Here is a slightly different perspective of what I will #NeverForget about 9/11. Before I do that, I want to say that I grieve the loss of all souls that passed away on that day, and every other day where humanity crumbles because of outrageous acts of mass murder. My heart goes out to the families that have to live with the absence of lost ones.
I was 15-years-old on 9/11/2001. There were maybe a couple of Muslims in Needham, MA, a town of about 30,000 people that I grew up in. The closest mosque is about 15 miles away, maybe more. I had never met a Muslim in my life until I was 19-years-old.
School was cancelled once the Towers fell. I will never forget students chanting things like “USA USA!” and “Fuck the towel heads” in the hallways. Patriotic fervor was high, as you can imagine. For some reason, hysterical students yelling is the one scene that is imprinted in my mind. I remember this image like it was yesterday.
Like most 15-year-olds in America, I had hardly any clue about Islam or Muslims. I say honestly that I fell into the trap of Islamophobia. How could you blame me. In the years after 9/11, the American public was fed outrageous propaganda. We were told Islam and American values were inherently incompatible, and Muslims were trying to destroy our way of life.
Months after I enrolled in college, I decided that I wanted to study politics and international relations. My goal in doing so – to understand the “bad guys.” In the American lexicon, that meant – and probably still means – Muslims. I started to take Arabic classes and courses like “The World of Islam.” I wanted to be a CIA agent. You know, defend the homeland and protect “our” way of life.
But hours after sitting in my first class on Islam, I learned of the famous hadith: “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Those 14 words changed my life forever. It shifted my brain into a different realm. I learned quickly that much of what I had thought about Islam and Muslims was totally wrong. I figured out that I had been brainwashed, and that I had to de-program myself from thinking a certain way about things like the Quran and Prophet Muhammad.
So I started to study. I read book after book after book. I went to mosques. I spent time with Muslims in their homes, schools, and businesses. I interviewed them. I shed tears with them. I enjoyed the company of their friends and family. We broke bread together. We became friends. We became brothers and sisters.
Today, some of my best friends happen to be Muslim. I consider them to be not only extraordinary Americans, but amazing human beings. I depend on them. I admire them. They inspire me to be a better American, a better Christian, and a better human being.
I have learned so much by combining scholarship with activism. You cannot separate the two if you really want to understand the experiences of people or groups. Perhaps books are the starting point of acquiring any kind of knowledge, but without real-life exposure to the issues that you are studying, your knowledge base will be incomplete. The moral of the story – I am where I am today because I made myself available to others with an open mind and a big heart.
To make a long story short, I will #NeverForget the kind of person I was on 9/11/2001. My transformation has been night and day. There are probably millions of young Americans who are now thinking just as I did fifteen years ago. That is scary and potentially dangerous. My goal now is to share my stories, heart and mind with others in the hope of reaching people who might be dealing with Islamophobia. Perhaps in doing so we can prevent the spread of misunderstanding, hatred, and violence. Let us work together to prevent future 9/11’s either on American soil or abroad.