9/11 - The day the world changed
Issue 84 September 2011
Out of a clear blue sky two planes crashed into the Twin Towers. On the tenth anniversary of those horrific events Sarah Joseph, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, and Imam Zaid Shakir look back on a decade of violence, and reflect on ways to construct a different future.
September 11th, 2001 is a date etched into the hearts and minds of the global population. Almost 3,000 people died on that day - public deaths watched by mil- lions, seared into the collective consciousness. It is no cliché to say the world changed that day, yet few would suggest it has changed for the better, or the responses to it have made us safer. Two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan costing $1.25trillion, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives; deadly drone attacks; the rapes and tortures at Abu Ghraib and Bagram; the legal black hole that is Guantanamo Bay; the degradation of domestic liberties; post-traumatic stress disorder of survivors, and much more are all directly linked to that day. The Madrid bombings; the London bombings; Prevent strategy in the UK; Homeland Security in the US; indefinite detention without trial; demonisation of Islamic terms and values, and the rapid rise of the Far-Right are all linked by association.
A catalogue of misery has followed that day ten years ago, yet to question the world order is to have loyalty itself questioned, for as President George W Bush declared, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” So, the vast majority of the world’s population who had no desire to be with the terrorists, looked to America, and they have been badly let down.
In his hubris, Bush first declared a “crusade” against Afghanistan, calling it Operation Infinite Justice, and he told the rest of the world to fall in line. The aim of the invasion was to find Osama bin Laden, destroy Al Qaeda, and remove the Taliban. It took a decade to find bin Laden; Al-Qaeda has been weakened but continues to exert influence over individuals across the world; and the Taliban are still a major force with whom we are negotiating to secure the withdrawal of western troops. Unpicking the myriad of statistics in Afghanistan is no easy task. Estimates of civilian deaths are in the tens of thou- sands. Millions of Afghans have fled the conflict and now reside in refugee camps in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Pakistan holds at least 1.6million displaced Afghans, making it the largest refuge in the world. At the end of 2010, the US pledged an additional $1million – the price of one cruise missile to help those refugees. The infrastructure of Afghanistan could have been radically improved with the cost of all the cruise missiles launched in that country. The $1.25trillion spent destroying Afghanistan and Iraq is sheer madness and grave human folly. As President Eisenhower said in 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Whilst wars cost, they also make money. People pay with their lives, but there is personal enrichment for some: the arms manufacturers, and those who would be tasked with reconstructing the bombed out nations. In the run-up to the Iraq war, US company Halliburton was awarded a $7 billion contract for which only Halliburton was allowed to bid. US Vice President Dick Cheney, retired from Halliburton in 2000 to run for office with George W Bush. His severance package was $36 million, plus deferred compensation and stock options. Altogether, Halliburton earned $17.2 billion in Iraq war-related revenue between 2003 and 2006. Halliburton is not alone. Indeed, House and Senate representatives have almost $200 million of their own money invested in companies doing business with the Department of Defense.
In 2002, the Bush administration awarded Halliburton the contract to build a $30million prison ... in Guantanamo Bay. A legal anomaly outside US legal jurisdiction, Bush even deprived the detainees’ protection of the Geneva Conventions. In January 2009, President Obama suspended the military proceedings and said the detention facility would shut down within the year. However, despite various Presidential memorandums trying to relocate trials within the US judicial system, in January 2011 President Obama signed the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill with clauses that effectively stop the closure of the prison, leaving the inmates in limbo.
Guantanamo is just one example of the large-scale degradation of human rights and liberties. In 2004, torture, rape, sodomy, and the killings of prisoners in Abu Ghraib came to the attention of the public - committed by US military personnel who photographed many of the violations. Lynndie England was photographed holding onto a leash put round a naked man’s neck. In interviews, England reportedly said that she was “instructed by persons in higher ranks” to commit the acts of abuse for ‘psychological operations’ reasons, and despite feeling “weird”, she felt she was doing “nothing out of the ordinary.”
The trauma of 9/11, and the fear - some would say irrational fear – of terrorism has meant that the ‘War on Terror’ has continued unabated for a decade. Amidst the many historic wars of aggression, this is a unique ‘war’. The enemy is an abstract noun, there is no single party to surrender and admit defeat. It has led to a distortion in domestic policies, in our freedoms, liberties and the Western ‘way of life’. Whilst Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are defended as exceptions, in the UK indefinite detention without trial and the use of control orders have highlighted the paradox of using illiberal methods to defend liberty.
For those who wish to envision a different future, one where might is not always right, where truth speaks to power, not where power crushes everything in its path, where the needs of the global community sway over national interests, and where construction of lives and communities is preferred over destruction, whether by individuals, groups or states, the past ten years have been a major setback. The moral high ground the US had when the world looked on in horror at the violence perpetrated against it has scurried away, as she wrought destruction in the name of freedom, liberty and the American way. That destruction is not as visual as the planes crashing into the twin towers that September day. It is not viewed on every news channel; it is not etched into our collective consciousness because we have not been TV witnesses. But it is no less real. It has the same consequences of loss and bereavement for individuals and their loved ones.
Eisenhower called out in 1953, “This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turn- ing toward a just and lasting peace. It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty. It calls upon them to answer the question that stirs the hearts of all sane men: ‘Is there no other way the world may live?’” On this tenth anniversary, the greatest honour we can surely give to the memory of the victims of 9/11 is to ask that same question.
In light of the changing landscape after 9/11, it is easy to feel downcast and hope- less. But the Qur’anic message is clear: hopelessness is a characteristic of Shaitan. Ayman Khwaja identifies four projects whose response to 9/11 give hope.
The legacy of September 11 is not a happy one, to say the least. The horrors of that day a decade ago have cast long and violent shadows. People all over the world have felt the repercussions and the reprisals for the senseless brutality of 9/11’s perpetrators. Yet there are those who have reached out to the ‘other’; people who have transcended the grief, the brutality and the despair to try to humanise each other beyond stereotypes. Unlike Pandora, who shut the box on hope after torment, destruction and evil had entered the world, these individuals have tried to bring light where once darkness fell; these individuals have tried to heal where pain ruled; these individuals have tried to bring hope in the midst of despair.
Some were already engaged in community work, others began a commitment to reach out of their comfort zones to the ‘other’. Some were from the families of those who lost their lives. They had to reach our beyond grief, healing others as they healed them- selves. Many had their assumptions and prejudices tested. All transcended hate, destruction and retaliation to build a different perspective.
Their work may be small and can easily be drowned out by the bombs that rain down, or the headlines which scream hatred, yet their work is significant because it endures. It is born of love of one’s fellow man. As it says in the Bible, “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” (1 Corinthians 13:7)
The Companion of the Prophet, Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, would ponder on the state of pre-Islamic Arabian society which was so steeped in corruption, moral and social decay, and internecine warfare. Despite being a victim of its tyranny he would still proclaim, “After this night of darkness, there must be a dawn.” Indeed, the sun always rises, but the night is darkest just before the dawn. We have not yet reached the day- break, but there are tiny candles of light flickering. And even a tiny candle can shine brightly in the darkness. Such a flame may not bring full illumination to the world, but it can establish itself as a symbol of hope.
9/11 Unity Walk
“There is no easy walk to freedom,” professed Nelson Mandela. Yet the hope remains that if every church, synagogue, mosque and temple opened their doors to each other, one step at a time, what began as a personal desire for peace and unity, would transpire into something tangible. It is with this hope that Kyle Pool, a resident of Embassy Row, put forth the idea of 9/11 Unity Walk in 2005. “Immediately after 9/11, there was an undoubted curiosity in Islam and Muslim. People wanted to be active in learning and being part of a solution. So, the Unity Walk serves as an opportunity for people to come together and develop respect and understanding, even if disagreements persist.”
Promoting tolerance is by no means a concept unique to Unity Walk. But encouraging communities to open up their public and personal spaces of worship to each other can usher in a new level of dialogue. “It is not just striking events at various Islamic Centers,” says Kyle. “We started the entire program inside Washington’s largest synagogue, with a Muslim call to prayer.” Several years later, Unity Walk aims to maintain this degree of diversity, with past participants ranging from Pastors and Imams, to peace protestors and environmental activists.
“The idea is simple,” says Kyle. “People don’t put aside their faith, or lack of faith, to come together. They are simply provided with the opportunity to learn about one another, and form relationships, which means they are less apt to fight or resort to violence.” Mosques ring out the sound of Hindu horns, and Protestant evangelicals speak from the pulpit in synagogues. “We’ve come together with the hope of making a change and we will keep trying,” assures Kyle.
Interfaith Youth Core
Citing Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi as core inspirations for youth activism and social involvement, Eboo Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core in 1998 as a college student. After attending various interfaith conferences, he came to the realisation that there was an absence of young people at such events. “As youth articulate the impulse to service in their own tradition, they dis- cover a corresponding impulse in those they have served with, even as they recognise the uniqueness of each tradition.”
He writes that, “America in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a nation shocked and grieving, was a country focused more on community than revenge.” Built upon that same foundation of empowering the community into positive action, the Interfaith Youth Core aims to educate people on varying perspectives of religious traditions and present the organisation as a platform for meaningful encounters between people of different faiths. Eboo asserts that, “Relationships which involve common activities, influence both personal attitudes and the bonds of a community.”
With projects involving refugee resettlement, homelessness, sustainable living and access to education in developing countries, the Interfaith Youth Core seeks to tackle problems affecting society in the broader sense, irrespective of race or religion. “Across the country, Muslims and Hindus, Jews and Christians, Buddhists and non-religious, are coming together in a movement of inter- faith cooperation,” writes Eboo. “They are proving that the 21st century can be defined by cooperation between diverse communities instead of conflict.”
“There are very real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements... When Americans hear “Muslim” they think “Osama bin Laden.”
David Potorti, a founding member of Peaceful Tomorrows, lost his older brother Jim in the World Trade Center attacks. He recalls how his mother doubled over in pain at the news, “calling out Jim’s name and crying ‘it hurts, it hurts’.” And then, David recounts, “She said something else. ‘I don’t want anyone else to feel the pain I’m feeling right now’.” This, David says, is what set the tone for his own journey. Like David, the members of Peaceful Tomorrows have come to this incredibly inspirational conclusion – that such impenetrable anguish can only be soothed with a future infused with the hope for peace.
Comprising of family members of those killed by the September 11 attacks, Peaceful Tomorrows advocates the pursuit of justice through non- violent actions. Members are united by their common experiences of loss and grief, which they use to collectively fuel their aim of building ‘a safer, more peaceful world for every- one’. The organisation runs numerous campaigns to promote dialogue on alternatives to war, including ‘Eyes Wide Open’, a travelling exhibit on the human cost of war, and ‘Afghanistan’, an in-depth report examining the Afghan civilian casualties since the war began.
Committed to initiating dialogue, and through it, opening up the vital channels of communication and understanding, members of Peaceful Tomorrows support and participate in various projects which practice similar principles. Adele Welty, who lost her fire-fighter son Timothy at the World Trade Center, travelled to Afghanistan in 2004 to meet families who had lost loved ones to US bombings. Adele recounts, “The compassion and caring that was extended to me as a grieving mother was one of the most healing experiences of my life. These Muslims, who themselves lost family members in US bombings, welcomed me into their homes, were willing to speak with me, and agreed that we must work together for peace.”
She speaks with great respect and appreciation of fellow members of Peaceful Tomorrows, and the work that is voluntarily put into the organisation. “All the travels by Peaceful Tomorrows members ignited in us the understanding that we had become part of a global family of people who had been directly affected by violence and chose to pursue peaceful recon- ciliation, instead of retaliation and revenge.”
The UN Alliance of Civilizations
With the backdrop of a frantic increase in the discourse on extremism and terror, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations was formed in 2005. The purpose was to defuse tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds. “By working together, we can break the cycle of misunderstanding, resentment and violence,” said High Representative of the Alliance, Jorge Sampaio, a former president of Portugal. “We can help restore trust amongst communities and nations, and we can help reduce the levels of cross- cultural tensions.”
The Alliance aims to build a comprehensive coalition, and utilise various projects in several different sectors of public interest to promote the coexistence of people around the world. Understanding the significant role that the media plays in society today, the Alliance launched an active media pro- gramme comprising of two elements: an online resource entitled Global Expert Finder, which connects journalists with a wide range of opinion leaders, who provide in-depth analysis on complex political, social and religious issues, and a range of training programmes to help enhance and develop the skills of journalists from around the world. The Alliance also launched projects pertaining to youth activism, education, and migration and integration.
The migration and integration pro- grammes exist to enhance the relations between migrants and host societies. In a society where the establishment of such vital links is often overlooked, it is not surprising for feelings of alienation and resentment to develop. The Alliance has collaborated with the International Organisation for Migration to develop a website which illustrates examples of where migrants have successfully integrated into a host community.
“The point is that nowadays more than ever – particularly because of the inter-national situation created in the wake of September 11 - the universality of Human Rights is under siege. Without trust and the ability to communicate trust through free mediation, the future of a society will always be one of deprivation; shaped by fears and, consequently, lacking the ability to achieve real social transformations and bridge gaps in mutual perception.”
Although opening up the avenues of dialogue and engagement is the first step in peace-building, Sampaio asserts that more is required to prevent tensions and conflicts from intensifying. “We need to restore social relations and trust, especially after a conflict. For that, it is essential to focus efforts on addressing grievances, repairing dignity and removing injustices to support reconciliation.”
The Good Word: Speaking in the Finest Manner
Q: When is a terrorist not a terrorist? A: When he is not a Muslim. The ‘war on terror’ has escalated the ‘war of words’, as the manipulation of language to demonise Muslims continues unabated. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas provides an analysis.
As I began to reflect on how to frame an article on 9/11 and its aftermath, news began to filter through of the bombing of government buildings in Oslo and the atrocious mass murder of over seventy young people at a sum- mer youth rally organised by the ruling Norwegian Labour Party on the island of Utoya.
Immediate reactions included predictable statements by journalists and commentators that the shootings could have been the work of ‘Islamists’, ‘Islamic terrorists’ or ‘Islamofascists’. An analysis by the Guardian the day after the event admitted, “Who did it is unclear,” but “jihadists suspected.”
The reality has of course turned every such assumption on its head, for the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, has turned out to be not a Muslim, but a ‘Far-Right’ nationalist driven by a consuming hatred of Marxism, multiculturalism, and most especially of Muslims and the ‘Islamification’ of Europe through ‘uncontrolled Muslim immigration.’ It appears that his calculated ‘punishment’ of the Labour Party
by targeting its future politicians (chillingly described by him as ‘necessary’) was prompted to a large extent by what he sees as the lax attitude and excessive tolerance of ‘politically correct’ social democracy to Muslims, whose presence threatens the destruction and ‘cultural martyrdom’ of the ‘Christian identity’ common to the majority of ‘indigenous’ Europeans. Styling himself as a Justiciar Knight Commander for Knights Templar Europe, his self-appointed mission as a modern ‘crusader’ also seems clear.
It is hard not to see parallels in the Oklahoma bombing of 1995. When a truck bomb was detonated outside the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more, the immediate assumption voiced in the media was that this atrocity, the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the September 11 attacks, was also the work of an ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim terrorist’. The perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, was in fact a militia movement sympathiser hoping to inspire a revolt against the ‘tyranny’ of the Federal government.
While many would have immediately concurred with the knee-jerk reactions implicating ‘Islamic terrorists’ in the shootings in Norway, few may recall that James Powers, Director of Pennsylvania’s Homeland Security, said that Timothy McVeigh was “not a terrorist, just very angry with the US government.” He added, “Whether a person is a terrorist or a criminal is irrelevant to me.” In February last year, Joseph Stack, a computer engineer flew an aeroplane into an Inland Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas, kill- ing one person. The note he left behind revealed that he was angry with tax laws. FBI officials chose not to describe him as a terrorist; instead, they handled the case as a purely criminal matter.
The horrific events in Norway are an ear-splitting reminder of the problem of endemic anti-Muslim bigotry and provide a timely frame of reference for reflecting on what has been called the ‘strategic deployment of language’ in ideological manipulation. This style of discourse uses a repetitive vocabulary of rhetorical labels to perpetuate a caricature of a supposedly monolithic, backward and inherently violent ‘Muslim community’, a totalist, fundamentalist, global ‘ummah’ bent on the Islamisation of the Western world, the dismantling of liberal democracy, and the imposition of draconian models of ‘shari‘ah law’. The use of such labels has gained further ground in the ‘war of words’ deployed in the ‘war on terror’ since 9/11.
In an interview with himself in his rambling and portentous manifesto, Breivik reveals that what tipped the scales for him in strengthening his resolve to act on his antipathy to Muslims was his government’s complicity with the bombing of his “Serbian brothers” in 1999 by Western powers. Breivik’s toxic Balkan sympathies should forcefully remind us that it was the strategic deployment of language as an instrument of ideology that enabled the Serbs to create a straw man Islam and Muslim stereotype. By bending scholar- ship and blending it with divisive political rhetoric, Serbian orientalists demonised Islam and emphasised cultural markers that differentiated, isolated, and scapegoated the Muslim population in the Balkans in such a way as to contribute significantly to creating a condition of virtual paranoia, and making genocide acceptable. Breivik’s plan to extinguish hope by wiping out a generation of talented future politicians echoes the totalitarian policy of wiping out the very identity of Bosnian Muslims, not only through extermination but also through cultural destruction.
There is good sense in the idea that labels such as ‘anti-Semitism’ or ‘Islamophobia’ should not be resorted to as a defensive means of stifling criticism of elements within the groups to which they refer, wherever it may be war- ranted. Neither should such labels be used to quell valid self-criticism. The same goes for labels that demonise the ‘West’. If phraseology such as ‘the axis of evil’ emerged after 9/11, so also did a vocabulary of ‘Westophobic’ labels that played into the doctrine of the ‘clash of civilisations.’ Reservations about the misuse of labels to deflect criticism do not mean, however, that the existence of such toxic prejudices should be denied. One striking comment by an expert in terrorism the day after Breivik’s murderous rampage was that many people in Europe might hold “very similar views” to those espoused in the Norwegian’s manifesto, even though “very few might choose to act on them.” If Breivik is ‘insane’, as his lawyer ventures to contend, then we might well be sceptical that his insanity resides solely in his readiness to act upon his odious ideology, and not in the ideology itself. Let us not be too naïve. The history of extreme nationalist movements shows all too clearly how the vocal and even incipient prejudices of ‘ordinary folk’ can be mobilised by propaganda to gain complicity and even active support for heinous crimes against minorities. The power of ideology is acknowledged in Breivik’s own contention that, “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interest.”
The fact is that the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim prejudice in many Western societies is a worrying reality and needs to be urgently addressed. To do so effectively, what is needed is not a retreat into an exclusivist and rejectionist brand of Islam which offers a sullen refuge for a victimised minority, nor the bandying about of ‘counter-labels’ which replicate the crude discursive ploys of detractors. It would be a great pity if the revelation that the Norwegian shooter was not a dusky ‘Arab’ but a green-eyed, blond ‘Crusader’ merely evoked a kind of smug triumphalism amongst some Muslims or the confirmation of anti-Christian prejudices. This is not a time for crow- ing. Breivik himself may have idealised his mission as a crusade in defence of ‘Christian civilisation’ but his actions were a travesty of every moral and spiritual Christian principle, in the same way as the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was a denial of Islam. The ‘radicalisation’ of Breivik clearly did not proceed from Christian values, but from the sterile myth of a European society restricted to a supposedly ‘indigenous’ monoculture – the same anti-historical fantasy espoused by the British National Party and the English Defence League, even if these and other Far-Right organisations might well hasten to dissociate themselves from Breivik. One is reminded of the clear evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the people who are attracted to ‘radical’ Islam are likely to be those who do not have a good grounding in the religion, and, conversely, those deeply conversant with authentic Islamic teachings are in fact most resistant to ‘radicalisation’. These important findings have emerged from meticulous research in the UK by Quintan Wiktorowicz, now senior director for global engagement at the National Security Council in the USA.
It is also worth noting that, contrary to the widely held misconception that reli- gion has historically been the chief cause of violent conflict, it is estimated that, at worst, religious causes actually account for less than 3% of the 248 million deaths caused in the ten worst wars, massacres and atrocities in human history. Of that number, 185 million people were killed in the 20th century alone, the overwhelm- ing majority as a result of secular wars and oppressions, often linked to totalitarian atheistic ideologies.
There needs to be a cessation of the ‘incendiary banalities’ that perpetuate the war of words. What is needed more than anything else is the raising of the level of discourse so that it is not contaminated by the vocabulary of ideological manipulation. Effective and principled linguistic tools are available for forensically unpicking the way in which discourse is engineered to promulgate hatred and division. One such approach is critical discourse analysis (CDA), which is based on the simple realisation that power relations are created and perpetuated through language, and much of racism is ‘learned’ by ‘text and talk’. It exposes how discourse promotes prejudiced views shared by dominant groups (usually white, European) and based on ideologies of superiority and difference. Analysis of such language reveals a battery of discursive ploys and stratagems directed to the positive presentation and even glorification of one’s own position and the derogation and demonisation of the ‘other’. This can include ‘blaming the victim’, a stratagem which has been identified even in such atrocious acts as those committed in Solingen in Germany in 1993 when a Turkish family perished after their home was set alight by racists.
One detailed application of CDA is the analysis of a book misleadingly entitled The End of Racism by Dinesh D’Souza. This embodies many of the dominant Eurocentric supremacist ideologies in the USA, and specifically targets one minority group in the USA: African-Americans. It has served as one of the main documents of conservative ideology in the US and has had considerable influence on the debates on affirmative action, welfare, multiculturalism, and immigration, and on the formulation of policy to restrict the rights of minority groups and immigrants. Ideological discourse, whether openly extremist or masquerading as ‘rational debate’ and ‘open discussion’ based on supposedly ‘superior values’, sustains many forms of bigotry and also continues to exert considerable influence on debates about national values.
Prof John Esposito, responding to the ‘unspeakable tragedy’ in Norway, has highlighted the damaging habit of conflating a range of issues under the single heading of ‘religion’: “the anti-immigrant drumbeat about the impending demise of Europe’s religious and cultural identity in the face of an Islamic threat has been aided by media coverage that lumps diverse identity, demographic, economic, and social conflict issues together under the umbrella of religion.”
There is, I believe, a deeper question too about more subtle aspects of the role of vocabulary and terminology in blur- ring important distinctions and giving rise to much simplistic and muddled thinking. This is particularly noticeable in the confusion between related words and the different meanings that certain words may assume in politicised con- texts. The word ‘radical’, for example, has long carried the positive connotation of that honourable British political tradition of reforming liberalism and legitimate dissent which has contributed so much to the evolution of a just and equitable society, but when applied to Muslims the word ‘radicalisation’ is almost invariably equated with violent extremism. Many of those young people murdered on Utoya would have doubtless been proud to have referred to themselves as activists or radicals hoping to build a better society. The original meaning of ‘radical’ is ‘going to the root’ (from Latin radix, ‘root’), which has the sense of ‘essential’ or ‘fundamental’. Radical social activists are often wedded to ‘fundamental’ (in the sense of ‘foundational’) human values but that does not mean that they are ‘fundamentalists’, any more than their ‘ideas’ and ‘ideals’ can be reduced to ‘ideology’.
The Qur’an says that God “imparted unto Adam the names of all things.” On one level, this can be interpreted as the capacity for conceptual thought, which is empowered through the definition and distinction inherent in naming. One of the senses of the Arabic word for ‘intellect’ is the faculty of discrimination and clarification associated with the power of speech, which enables man, the ‘language animal’, to articulate words in meaningful patterns. But the ‘names’ are not simply precision tools for logical thinking, for making fine distinctions. From a metaphysical Islamic perspective, letters and words are the very substance of the created universe, emanating from the Divine Word, which is the origin of all creation and in which all concepts find unity and reconciliation. It is therefore a sacred trust to use words which are fair, fitting, balanced, equitable and just, words which are “in due measure and proportion.”
Proportionality in Islam is a defining marker of human character and spirituality, which in its primordial condition is in a state of balance and equilibrium. The Qur’an also likens the good word to a good tree, “firmly rooted, reaching out with its branches towards the sky.” In this conception of language, the letter is not an inanimate component of an abstract concept, but is a living entity, and the words that are formed from these letters, the phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs, have the power to diminish or enhance our humanity. The word is in fact a deed, an act in itself, which carries the same responsibility as that taken in doing and acting.
The expression “in word and deed” encapsulates this wisdom, this convergence between speech and action. The best speech transcends mere eloquence, for just as the “devil has the best tunes,” so he may also use the smartest or most glittering words. After all, the word ‘dajjal’ (‘impostor’ or ‘false prophet’) comes from the Arabic root which has the concrete sense of ‘spreading tar on a mangy camel’ so as to hide what is rotten beneath a smooth appearance, and make it more saleable. Fine discourse is not covering, spinning or embellishing the truth, and least of all is it a means of inciting harm, but it is responsible social action in the service of humanity, an obligation for the fully human being in his or her capacity as ‘khalifa’.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we might all reflect on the huge responsibility we bear at every moment for the way in which we use words, and how they can either lead others on the downward path to hatred, bigotry, tyranny and violence, or inspire others to enact what is good. The challenge for Muslims in mastering the tools of dis- course so as to participate effectively and even decisively in the public sphere remains, as always, to be true to the finest principles of the Islamic tradition, which includes not only the disinterested pursuit of truth, but also, as the Qur’an advises, the imperative to speak to people, even those with whom one disagrees, “in the finest manner.”
Reflections on the 9/11 Attacks
Reaching out to your enemy is effective and Qur’anic, says Imam Zaid Shakir
I remember well the fateful day of September 11, 2001. I was in Jami’ al-Khayr at the far western end of the Damascene neighborhood of Muhajireen. Most masjids in Syria are locked between the prayers, with the exception of the evening and night prayer. However, the Imam allowed me to remain inside the masjid to study between the prayers. I was locked in, but that meant everyone else was locked out - a student’s dream!
The tranquility of my retreat was interrupted by rapid clanging on the metal frame of one of the mosque’s doors. A few neighbourhood children had run up to deliver an urgent message in excited and panicked voices. Between the confused clamouring, I could make out the following, “Sayyid Zaid, America has been bombed! They blew up the Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, and Congress!” Who, I asked? “We don’t know! You have to come and find out what is going on.” I asked them to get the Imam and have him unlock the doors so I could go home to investigate this strange news.
The Imam’s residence was adjacent to the mosque, so he was summoned in short order. He was unaware of the breaking story, but quickly unlocked the doors so I could go to my residence to find out what was happening. My home had a television with a satellite hookup, but I had never turned it on. I found a neighbour who helped me manipulate the satellite dish, and I saw an image on the screen broadcast by CNN.
There was a picture of the World Trade Center Towers, one of them belching smoke, beneath a banner that read, “America Under Attack.” The name Osama Bin Ladin kept popping up periodically and the guest commentator was the American novelist, Tom Clancy. In an apparent reference to his 1994 novel, Debt of Honor, which revolved around a group of terrorists crashing a Boeing 747 into the US Capitol building, Clancy was being asked by the CNN correspondent, “Tom, is this a case of life imitating art?”
I immediately contacted the other American students and we hastily arranged a meeting where we discussed what we could do to assist our respective communities back in the States. We developed an action plan that was amazingly mature and prescient in that it actually outlined many of the measures that major Muslim organisations in America would subsequently adopt. We all agreed on one thing: da’wah in America was finished.
To our collective surprise, we have been proven wrong by subsequent events. We received calls from all over the country expressing an unprecedented interest in Islam.
Sales of Qur’ans and Islamic literature went off the charts. People living in the vicinity of mosques were volunteering to protect them. A friend of mine in Texas emailed me to let me know that an open house at his mosque in Richardson, Texas, drew 3,000 people, which the organisers had to handle in two shifts.
One of the most heart-warming stories from those early days after the attacks was from the same friend in Texas. He related that one well-meaning old lady left a voice message on the answering machine of the mosque offering to escort Muslim women to the stores. She feared their hijabs would make them visible targets for vengeful, violent reprisals. She concluded her message by saying, “I am too old to help carry groceries, but if anyone tries to bother you I will hit them over the head with my cane.” Her sentiments represent our noblest traits.
However, the tragic events of that day brought out the worst in other people. In Dallas, a few miles from the Richardson Mosque, white supremacist Mark Stroman murdered a Muslim convenience store worker and a Hindu he thought was a Muslim. He nearly took the life of a third victim, who he shot pointblank in the face with a shotgun. There were other violent attacks, many of them directed at Sikhs, whose turbans and beards led them to be mistaken for Muslims.
However, the most far-reaching development occurring in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has been a campaign to systematically distort Islamic teachings to create a climate of deep hatred towards Muslims. The result of this effort and the subsequent institutionalising of anti-Muslim hatred in American society and politics are chilling, and the fallout is global. The details fill our daily newspapers.
This growing climate of hate has another unfortunate consequence. Some western Muslims are losing confidence in the ability of Islam to make any meaningful contribution to their societies in light of post 9/11 realities. This is unfortunate because now, perhaps more than ever, the world is in desperate need of critical aspects of the message of Islam.
One of the most relevant features of Islam in this regard, one that many contemporary Muslims fail to appreciate adequately, is its anti-utopian nature. Islam does not promise that the believers’ actions will usher in a millennial era of good and harmony. That is the job of Jesus, upon his return to Earth, Muslims are taught. We do our best to make a difference in the world, to work for justice and peace. However, at the end of the day, there are no vanguard parties or messianic movements charged with the responsibility of undertaking the work of the Messiah.
This feature of Islam helps to ensure that there will never be a Muslim Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Hitler, or Pol Pot, unless we present terror-inducing strains of Enlightenment or anti-Enlightenment thought in an Islamic disguise. In the Islamic worldview, there are no classless states to be ushered into being; hence, there are no reactionary classes to be eliminated. There is no idea of a pure race, a Volk, hence, there are no potentially polluting impure races to be done away with.
Furthermore, there is no progressive, triumphalist march through history for the Muslim community. There are victories and there are defeats; there are periods of strength and there are periods of weak- ness. God emphasises this in the Qur’an, “If some injury has afflicted you, know that a similar injury has afflicted your opponents. These vicissitudes we alternate among humans...” (3:140)
Even when we are blessed with victory, we are told that our success comes from God, not from our own devices: “Victory comes only from God, The Mighty, The Wise.”(3:126) Hence, the goal for Muslims is not winning at all costs. Our goal is to obey God at all times. At the end of the day, there is only the individual believer and the Lord. For us, the quality of that relationship outweighs all else in this world, for, in the stark terms of the Qur’an, “Each of them will come before God on the Day of Resurrection, alone.” (19:95) The one who achieves Paradise on that day is the true victor. Hence, we do not find meaning in victory, we find meaning in worship.
When our relationship with God is sound, we begin to realise the essential power of God and our own inherent weakness. That realisation allows us to trust that God will use us as agents of good and positive transformation in the world. There is no need for us to violently impose ourselves on the world. Nothing illustrates this better than one of the most powerful stories emerging from the tragedy of 9/11.
Mark Stroman, the white supremacist mentioned earlier in this essay was executed in July 2011. He died having renounced his racist views. One of the last things he said was, “I had some poor upbringing and I grabbed a hold of some ideas which was ignorance, you know, and hate is pure ignorance. I no longer want to be like hate, I want to be like me.” Stroman’s change was inspired by the compassion shown by Rais Bhuiyan, the Muslim man he shot in the face. Bhuiyan survived after many operations and the loss of one eye. He still carries 35 shotgun pellets in his face. However, none of this prevented him from forgiving Stroman, and from waging a valiant campaign to save him from execution. Stroman was so moved by Bhuiyan’s act of grace that he renounced his hatred of Muslims.
The example set for us by both Bhuiyan and Stroman, at the end of his life, is our best hope as we attempt to move beyond the pain, strife and hatred unleashed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Trusting in the power and prom- ise of God we will be able to do just that. “Good and evil are not equal. Repulse evil with what is best. Unexpectedly, you will see the one between whom he and you there was enmity, become like an intimate friend.” (41:34)