Our society has been completely securitised by a government that still draws on 9/11 today despite 20 years of the disastrous War on Terror. CAGE's International Witness Campaign offers a start for us to get out of the downward spiral.
I was in surgery on 9/11, and I was due to leave the next day for a trip to the United States, to teach and learn about relief medicine with an organisation called Doctors Worldwide. We were planning on going into the Appalachian Mountains to put some of our knowledge into practice.
When I first heard about the 9/11 attacks I was incredulous and initially didn't really take in what had happened until I was back from work and had a chance to hear and see the shocking footage.
I realised fairly quickly my US trip would probably not take place and it may have been a blessing in disguise as the thought of me, as a bearded Muslim being on the US mainland post 9/11, would have carried significant risk. In fact the first casualty of post 9/11 Islamophobic attacks was a Sikh who was mistaken for a Muslim because of his beard and turban, and murdered.
Because the US was on a war footing and airspace was closed it was abundantly clear I would not be able to fly. However, already I had adopted the mindset of being a "suspect". The media and politicians by that point were in a frenzy, and there was an understandable fear and desire to ensure there were no more attacks in the offing.
Overnight the insecurity of the world post-9/11 flooded into our daily lives with a profound impact and it's reverberations are still evident to this day.
In my own case, it started at work. The only topic of conversation amongst staff and even patients was about this seismic event. I still remember an elderly patient who I saw a few days after 9/11 who had fought in WW2; he was furious and described the attacks as akin to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. He was so incandescent with rage he forgot why he had booked in to see me!
His raw emotion unnerved me. I felt visceral fear for my family and others who could be identified as Muslims.
A close call and escape from Pakistan
However, my own anxieties and problems pale in significance to those directly impacted by the attacks. This includes not only those who lost their lives during the attacks, but also the countless civilians who were killed as the War on Terror extended throughout the world, and those who were tortured, renditioned or detained without trial in Guantanamo.
After my failed trip to the US, I went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to check on the medical projects we had in place there and if these would still be viable and safe, since Bush and Blair had declared the War on Terror and already attacked Afghanistan.
When I arrived the fear and paranoia was palpable. Despite being of Pakistani origin and fluent in the language it was not difficult to identify me as someone from abroad. I started to notice a lot of furtive looks towards me and my colleagues, which were in no small part due to the bounties announced by the Americans for information about or for "persons of interest". The former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf even boasted in his biography of the millions Pakistan earned from these bounties.
The deteriorating security situation and war made it easy for us to decide to wrap up the clinic programme, and soon we left to return to the UK.
In hindsight this was a very fortuitous escape, for which I will always be grateful, but as someone who believes in destiny, it planted the seed in me for the next chapter in my life; I left humanitarian relief and got involved with others to set up the advocacy group CAGE.
Like most people, when I saw the iconic images of the men in orange jumpsuits, those pictures were ingrained in my memory. The question which I needed to have answered was "who are those men in orange under the masks, ear defenders and gloves, who have been stripped of their humanity and displayed like trophies to the world?"
I also knew that if events had taken a different course, I could very easily have ended up in an orange jumpsuit on my knees in Guantanamo and described as "the worst of the worst". There but for the grace of God, go I.
Two men impacted me in particular. When we began documenting their cases through translating Arabic news pages, I saw a photo of a man I recognised from being in Croatia; he had been the head of the Kuwaiti humanitarian mission there, and nothing to do with terrorism.
The other man was the journalist from Al-Jazeera, Sami al-Hajj. At that time, journalists like John Simpson were reporting from Afghanistan and being hailed as heroes, but then you had Sami who, because he was Muslim, was treated as a criminal and tortured.
We knew this kind of treatment existed before 9/11 but we thought it was only done by brutal and barbaric regimes.
However, post-9/11 the "champions of liberty and human rights" engaged in the same practices directly, or they outsourced their torture to brutal and barbaric paid companies, in a twisted form of "ethics".
Besides symbolizing the way in which the War on Terror has eroded the rule of law, Guantanamo – and the orange jumpsuit – has to this day functioned as a broader form of tarring and feathering of Muslims; it is there to shame, scare and to warn.
A moment to ask the pressing questions
A post 9/11 world should cause us to ask some hard questions of ourselves and our world.
On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I never expected to see the coalition forces beating a hasty ignominious retreat from Afghanistan.
But we must not be caught unaware. We must ask: has the War on Terror really ended?
If each of us reflects on our own society and also looks towards the rest of the world, it becomes clear that the architecture built from the ashes of 9/11 is all encompassing. Guantanamo is still open. The 39 remaining detainees exist there, waiting for justice.
On a more prosaic level, Muslims must encounter the constant soundtrack of suspicion in our lives when we travel, or in the UK, when we must live under the slogan of suspicion and aggression: "See it. Say it. Sorted!"
During the pandemic we have a strong libertarian movement opposing lockdown measures despite over 130,000 deaths. But the same people are all too happy to remove their shoes at airports and hand over fluids over 100ml because of far-fetched terrorist plots.
The Prevent program has spawned a multi-million pound cottage industry which has been foisted by the least trustworthy members of society on those society trusts the most: teachers, doctors and social workers.
The language of the War on Terror of "tackling terrorists" and "extremists" has been co-opted by regimes as diverse as India, China and Myanmar and has been leveraged in the UK to target campaigners against climate change like Extinction Rebellion.
And whistle-blowers like Craig Murray and Julian Assange are imprisoned but those who led the War on Terror, Bush and Blair, remain walking free.
It behoves us to learn lessons from the past 20 years and to have a truth and reconciliation commission. To that end, this year our International Witness Campaign brings together the voices of survivors who have endured torture, rendition, Guantanamo Bay, and who have been subjected to discriminatory counter terrorism laws from around the world.
The retreat of armies is not the end of the War on Terror. Until justice tempered by forgiveness is enacted, true peace will continue to evade us all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.