CAIRO — Now that we've had a fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, I can say it: 9/11 was good for the Muslim world.
Osama bin Laden and Co. did the Muslim world a favor. They shook it free of the defensiveness and denial that for decades had overshadowed an essential conversation about our religion and what had become of it.
That was not their goal, of course. They assumed the sight of the Twin Towers collapsing in New York City would spur other jihadis to outdo or at least match their bloodletting. Some have tried. But a young Muslim man I met recently convinced me that 9/11 had set others on a different course altogether.
Two years ago, when he was just 19, Fouad Gehad went to an Afghan refugee camp. He was not looking for directions to Al Qaeda but to speak to Afghan refugees who had seen Al Qaeda's leader.
"My mission in life is to prove Osama bin Laden exists," Fouad told me. To that end, he a shot videotape of refugees recounting their stories of bin Laden and on his return to Egypt paid out of his own pocket to rent an auditorium and a projection screen to show fellow Egyptians his footage.
Fouad was fed up with the conspiracy theories that painted bin Laden as an American invention. Even after Al Qaeda released a videotape celebrating the attacks, some Muslims thought bin Laden was an American agent who shot his videos in an American studio with a poster of the Afghan mountains as a backdrop.
Proving the existence of bin Laden was Fouad's way of holding up a mirror to the Muslim world to make it see what it had refused to acknowledge for too long. He had initially gone to Iran to see the effects of political Islam on that country and got firsthand accounts from Iranians and the Afghans he met at the refugee camp.
Fouad explained: "9/11 started the questions - is it Islam? Is it Muslims? Is it something in the Koran? What is it that led to 9/11?"
When I say that 9/11 was good for the Muslim world, I have not flippantly forgotten the awful loss of life on that day. When I say the attacks were good for Muslims, I do not regard with complacency the lives lost in the war on Afghanistan and the war on Iraq, which the Bush administration disastrously linked to the 9/11 attacks.
And when I say that 9/11 was good for Muslims I have not forgotten the curtailed civil liberties in the US, the thousands of Muslim men detained and deported on minor immigration violations, and the higher levels of Islamophobia.
But I look above and beyond these tragedies to the importance of Fouad's questions. We are all too familiar with the young men who set out looking for holy war but we hear little of the young Muslim men and women who have set off in the opposite direction, determined to find their own answers.
Sept. 11 and subsequent attacks in Europe and the Middle East put into starkly horrific relief ideas such as "jihad" and "infidel" which for too long were too meekly challenged in the Muslim world.
Tackling those ideas head-on and asking Fouad's questions is good for everyone, not just the Muslim world. But ordinary Muslims are more likely to join the debate and try to answer the questions when fellow Muslims are the ones asking them.
The questions and debates sparked by 9/11 also render ineffectual the "us" and "them" offered by both President Bush and bin Laden. We have all been victims of terrorism, East and West, Muslim and non-Muslim. Whenever I hear an American anchorperson ask an analyst "Why do they hate us?" I find myself exclaiming, "They hate me, too."
It is important for everyone to hear Muslims make this point.
For years, non-Muslim writers dissected the Muslim world and told "our" story for us. But now when I walk into a bookshop in New York it is encouraging to see that books about Muslim issues have moved from the tiny shelf space they once occupied to the new releases section, and more important that several of those new titles are written by Muslims.
The conversation about whither Islam cannot take place above our heads. We need more Muslims on the opinion pages, on the title page of books, as analysts on news shows, and as screenwriters behind the movies.
There's nothing worse than being ignored. Not only are you rendered invisible but your absence allows others to fill in the lines for you. As a Muslim, I want neither bin Laden nor non-Muslims filling in those features for me.
The more Muslims ask the questions, lead the debates, and hold the mirror up to ourselves, the more you will hear about young men like Fouad, who do not tread the tired and bloody jihad path but forge their own trails toward telling the truth to the Muslim world.
• Mona Eltahawy, based in New York, is a columnist for the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.