I remember the day very vividly, perhaps like each and every person who has been affected by it does. I remember the trauma, panic, and tears in the café of my English language school. The same frames kept rolling on the TV screen which we could not turn our eyes from, hoping that what we saw were not real. Anyone who has managed to maintain a modicum of humanity and conscience feels saddened, mournful and full of pain due to what happened on that day.
The following day journalists, writers, columnists, newscasters, academics, members of think-tanks, and politicians announced that this day had been a milestone. The term “milestone” marks the beginning of new things; what was about to begin now? As time passed we understood what they meant. Nothing in America was the same as before. On September 10, 2001 it had been the land of liberty; on September 12 the situation totally changed. Due to the religious identity of the members of Al Qaeda, who were declared to be the perpetrators, the USA, indeed almost the entire world, had become uninhabitable for anyone with the same religious identity. Liberty had been replaced by constraints and accusations. Not only the USA, but indeed the entire world had shrunk for Muslim people.
It is possible to understand the anger of Americans who lost their loved ones in this tragic incident, one in which almost 3,000 people died. It is also possible to understand people insulting Muslim women wearing headscarves and Muslim men in their beards and turbans. Attacks on mosques during this time could even be considered tolerable. However, what is difficult to understand is the long-lasting discrimination against Muslims and the perception of each and every Muslim as a potential terrorist. For the USA, a country with multicultural politics it cannot be reasonable to formalize changing attitudes with legislation. Something was happening to this country, one which had been advocating peace not war, one that had been known as the land of freedom and diversity. However, all this has happened because America was undergoing a period in which wisdom had been abandoned, something noted by many people.
I want to tell you about two of my memories. One of them occurred in 1999. I and several friends were going to the southern region of New Jersey. When we landed at JFK, we had another 2 hours to drive to our destination, if the traffic was light. Because it was time to pray and we would not be able to get to our destination before the time to pray, we decided to pray on the way. We performed ablution in a rest area. We laid our prayer rugs on the ground and we prayed in public, on the grass. We did not notice anyone glaring at us. We did not encounter any quizzical expressions nor were we treated in any disparaging manner. People in the USA would ask Muslims to mention them in their prayers when they came into contact with God. They also used to show us places to pray. But today? Although some claim that attitudes have not changed, Muslims cannot pray without worrying about somebody calling 911. This is not just an empty claim or remote possibility. There have been many examples of this kind of situation.
Another memory is from the USA of 2002. I was at an airport, getting ready to fly to another state. Although I passed through a number of security checkpoints along with other passengers, the security officer pulled me over. This had happened many times after 9/11, but this time I could not resist asking, “Why?” I had become exasperated with such acts of discrimination. I was fed up with being treated like a terrorist and a man to pity under scornful eyes. Angrily I asked “Why me?” I suppose he had undergone training in psychology. He held my arm, smiling, which made me feel comfortable. He showed me my boarding pass and the 3 S on it. He explained that it means extra security check. He said that the computers put these letters there because I have a Muslim name. He also told me that I should not take it personally because the computer program adds this to all names entered into the system. I realized that my name, which I have always been proud of, was now a reason for discrimination. I am sure that this was only because of 9/11 and Al Qaeda.
Are such precautions appropriate? Many authorities, in particular, politicians at that time agreed they were necessary. There were some people who did not agree, but their number was less and they could not speak up. 10 years after this horrific incident many people now say that all such actions were inappropriate.
The past stays in the past. It is ridiculous to try to carry yesterday’s issues to today. However should we not learn from the past? I Religion, language, ethnicity, creed, and profession are our secondary identities, coming after being human. These were differences that gave us a sense of belonging. In the same way that capital has no religion, terrorism cannot have any religion. If there is a list of words that cannot go together, “religion and terrorism” takes first place. We can neither relate to religion nor explain by religion what the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh or the Norwegian terrorist Behring Breivik did. In the same way that we cannot relate what they did to their religious identity as Christian terrorism, we cannot do the same with the events on 9/11 as Islamic terrorism. However, sadly this has not been the case.
All rational Muslims have exclaimed that it is in no way justified to identify Islam and Muslims with terrorism. Many authorities, scholars, politicians, academics, and opinion leaders have also said that this was a grave mistake. Even though a terrorist may have a Muslim identity, you cannot generalize and scrutinize such behavior from an Islamic perspective. On that day the newspapers published full-page condolence messages. Muslim scholars and academics also penned letters that condemned terrorism. This period, as it was one in which wisdom did not exist, prevented people from seeing all this, perhaps because it was Islam being accused and they didn’t really care about it, or because they did not want to change their foreign policy which they based on these attacks, or because they were prejudiced, or because they wanted to ease public opinion. What did happen was that common sense was ignored and people behaved as they wanted to.
Thank God, this lack of wisdom did not last long. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the mood has changed. Not all Muslims are considered to be potential terrorists anymore. People who have Muslim names do not get extra security checks at airports. The terrible slaughter in Norway has made the authorities start to reconsider their policies. Religious and cultural diversity projects and models for living together with peace are being reviewed. Projects that cover all areas of life, such as world brotherhood, coexistence while preserving differences, making the world a place for togetherness, preventing the otherization of other people have all started to take place despite the existence of some people who still see “others” as the enemy. We sincerely hope that those who are for peaceful coexistence will dominate over the second and the world will never experience a new 9/11, Oklahoma, Madrid, London, or Oslo attacks again.