I was in the 7th grade on September 11, 2001. I was walking from Social Studies, taught by Mrs. Cooper, down the hall to Health with Mr. Green. Principal Hughes’ voice suddenly broke the noise of a middle school hallway to announce that any student with parents or family members who worked in New York City were to come to the main office. I thought this was a rather odd announcement, but as it didn’t apply to me, I kept walking to class. In health class, Mr. Green turned on the TV that was usually reserved for 90’s era educational videos. One of the World Trade Center towers had smoke streaming out of it; the announcer said a plane had crashed into it.
I was confused. The towers were huge — was the pilot blind? Did the plane have really terrible mechanical failure? Wasn’t there a river right there that would have been less … inhabited?
I excused myself to go to the restroom. When I came back, the second tower also had smoke streaming out of its middle section. My first reaction was a nervous chuckle — the kind that comes out when you have no other reaction but complete shock. I looked around to Mr. Green, hoping he would say that it was just a pretend movie and that we would be discussing traumatic events in today’s lesson, but he sat shaking his head. I decided then that I would wake up soon, but it never happened. The planes crashing into the towers no longer seemed like an accident, but something done on purpose.
We knew the information soon enough — where, when, what happened. In the days that followed, the dominant question was: why? Why did they do this? Why do they hate us? What had we done to them? We thought we had “who?” figured out, too, but looking back, we hadn’t addressed this question in any adequate way.
“Who” was not “the Muslim world,” but the distinction between the extremist individuals on the plane and the entirety of the believers of Islam was ignored. There were images of people in Muslim countries holding vigils for the families of 9/11 victims, but in the frenzy to go into Afghanistan afterwards, we seem to have forgotten that they were ever sympathetic. We were angry and confused, and people who are angry and confused rarely take the time to make sure all the details are in place. It was much easier, and quicker, to just lump people into one category based on one characteristic that Americans were unfamiliar with. Stereotypes speed things up. Besides, we wanted to be tough, not hippies.
It helped that we could point to practices in this unfamiliar religion and use even liberal arguments against it — women’s rights, for instance, seemed to have trumped freedom of expression whenever the case was made, as it is in France, that burqas and headscarves meant that women were subordinate. It’s a hard line to draw, between those who do it out of faith and those who do it because they are forced to by society. But then, why did we never ask the Catholic Church about its subordination of women in the church hierarchy in the same way we scrutinized this foreign, supposedly violent religion?
I’m a senior in college now, and the news on TV has been about whether or not a mosque should be built a few blocks from the site where the planes crashed into the towers — Ground Zero. Most arguments against the proposed mosque (if it qualifies as a “mosque,” given the other facilities that would be built as well) have centered on an emotional harkening back to 9/11. I can understand why people would be angry. A mosque, to them, represents why the hijackers hated America. But the terrorists were not representative of their faith. Just as there are extremists in every religion, including in Christianity, the 9/11 hijackers were individuals with radical thoughts apart from the mainstream. The reason we hear about madrassas, or the schools where they teach extremist thought, is exactly because it’s extremist. If violence were truly a pillar of Islam, wouldn’t its billions of practitioners throughout history have destroyed the world by now? Instead, the majority of Muslims live in peace today, following their faith the way other peaceful believers do.
What we need to do at this time is embrace the Muslim community, not further isolate them. Extremism thrives on isolation — it allows the most devious and radical thoughts to continue to fester, to blind, to dominate without a rational voice to argue any other way. By alienating the Muslim community, we let the hijackers win. They stereotyped us, and decided that we were the best target. We would be the enemy, their scapegoat for what in their lives didn’t feel right or secure. To turn around and do the same to the Muslim community, to show the rest of the world that America really is the enemy of Islam, would be to give encouragement to the madrassas whose teaching we are fighting against. How much more ammunition can we afford to give them at such a critical time?
The only way to combat hate is with understanding. 9/11, some scholars say, is the event that will define my generation the way that Vietnam defined the generation before. Nine years later, with our troops halfway around the world, it’s time to heal. I can’t think of a better way than to embrace the Muslim community and show that, in a post-9/11 world, we have finally learned that hate leads to destruction, and that with mutual understanding comes peace. We should reach out with helping hands rather than with fists and curses, because we are better than that. The first step is tolerance, the second is acceptance. I’m optimistic that eventually we could get to love.
Susan Zhu ’11 (szhu@fas) is clinging to her faith in humanity by her fingernails.