(RNS) — That terrible Tuesday morning, I was teaching at a college campus in upstate New York. Nearly half my students came from New York City and the surrounding area, and quite a few had parents working in Manhattan, some in the towers.
The first classes ended at 9:45 a.m. — about an hour after the first plane hit — and by then the rumors were already swirling around campus. In those days before cellphones were ubiquitous, I walked my students one at a time to the pay phone in our student union, where they frantically tried to reach their parents.
Many people from our university community perished that day. A Muslim student, an African American woman, told me: “I pray to God it is not a Muslim who did this.”
The political is always personal. Two years later, I was teaching a course on the Middle East. We went through a whole semester discussing everything from the life and mission of Prophet Muhammad to the glories of medieval Baghdad, Andalusia, colonialism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Iranian revolution and the Ottoman Empire. And yes, we worked our way to Wahhabi ideology, Salafism, the Taliban and Al-Qaida, and the context of 9/11. We followed up with the U.S. war on Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was a powerful and meaningful course, one that we traveled together, exploring, critiquing and making room for our emotions.
On the last day of class, a student named Amy came up to me. She thanked me for the class, looked me in the eyes and said softly: “My father was in the towers.”
I kept repeating the words to myself softly, over and over again. My mind was racing, but the meaning wasn’t quite coming:
My father. Was. Towers.
My father. Was. Towers.
And then the horror of the word “was” hit me. My God. She had lost her father on 9/11.
Before I could speak, my mind replayed the whole of the semester like a soundtrack inside my mind. What had come out of my mouth? How had I spoken those words? Had my anger and disgust about America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the drone wars, been expressed in the same way that I had talked about the innocent victims of the attacks of 9/11?
I nervously asked her why she had not told me. She said she didn’t want her own tragedy to influence how I presented the course, and she wanted to learn why someone would have wanted to kill her dad. She thanked me for having taught her a larger view of Islam and Muslims in a way that honored the humanity of us all.
As it is for most Muslim teachers and writers of my generation, 9/11 is always there in the background for me. Sometimes it seems like the only things that the peddlers of hate recycle are stereotypes and the trash discourse of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim bigotry. Same old nonsense: “Jeeeeeeeehaad,” “ShAAAAAAAreeee’ah” come back. The same old bigoted talking heads go from discussing Somalia to Nigeria to Afghanistan and Iran to Pakistan and the Rohingya.
Not one of them, I am almost certain, could a read a single book from those countries in the original language, and perhaps they have never set foot on the soil of most of these places, nor have relationships with the people from these lands. Yet here they are, opining in that coded language of “savages,” “fundamentalists” and “radicals” — and the most dangerous and powerful word of them all: “terrorists.”
How did American Muslims respond to this powerful and almost omnipresent anti-Muslim rhetoric? In the initial days and months after 9/11, there was a consistent messaging from American Muslim organizations: The actions of these terrorists do not represent us. These terrorists are not “real” Muslims. American values are Muslim values; Muslim values are American values.
Muslim responses have come a long, long way since then. Early on, Muslims reminded Americans that “we” had given the world science, philosophy, alcohol, mathematics. Surely, there is some truth in these claims. More importantly, we became insistent that no human beings should ever be in the business of proving our humanity. There is no need for us to “humanize” ourselves. One can only humanize something that is not already fully human.
This evolution mirrors what had been seen in the African American community. To quote Toni Morrison:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
If you go into a bookstore, most of the titles on Islam are about terrorism or ex-Muslims turned champions of civilizational genocide against Muslims. The books on Jesus are about Jesus, the books on the Buddha are about the Buddha, but the bestselling books about Muhammad are cartoonish and hate-filled caricatures of the Prophet’s teachings. It is exhausting, draining and dehumanizing.
Fifteen years of anti-Muslim bigotry culminated — one hopes it culminated — in the election of a president who ran on a campaign of “Islam hates us” — never mind that Islam is a system of beliefs and practices, and not an anthropomorphic being capable of “hating us.” Former President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-Hispanic (also linked with anti-Jewish, anti-woman, anti-poor, etc.) stances crystallized in one of his first executive orders, the Muslim travel ban.
It is draining and exhausting to look back.
So why write this 20-year retrospective?
There is a powerful passage in the Quran in which the young Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) has come to call his people back to God. He is attacked by his own community and thrown into a bonfire. He calls on God with all of his heart, all of his might, all of his soul. God commands the fire to be cool toward Ibrahim and to leave him unharmed. In that moment Ibrahim became the Khalil, the intimate friend of God.
It is one of the promises of the Islamic revelation that we are to never give up hope in God’s mercy. The promise that God reaches out to a people beleaguered and engulfed in the flames. Sometimes what didn’t burn us will draw us closer to the Almighty as a friend.
These same 20 years have also seen extraordinary developments in the Muslim community in the United States and beyond.
There has been a renewed sense of commitment among ordinary Muslims, who stand up for a holistic model of justice, no matter whom it is for and whom it is against. This meant speaking out against the atrocities of al-Qaida, Taliban and ISIS, and with the same voice and passion standing up against the drone wars of the United States, the Israeli regime’s policies against the Palestinians, the Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs, Hindutva pogroms against Indian Muslims, and more.
It is as if, decades after his passing, we are reaching back to the soul of the patron saint of American Islam (if you would excuse the expression), Malcolm X: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
For much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, many American Muslim leaders of immigrant backgrounds preached an assimilationist agenda of blending into the larger mosaic of American life. With 9/11, much of that changed. Today, we are likely to see American leaders and everyday heroes who are following in the footsteps of the later, more radical Martin Luther King Jr., saying that our goal is not to integrate with a burning house, but to be people putting out the fires.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the very beings of Muslims are inherently politicized. Our very existence is a political fact for us and a “problem” for some. There is no inherently “apolitical” Muslim discourse. One of the challenges for my community is to insist that being Muslim is not about mere politics, but also about a way of being with God, in harmony with our fellow human community and with nature.
Nonetheless, Muslims today are far less apologetic than we were in the days after 9/11, and have a bolder, more defiant stance.
This has included a transformational rise, among Muslims, of being led by women, mostly of a younger generation, who are leading with dignity and power: Linda Sarsour and Dalia Mogahed, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. In the realm of arts and cultural production are G. Willow Wilson, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, Halima Aden and Bella Hadid.
Sarsour teamed with an African American woman (Tamika Mallory) and a Hispanic woman (Carmen Perez) to organize the 2017 Women’s March, the single largest march in American history, with three times the attendance of the famed March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington in August 1963, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
One of the defining features of American political lives is a politics of liberation. This linking together of the African American community, Muslims and the Hispanic community recalled the vast overlaps between and among these groups.
Muslims have also depended in the past two decades on a not entirely unexpected, though remarkable, return to Muslim tradition. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a flurry of figures promised the latest “Islamic reformation” — a la the Protestant Reformation — and became darlings of Western media. They failed, however, to have a lingering impact on the Muslim community, because the community, correctly, perceived most of them to be lacking in being grounded in the tradition.
The most popular and influential Muslim teachers and preachers follow an approach we could call “neo-traditional”: Deeply grounded in the tradition, they staunchly defend it, often seeking to blend various legal and mystical schools. Here names like Hamza Yusuf and Abd al-Hakim Murad come to mind, alongside Ingrid Mattson, Omar Suleiman and Yasir Qadhi. Some critique the abuses of modernity’s capitalism and environmental destruction; some speak out for social justice; none preach assimilation.
There is still a long way to go. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 saw the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, devoted almost exclusively in those days to tracking Muslims, including American Muslims, who have at times ended up mysteriously on the Secondary Security Screening Selection list. How one gets on this list and more importantly how to get off of it has never been explained.
Surveillance and reconnaissance extended to police departments (New York’s being among the most atrocious). Even college and university Muslims were followed. It is a case of innocent unless one is (or is suspected of being) Muslim. These are taxpayer funds being used to spy on fellow Americans, a horrific legacy that recalls the COINTELPRO policies of the 1960s spying on civil rights-era leaders (including King) and anti-war activists.
How do we do better in the days after 9/11? Our public discourse is perhaps more divided than ever. Media channels struggle for a share of the dwindling market, and play to their respective bases. Google’s internet searches are tailored to each person’s preexisting commitments. How do we do better in this climate that almost seems designed to divide us?
Since 9/11, we’ve learned about one another. Some of us have learned from one another. Can we aspire to learn with one another?
To be a Muslim is to be connected to neighbor and community on one hand, and on the other to rise above bonds of race, tribe and even species and stand before God as one creation before the One. We are at once local and global. So here we stand, tired and exhausted, but bound to the notion that we are all in this together. We go up together, or we go down together.
We see this notion in COVID-19. We see it in global warming, which will put all of our existence in peril — felt first by many in the Global South, including a majority of Muslims.
We Muslims have been in these United States since well before there was a United States. We were brought to these shores in chains in the belly of slave ships. Many waves of immigrants came later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, some seeking a more prosperous life, some previously aspiring for the privilege of whiteness, some fleeing war-torn countries. Muslim and American, we are bound together.
The measure of the health of these United States is always tied to how those on the margins of our society are faring: Native Americans and descendants of the enslaved, Hispanic immigrants, Jewish, Irish, Muslim. Our lofty rhetoric of “give us your poor huddled masses” has never matched our reality, but as the Bard of Harlem, Langston Hughes, used to say, “America will be.”
I say it plain,
America never was America to me.
[Long, tortured 20-year pause]
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
Could it be that on the 20-year anniversary of that horrific tragedy, we realize that it is — we are tied to the horrific tragedies around the world that we ourselves have been complicit in.
May we vow to be like Abraham, turning toward God and turning toward one another in a mass movement of hope, renewal, repentance and humility. There is a better way. There is a higher path.
May we have the courage and the heart to walk through the fire of 9/11 together, and come out as intimate friends to one another, and to God.
(Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University and teaches online courses at IlluminatedCourses.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)