When the planes hit the World Trade Centre, I was in a classroom in Detroit listening to a lecture on the Vietnam War. Looking outside the window, cars stopped in the middle of the street with their radios turned up, surrounded by anxious Americans. It was like a movie scene. The impact was not limited to the United States. In a recent poll for the New Statesman, over 45 per cent of respondents in Britain said it marked the 'biggest news event of their life'.
9/11 has most often been viewed through its impact on international relations: the creation of new alliances, the 'war on terror', Afghanistan and justification for the invasion of Iraq. Yet 9/11 also influenced domestic political arenas in three main ways.
First, citizens across many Western democracies have become more concerned over security matters. This trend predates 9/11, but the attacks almost certainly contributed to the shift toward a ‘new security agenda’. Polls show that interrelated issues of external security (e.g. terrorism) and internal security (e.g crime) became far more prominent public opinion concerns after 9/11. There also emerged significant levels of public anxiety over immigration, and the presence and integration of Muslim communities. Ten years on, governments and political elites have barely begun to understand this trend, and its implications.
Second, party politics have been affected. Prior to 9/11, European far-right parties had begun to poll well by focusing on public anxiety over immigration, integration, and law and order. The events of 2001 gave them the opportunity to expand their agenda and connect with larger numbers of citizens concerned about broader and more diffuse threats to their security and the unity of their national communities. The likes of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the National Front in France and the English Defence League worked hard to 'frame' Muslims and Islam as a threat to national cultures and social cohesion. Importantly, they did so while claiming to protect European traditions of tolerance and democracy, and to defend gender equality and the rights of homosexuals.
Their campaigns were further galvanized by the subsequent terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, the Danish cartoon affair, the murder of Dutch film direct Theo Van Gogh, and the activities of small though highly vocal groups of Islamists. Sections of the ‘mainstream’ press also played a part in this, inadvertently legitimizing far-right campaigns by embellishing public fear over the loyalty of Muslims and their potential for violence. The result? In several European countries the far-right is polling strongest not just in areas that are more ethnically diverse but where there are large Muslim communities, suggesting that anti-Muslim sentiment has become a key driver of its support.
Third, public policy has been influenced. The events on 9/11 forced European governments to think more seriously about how to prevent violent extremism and counter radicalization within Muslim communities. Yet, ten years on, we are only just beginning to understand what drives some people to engage in this type of terrorist activity. Governments have attempted to protect their citizens from this threat by preventing and combating violent extremist Islamist ideology and its followers (the 'prevent' agenda).
Over time, however, it became apparent that these policies were inadequate. Some argued they undermined community relations by stigmatizing Muslim communities; others argued they focused too heavily on only one form of extremism while ignoring the potential of violence from other groups, whether renegade Irish Republicans or right-wing extremist 'lone wolves'. The lack of attention to other forms of extremism was underscored by the recent atrocities in Norway.
The fact is that we are still some way from understanding the precise drivers of support for violent extremism in all its forms and it might not be another ten years before we can begin to explain convincingly its causes.