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Politics & Policy


From Maliha R. Ilias, Washington, DC
Oct 15 - 21, 2001

The Economists' Sept. 15th-21st issue declares it as "The day the world changed". That seems like an apt enough statement for a day when people, places, and attitudes changed. Peace, innocence, liberty, freedom, everything did, in fact, change.

I know I can never forget what I saw and felt and heard on Sept. 11th. My first reaction was horror as I saw an airplane gracefully glide into the second tower of the World Trade Center and as I saw the twin towers collapse in a scene right out of a Hollywood blockbuster. My second thought was of my husband, my brother and countless other loved ones in the New York/Washington area. Once my husband and brother's safety was assured, I spent the next two days glued to the TV, devouring every piece of news. I felt the fear of the people who had loved ones missing. I couldn't even fathom the pain of the people who had lost their loved ones. I strongly felt the anger of the world towards the perpetrators of what countless termed as a "crime against humanity." And I couldn't help but wince every time the words "Islam" and "Muslim" were used in the same sentence as the words "fanaticism" and "terrorist."

Within minutes of the attacks, Ehud Barak, Israel's ex-Prime Minister, was interviewed by CNN where he emphatically pointed to Osama bin Laden and Muslim fanaticism as the particular and general culprits. Within hours of the attack, the international media highlighted these suspects and all of a sudden Islam in general and the Middle East in particular found themselves associated with the United States' prime suspect and the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden. Within a day of the attack, the now-famous footage of Palestinians celebrating in the streets showed the mourning world an outlet for its anger and its need for revenge. Even before the Muslims had finished worying and mourning, the world changed for them yet again in the form of the biggest backlash the modern world has seen.

On the one hand, as Muslim countries around the globe scrambled to pledge their support and allegiance to the U.S. in this "new war", the Muslims of the world found themselves the victims of another kind of terrorism. Amrik Singh, a financial consultant, was one of the lucky ones who had arrived late and found his life spared on Sept. 11th. But just as he ran to escape the billowing clouds of dust and debris from the collapsing towers, he also ran to escape two male assailants who called him a terrorist and commanded him to take off his turban (Vedantam.Washington Post; 9/22/01). People from eighty countries worked and died at the WTC. But the people of Middle Eastern, South Asian, Arab and Muslim descent not only died with the others in the WTC but also left behind loved ones in fear for their own lives. Mosques were burnt, driven into, graffitied and vandalized. Women in traditional Muslim garb were cursed at and threatened. Their hijabs (traditional Muslim head covering) were pulled off their heads and some Muslim women were even beaten because they were such easily identifiable targets. Arab and Muslim students found themselves alienated, despised and threatened in universities across the country. Arab and Muslim students in George Mason University in Virginia received threatening emails and emails that said things like "Aren't you proud of yourselves?" "Thanks for ruining the world" and told them to "watch their backs" (McGahan. Washington Post; 9/23/01). In student discussions throughout the university, American students openly showed anger and resentment. One male student was reported to have said "Make the bombing and the targets as large as necessary to kill (Osama bin Laden). If that happens to be one-third of Afghanistan and millions of people die, so be it. That's war." One Afghani student at George Mason University summed up the experience of most Arab and Muslim students in America when she said, " All of a sudden, when you walk through school, life has changed." (McGahan. Washington Post; 9/23/01).

As the backlash gained momentum in the U.S. and all over the world, even people with varying national and religious identities who bore physical resemblance to Arabs and Muslims became unsuspecting targets. Within days of the attacks, the backlash began to culminate from threats to murder. An Indian Sikh gas station owner in Arizona, a Pakistani Muslim grocer in Dallas and an Egyptian Christian in California were killed to avenge the events of Sept. 11th(Vedantam. Washington Post. 9/30/01).

Fear and terror began to mount amongst Muslims all over the world and many considered hiding their religious identities to escape the backlash. Women were told to temporarily abandon their traditional Muslim garb. People were discouraged to go to the mosques, Some even considered altering their names to avoid detection and subsequent harm. But as time began its inevitable healing process, America wiped its eyes and began to see more clearly. President Bush immediately visited an Islamic center in Washington D.C. and urged Americans not to link the Islamic faith, or any faith for that matter, with terrorism. American Muslims also stopped cowering and stood tall to defend their identities. As one New Yorker put it, "The reason I'm a New Yorker is I can practice a number of identities. I am an Arab American. I'm a curator. I have made a home here. I am British by passport. I'm French because I've lived most of my life in France. I'm a vegetarian by choice. Our identities are hybrid. I will defend all of them" (Vedanatam. Washington Post; 9/22/01).

Mainstream Americans also began to realize that generalizing about a racial and ethnic group is not only wrong but dangerous and it runs contrary to some of the founding principles of the country. Once one ethnic, racial or religious group is targeted, all groups become at risk. (White. Washington Post. 9/30/ 01) People began to realize that linking Islam to terrorism is like linking white supremacists to Christianity. It is like associating the people who burn abortion clinics with mainstream Christianity. Muslims and non-Muslims became aware of the fact that the perpetrators of the crimes in NY/Washington were not Muslims but haters of Islam as their actions had put all Muslims at risk.

American Muslims returned to the mosques and found armed guards from Muslim-owned security firms standing at the gates of mosques, searching cars and purses. Churches throughout the country offered to escort Muslim women and children to and from mosques and Islamic Sunday schools in order to protect them from anyone's ill-targeted anger. Just as Americans had thrown eggs at the kitchen windows of Muslim homes, many Americans knocked on their Muslim neighbor's door and offered their protection and support.

Whilst the media churned out news piece after news piece warning the world about America's intentions to declare war and use military force on certain countries and people, many Americans took to the streets in protest. The first large scale anti-war protest took place in downtown Washington D.C. on the 29th of Sept. Caravans of people from California, Ohio, New York and Oregon came to participate in the anti-war protest and to rally for peace. The sentiments, views and attitudes of the protesters were commendable as reporters from the Washington Post recount. One l 9-year old sophomore from New York's Columbia University commented, "I don't think the solution to violence is more violence." She called the protest "democracy in the streets". Reverend Graylan Hagler, minister at the District's Plymouth Congregational Church said, "We rain bombs on Iraq, then we're surprised we're hated." Paul Sturtz, a 37 year old from Columbia, explained his reasons for participating in the protest . "I wanted to send a signal to George Bush and Congress and the American people that everyone is not cowed into submission, not everyone is about unthinking vengeance"(Fernandez & Dvorak. Washington Post. 9/30/01)

More peace rallies and anti-war protests are in the offing across the country as protesters condemn the Muslim backlash and warn against the use of violence. Organizations like the National Council of Churches, many religious leaders, student groups, businessmen, celebrities and activists are publicly urging Bush and the American government to show restraint in their response to the attacks on America. They argue that even though the criminals should be found and aptly punished, war would only increase terrorism rather than eradicate it. CNN's founder, Ted Turner made the following comments at the United Nations according to a reporter from the Washington Post. "We should not, I don't think, go around and indiscriminately start bombing countries that we suspect the terrorists are in because there are terrorists everywhere, here in the United States. What were (Oklahoma City bombers) Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh but terrorists?" (Pianin.Washington Post. 9/20/01)

Many of the loved ones of the victims of the WTC are also joining the ranks of the fast-growing network of peace activists in the country and the world. The words of the wife of a WTC victim bring tears to ones' eyes and strengthen one's belief in the greatness of the human spirit. "The WTC (attack) was in retaliation for something else, and that was the retaliation for something else. Are we going to continue this perpetuity? We have to say at some point, okay, let's find another way of doing this" (Pianin. Washington Post. 9/20/01).

Not only are Americans questioning the political causes of the terrorist attacks on America but the media's onslaught of anti-Islamic news reports are forcing many Americans to explore the Islamic faith for themselves. The Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has reported that they have handed out countless pamphlets and other literature on Islam to Americans who are curious about the faith. CAIR has also unofficially reported nearly 250 converts to Islam over the past few weeks as people read up and learn the truth about one of the most misunderstood religions in the world.

The Americans are a resilient nation and one that deserves to be admired. The American people possess immense moral integrity and strength of character. But they are also an innocent and naive people. A people who are kept so involved in peripheral and insignificant issues like the case of Republican Gary Condit who had an affair with an intern who later disappeared. They know very little, if anything, of places like Chechnya or of people like the Kashmiris or the Palestinians. One thing is for sure though. If the Americans are fully informed of world issues, their moral integrity and honesty forces them into the streets clamoring for justice.

Yes, the world is a changed place but it is still our home. The events of Sept. 11th have taught us that violence, pain and torture to one part can bring unrest to the whole world. That open hearts and open minds can feel the suffering of anyone and everyone. People are still good and places are still wonderful. Beauty still exists and the world is still home.