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A cultural legacy

By Roger Smith - posted Thursday, 12 October 2006

The Bali bombings have been described as Australia’s September 11. The apocalyptic events of September 11, 2001 and October 12, 2002, along with Spain’s March 11, 2004 attacks and London’s 7-7 bombings, have come to define the 21st century world in which we live.

Just as the baby boomers recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, so will September 11 (and the Bali bombings for Australians) be incidents against which political, economic and social changes come to be measured.

My particular recollection of September 11 was different to most. Ironically, when I was listening to the news over a radio in my hovel in East Timor, I heard different news. I learnt that al-Qaida was probably responsible for the assassination of the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and this meant that the prospects for the overthrow of the Taliban were dim. It was only the following morning, on September 12, that I heard a relay of Tony Blair’s impassioned outrage and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s declaration that the event would be like a new Pearl Harbour for the United States. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were no more.


In place of the usual mid-morning coffee break, staff at the United Nations translation office where I worked in Dili wandered around in dazed amazement and confusion as the enormity of the events sank in.

The ex-Soviet scientist who headed our unit shook the hand of the sole American working in the office to express his condolences. The Portuguese translator from the Cape Verde Islands, decked out in trademark Che Guevara T-shirt, linked the incident to the Palestinian struggle. The New Zealander manager of justice operations tried with difficulty to explain the tale of the four ill-fated planes to her Timorese staff. The sole Muslim in our office, coincidentally from Sudan, spoke of the depravity of the Taliban regime in banning all forms of music. Later, a Timorese taxi driver asked me why the Americans had not started bombing Afghanistan yet.

The following month, I returned to my home in Indonesia and it was in Bali that I learnt from a US Embassy call to my mobile that bombing operations had commenced against Afghanistan and I was warned to stay indoors. A politically astute friend visiting from Australia, on being told of the news, warned me that the world may never be quite the same again. I realised that there may be some truth in this when my Javanese Muslim maid in Jakarta asked if I had any relatives or friends hurt in the WTC, and when I answered “No”, she explained how happy she was about the attacks.

As important as the attacks were for the course of international security affairs, there is another side to 9-11. It is the profound influence those events have had on us - on the way that people in the West and those of Islamic faith view themselves, their religion, their history, their culture and their identity. The story of this influence has yet to fully reveal itself and may not do so for some time to come.

My Indonesian maid, who a year earlier had declared her fervent support for George Bush in the US presidential elections, was now expressing support for a global terrorist jihad. Within weeks of 9-11, Indonesian youths were lining up with sharpened bamboo sticks to join in the struggle of the Taliban regime against American “agresi”. How had they now suddenly learnt of the jihadist movement and the call to resist the US and its allies? Is this what it meant to be Muslim? Or, as one young Indonesian Muslim woman remarked at the time, ought Muslims also to consider instead supporting the (Muslim) Northern Alliance - the very movement that the jihadists were fighting against?

In many ways, though, it is the cultural effect of 9-11 in the West that is more interesting. The challenge of the 9-11 hijackers, and those that have followed since them in Bali, Madrid and London, was so blatant and unprovoked that it has forced the West to re-examine again and again many aspects of our civilisation - democracy, secularism, human rights, Christianity, liberalism, free speech, reformism, modernism, the work ethic and women’s rights - and to consider whether these values are worth preserving and defending.


In considering the attacks in New York, Bali, Madrid and London and the appropriate response to them, it is those offering a left-liberal perspective that have encountered the most difficulties. Certainly, the Left mounted a successful critique of the strategic implementation of the War on Terror (i.e., the Iraq War), but they have been unable to respond consistently and convincingly to the overall thrust of the campaign.

Since 2001, conservatives have generally come out on top in the so-called “culture wars” because by definition their stance is to conserve the traditional values of the West that the Islamic terrorists are intent on destroying. The Left, being unable to point clearly to any egregious Western policies or interventions that would justify the jihadist modus operandi, has been relegated to the defensive in this cultural, ideological battle.

Furthermore, those who have traditionally opposed fundamental aspects of Judaeo-Christian values intrinsic to Western civilisation or who oppose US cultural or military hegemony find themselves in the uncomfortable position of sharing common ground with al-Qaida and the jihadists.

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About the Author

Originally trained as a lawyer, Roger Smith lived in Indonesia and East Timor from 1995 to 2004 where he worked in the justice, human rights and trade union arenas.

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