Westerners through the Islamophobic discourse of the media and politicians: Islam is not al-Qaeda and ISIS, and Wahhabism - even if considerd as an Islamic belief - is not the dominant Islamic ideology. We and you are not in the opposite camp. Although we have differences, and we have a problematic past that needs to be discussed/addressed rather than forgotten, we also have commonalities. We share an enemy that can only be defeated if definitions of terrorism, and counter-terrorism policies change… and the youth are the only ones who can bring about such change.

The letter starts with the expression of sorrow for people who have been victimized by terrorism, and ends with hope for the future; a hope that is dependent on the determination of young people to hear and act.


Elham Kadkhodaee is a PhD candidate in North American Studies in University of Tehran and a regular contributor to Mehr News Agency.



[1] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/19/donald-trump-muslim-americans-special-identification-tracking-mosques

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-new-jersey-cheering-9-11-2015-11

[3] http://edition.cnn.com/2001/US/09/20/gen.bush.transcript/

[4] http://www.liamfox.co.uk/news/isil-hates-us-who-we-are-and-everything-we-stand

[5] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/223369/blame-terrorists-first-thomas-joscelyn


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