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Guest Opinion: A Muslim American Nightmare

A Muslim American Nightmare

By Firas Al-Atraqchi

It has been almost two months since the nightmare began. A nightmare for almost everyone I know. A nightmare for thousands of innocent lives lost; now they dream no more.

I still remember everything from that day and I do not think this new century will likely forget it. September 11th started out with a jolting phone call early in the morning with screams coming from the other end. A friend was on the verge of tears as she told me the Pentagon had been blown up and she feared for her mother who worked nearby. My first instinct was to go back to sleep, sure that this was a hoax or simply misinformation.

My journalistic curiosity, however, got the better of me and I got up and tuned into the global mouthpiece, CNN. I was just in time to see the second tower collapse. I was hardly awake but the images of that giant tower, that epitome and standard of everything America represented, shocked me into consciousness. I simply could not believe it, what the hell was going on in the world? I hurriedly played a maestro switching between one channel and another; everyone was in shock, they were on some form of auto-pilot. Reporting without really knowing. Knowing without really reporting.

I thought of the hellish inferno that tore through the steel towers, the last thoughts of the people working at their desks. The recurring images of planes slamming into the towers were haunting. The first thought I can vividly remember was that this must surely be the end of the world. I then pondered what other attacks we were all in store for. The Pentagon had been hit. There were reports of other hijacked planes. Oh God, is this it? Is this how the faint, bright flicker of humanity would end?

Another phone call. A friend in the U.S. Army called me. He told me to stay at home. And then it began to set in. The Arabs would get blamed for this. The Muslims would get blamed for this. Some Islamic group would get blamed for this. Oh God, the Americans were going to kill everyone.

My fear subsided somewhat as the afternoon approached. No, the Americans were not crazy, they were not barbarians. I prayed that it was not the Arabs or Muslims that had done this. Someone said that a radical Japanese faction carried out the attacks in retribution for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In my selfishness I prayed that was true, but in my heart I doubted it very much. My doubts turned to anger and confusion. If this was an act done by Arabs or Muslims then it would have been the single most ignorant, most vile, most diabolical attack not only on America but on the nation, principles and spirit of Islam itself.

Within a few hours, we were hearing reports that followers of Bin Laden had carried out this attack. This was terrible news. I feared for Muslims around the world, especially those in North America. They had endured so much already. My anger grew as the numbers of missing began to pour in. Pictures of New York were forever altered now. Two pillars that stood tall to welcome all visitors to New York were gone. It was horrible. It could not be understood. I had lived in New York for several periods throughout my life. It somehow seemed to be the center of the world, but that world had now lost its center. Shattered.

My confusion continued. A darkened rainbow of emotions ran through me as we began to hear of how many may have died in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and that lonesome, infamous field in the heart of Pennsylvania.

The F.B.I. had by now almost gathered enough preliminary evidence to point to Osama Bin Laden as the culprit behind this attack. The F.B.I. claimed that 19 Arabs had hijacked four planes and commandeered them to their evil ends. I was disgusted and reviled. How could anyone do this?

I had heard of Bin Laden before but never as much as the potpurri of information that flooded through the networks, print media, and online those few days after September 11th. He had grievances about the plight of Palestinians, the millions dead in sanctions-clad Iraq, and U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. The Twin Towers attacks, however, did not exonerate him. This was murder, plain and simple. It did make me feel threatened and ashamed that the people who did this claimed to be Muslims.

Nothing I knew of Islam taught this. Nothing in Islam said fight injustice with injustice. The people that died, the dozens of firemen, the workers in the buildings, the foreign nationals, the women and children – none of them had done anything to warrant this.

As a Muslim living in North America, I wanted to cry out to someone. At someone. I wanted to beat my fists into the wall. I thought of the passengers on the planes who had set out in the morning thinking they would reach their destinations. What were their final thoughts as they looked out their windows and saw that they were flying into the World Trade Center?

I thought of the workers in the Twin Towers. I thought of those valiant fireman, EMS and rescue workers who had rushed in only to have the rubble of hell fall on them. I thought of the Arabs and Muslims who had been harassed, beaten, and in some cases, killed in North America because of the September 11 tragedy. I thought of the Sikhs who had been killed. I thought of the children who would never see their parents, and the parents who would have their children ripped from their embrace. I thought of this wonderful, just, compassionate and merciful Islamic faith now tarnished in the eyes of the western world.

How would America react? U.S. President Bush did not seem to have a great track record of late. The first thing he did when he took office was bomb Iraq for no real reasons. And he seemed to be pulling the U.S. into an isolationist, fortress North America kind of reality. How would he react?

My mother and I sat and watched when he addressed Congress, America, and the world. He was firm and determined. And he was eloquent when he spoke of Islam as a religion of peace. Again and again, George W. reiterated the teachings of Islam. He visited a Mosque in Washington, D.C. and quoted a verse from the Quran. I admired him for that. The man was trying. He was learning. Although I had rarely agreed with U.S. foreign policy, here was George W. speaking with vigor, honesty, charisma, and humanity. His nation had just suffered the worst domestic attack. Ever.

Although there were still attacks against Muslims and Arabs throughout North America, the media was trying to learn and teach Islam at the same time. Except for some dubious and unenlightened media personalities, shows like 60 Minutes and Oprah were making an earnest attempt to try and learn the truth about Islam. From the ashes of the World Trade Center, I saw hope. Hope that this could bring people closer. Hope that we could learn that tragedy is not racist but encompasses all of us.

I feel sorry for those committing racist attacks against minorities. They do not understand that what they do mimics the evil plots of the hijackers and criminals. Attacking someone because they wear a turban or are of olive complexion is as much an evil as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the killing of thousands of innocent lives. Have we learned nothing from Kristallnacht? Have we learned nothing from the pogroms, the racial profiling, the civil rights movements?

In the weeks to follow I felt compelled to speak out. I wanted to tell non-Muslims that the teachings of the Quran abhor the events of September 11th. I wanted to point out that no Muslim could condone, let alone support such insanity. The very word Islam is based in the root Semitic letters of s, l, m which form the basis of the root Hebrew word, shalom.

Shalom in Hebrew, like Salaam in Arabic, means peace. It is not surprising that both words mean peace because Hebrew and Arabic share a common origin – they are both Semitic languages. Islam transliterated simply means “the surrender”; a Muslim is one who has absolutely surrendered to the will of God and has thereby entered into a realisation of peace, or salaam.

Islam is not a violent faith, but a just one. Islam preaches toleration and self-defence in the face of injustice. Under no circumstances are Muslims allowed to aggress – “God loves not the aggressors” (Quran, 2:189), “Surely God loves not the treacherous” (Quran, 8:60), “And if they incline to peace, do thou incline to it, and put thy trust in God” (61). I prayed people would put their trust in God.

And yet, we saw images of people supporting Osama bin Laden, images of people cheering what happened. I felt sorry for these people because they were misguided and ignorant. Ignorant like those that followed Osama bin Laden and the Taliban oppression of true Islam. These people did not realize they were increasing intolerance and bigotry. It was a case of the blind leading the blind. Osama bin Laden is not a Muslim Cleric. He is not an authority on Islam. He is a politician who has hijacked Islam for his own twisted ends. This is not a jihad. The attacks on the World Trade Center were murder, pure and simple, and no educated Muslim could approve.

It is November 1st and the whole world has been holding its breath as the bombing of Taliban positions enters its fifty-fifth day. There are reports of U.S. bombs and missiles going astray. Our television screens are festooned with images of sick and wounded Afghan children, women and those with no real political nor military affiliations. So, where do we, as the human family, go from here?

I am now saddened by the innocent deaths of Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire. They have endured Soviet occupation, civil war, illegitimate and despotic Taliban rule, and now constant bombing.

I am saddened by the deaths in the World Trade Center.

I am saddened by the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who have died as a result of U.N. Sanctions.

I am saddened by the CNN images of Iraqi fathers searching for the charred remains of their children when a bunker housing them was hit during the Gulf War. Or the 800,000 dead Rwandans Hutus and Tutsis.

I am saddened by the deaths of Palestinians, Israelis, Druze and Christian deaths in the Middle East.

Every person killed has a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, a sister, a brother. It doesn’t matter whether they are Afghan, American, Palestinian, Iraqi, Israeli, Mexican, or Danish. Pain and suffering is universal. Compassion and justice must be as well.

Firas Al-Atraqchi
1 November 2001
Vancouver, Canada

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