Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The tragedy of 9/12

Reflecting on 9/11 and Islamophobia in this country

People say that you will never forget what you were doing when you hear about a national tragedy. I was stuck in the hallway during class change and heard about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center from the lips of immature teenage boys. I didn't believe it. When I got to health class, it was on the TV. We went to lunch early and we're allowed to sit by the windows--- in case of the probable? attack on a rural school in Maryland or something. We went home early. I was 13.

Now, I feel rather removed from the events of 9/11. I didn't know anyone in the state of New York let alone Manhattan. I didn't know anyone in the Pentagon, I didn't know anyone in the plane that crashed in Shanksville, PA. I was never one for patriotism either, particularly after the election of George W. Bush. But, especially today as we approach the anniversary of 9/11 amidst the controversy over building an Islamic cultural center a few blocks away from where the towers stood, I sum up my feelings about 9/11 using the words of slam poets Issac Miller and Christian Drake in their poem "Nine Twelve."

"To be honest, I stopped mourning 9/11 years ago. But I will never forget the tragedy of 9/12, the day we could have become a nation of outstretched hands and were asked only to shut up and salute.The moment we could have proven to our enemies that we are not what they think we are. We were almost America."

We were almost America.

I live in a country today where a "church" in Florida is burning Qu'rans in commemoration of the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Where a New York taxi driver was stabbed for being Muslim. Where a mosque in Tennessee was set on fire. Where an Islamic cultural center is part of a national debate because it has been slated to be built a few blocks from where the two towers were. And I am really struggling to understand how this Islamophobia is acceptable, how it fits with the ideals spouted in our idealistic version of USAmerican history.* The Onion, news satire, poked fun at those who equate Islam with terrorism in a joke article that actually reflects a sad truth:
"I almost gave in and listened to that guy defend Islam with words I didn't want to hear," Gentries [the man who already knows all he needs to know about Muslims] said. "But then I remembered how much easier it is to live in a world of black-and-white in which I can assign the label of 'other' to someone and use him as a vessel for all my fears and insecurities."
A sad but true commentary on what is an acceptable viewpoint among USAmericans today.

Tuesday, we had a chapel service at Drew dedicated to addressing "the mosque controversy." The Christian church bears responsibility in part for this Islamophobia, so the Drew community came together as a community asking for guidance. We sang songs of peace, looked to calls for justice, peace, and unity in the Qur'an, and saw clips from popular media interpreting this climate that we live in. We ended with a reflection from Dr. S. Wesley Ariarajah, our professor of world religions. I want to share two of his points in particular as we come up on this ninth anniversary.

First of all, we must stand up against those who use 9/11 as a tool to manipulate the public. Returning to the poem, if 9/11 could have become a tool of unity and a call for peace but instead became a rallying cry for ultranationalists, an excuse to hate Muslims and people in color in general.

Secondly, when a nation begins to identify minority communities as the enemy, as the problem, we are walking on the same slippery ground that let to the Holocaust. Ascribing collective guilt to a particular group of people is never an acceptable response to tragedy. Never. That is how genocide mentality functions! And we, particularly Christians, need to stand up voice this.

Rather, we need to welcome religious diversity, as a Christian community in Cordova has done. Let's, as Gainesville, Florida, mayor did, declare 9/11 Interfaith Solidarity Day. We need to live what God has commanded of us:

O you who believe, stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fairness, and let not the hatred of others cause you to swerve toward wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is closer to piety, and be conscious of God, for God is well-acquainted with all that you do.**

So as anti-Muslim sentiment climbs higher this week of 9/11, let us instead remember the tragedy of 9/12, that time when we could have used our pain for peace but instead shut up and saluted. Let us stand out firmly for God as witnesses to justice in our communities and this nation.


*Of course, it does fit with the reality of a USAmerican history of genocide, racism, and colonialism. But that is another post for another day.

**Qur’an 5:8. The Qur'an and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: Selections Annotated and Explained. Annotation by Sohaib N. Sultan. Translation by Yusuf Ali, revised by Sohaid N. Sultan. (Woodstock: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2007).


  1. great post, Shannon! that is so wonderful that your school held a chapel service particularly for this issue--more such services are needed!!

  2. We have been friends for how many years now and still there are days when I am surprised at how different our viewpoints are...

    I remember where I was and what I was doing when I found out. I remember wondering if my Dad had gone on his business trip that he was supposed to go on. I remember being in disbelief and not understanding fully what was going on. And I remember going to the American Red Cross with my Dad and standing in line for hours with complete strangers who were so willing to do something, anything even though they were removed from the situation. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about those hours.

    I think for a brief time, we, as a nation, were one. People were kinder and reached out to others. And then one day, all of that was gone. I don't know what happened, but it saddens and angers me when I think about how we isolated ourselves from one another within our own country. You know me to be very patriotic- so when the flags stopped flying, a little piece of my heart broke.

    I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. I do not think it is a good idea to burn any book- whether it be the Torah, the Bible, or the Qu'ran. America is supposed to be the land of toleration- my political beliefs have me questioning the meaning and placement of that word-

    So- it saddens me to read that you do not mourn the 3,000 plus souls who were murdered that fine September morning. I still do. And I say a little thank you that I was lucky enough not to know someone there... because it could have just as easily been us...

    As always, I thank you for your viewpoint and the opportunity to have a discussion. Although we may not agree, I am truly thankful that we are able to do this.

  3. @ Whitney. Amen! One of the reasons I love Drew so much!

    @Hobbit: I really appreciate your comments and your passion, Amanda. See, I still see flags flying, but rather than people using those flags as rallying points to "become a country of outstretched hands" too many are using them to legitimize hatred against Muslims--- even if it isn't outright hatred but rather "I think it is insensitive to build the mosque [sic--- it's an Islamic cultural center] near the site of 9/11."

    And we ought to mourn every time one person is murdered in a horrible way, but think about how many MORE people innocent civilians in Afghanistan have been killed by USAmerican and NATO soldiers. No one here is mourning them.

    9/11 has been manipulated to give us tunnel vision in our understanding of terrorism. Where is the national mourning of Oklahoma city? Of abortion providers killed by Christian terrorists? It's just such a complicated issue, but we have allowed ourselves to equate al-Queda with all Muslims. This cannot continue.

    I love how we can talk about this stuff too!!!

  4. Shannon,

    Very interesting stuff! My focus in graduate school is American civil religion and Islam in America post-9/11, so I am very interested in the things you talk about in your post, however I have some disagreements.

    I feel that you can mourn 9/11 and struggle with its meaning for us as a country without being an intolerant and hateful git, essentially. I too, as everyone in our generation can say, remember where I was and what I was doing when the planes hit the WTC. I was 15. I was watching the news when I saw the 2nd plane hit live. We were allowed to watch the news all day until we went home early, and I can remember seeing the people leaping from the buildings, watching them flutter to the ground like the pieces of ash and building. That sight has never left my mind.

    I mourn every year for the people who lost their lives in such a tragic way. I mourn everyday for the people in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in places all over the globe who are also suffering. Mourning for 9/11 victims is no less worthy than mourning for the suffering of anyone else, no matter to what use politicians and people have tried to put that mourning. It's not bigoted to be patriotic (to a degree) and it's certainly not to be despised to feel sorrow for a tragedy that affected so many of the people you know/ knew (which for me was a fair few). Just because more people died in Afghanistan does not make their lives more worth the mourning (or less).

    9/11 itself, as an event, has not been manipulated. The facts are there as to what happened. The MEANING of those facts has been manipulated. 9/11 was, in my more academic estimation, a sign of a coming-to-a-head of what Robert Bellah calls the Third Time of Trial in American history, which is a reckoning of our power and our role in the world. 9/11's meaning has come for some to signify a deadly (but fictional) war between good (Christianity) and evil (Islam) which we all must take part and take sides in. But 9/11 has also come to mean exactly what Bellah talked about- a reckoning. Americans are much more aware of our presence and our duties in the world, Islam studies have gone through the roof in enrollment as people try to understand something that previously scared them, and we have a collective duty to understand ourselves better.

    I am patriotic (again, to a degree). I am happy to live in a country where I am allow to disagree, where I'm allowed to be angry or happy with the government with little threat of retribution. I get a little misty-eyed at the national anthem occasionally. I don't think that is wrong or bad or makes me a bigot.

    I guess to sum up my long and rambling comment, understating the importance or tragedy of 9/11 does not make it more easily put to use as a rally to unity. The way to fight Islamophobia is to educate yourself and the people you know on what Islam is, and to communicate with the Muslim community in your area. 9/11 can be what you want it to be- and for many people, myself included, what it already is- if we simply refuse to accept the re-making of the meaning of 9/11 by people who are afraid and ignorant.

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  6. I was watching CNN in the gym when I first heard about this controversy a few weeks back, about the "mosque" being "built on Ground Zero." I just remember a CCN commentator saying something along the lines of, "This is not right!! It's not like you could just put a Nazi center next to a Holocaust memorial!" I just remember thinking (aside from the Islam:Terrorists as Nazis:Nazis silliness), Since when? Since when do differing ideologies get in the way of real estate transactions?--excluding the many laws in place forcing strip clubs and bars to be certain distances from schools and day cares. And as for the “Nazi center” near a “Holocaust memorial,” a better analogy would be a German center near a Holocaust memorial. I bet x100 that it wouldn’t be difficult at all to walk around DC and find a Holocaust memorial just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from a German embassy or similar building.
    This morning, they started reporting that Mr. Koran-Burnerston is holding off his display because the Islamic Center folks agreed to move their building, that the two made a deal about it. There have been varying reports since, but I sure hope that Islamic Center folks aren’t seriously bending that easily. It has a negotiating-with-terrorists feel to me.

    There are reasons why you don't negotiate with them, period. Doing so does nothing but prove to others that they can do the same. Angry about the new mosque coming to your town? Threaten to burn their holy books and watch them turn tail!