Monday, September 19, 2011

Dateline: September 19, 2001, Newark Star Ledger

What I wrote a year ago remains all-too-relevant today. On the 10th anniversary I am proud to have generated a great team and implemented a powerful step toward reconnecting the human family:

Date: 2001/09/19 Published in the Newark Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest daily newspaper

We are Americans, too

Arab community and Islam are not to blame for attacks

I sat on the left side of the NJ Transit train escaping New York City that Tuesday. Like so many of us, I needed to see the smoking towers with my own eyes to shake the disbelief from my senses.

Commuters, ordinarily strangers to one another, talked all the way home. The man next to me and I shared our astonishment and sorrow, wondering what the horrible events might portend. He asked why I had gone to New York that morning, and I said that, ironically, I was producing a television documentary aimed at helping Americans understand Islam better. He shook his head grimly and said, "This is going to help."

I asked why he thought everyone was pointing blame at Muslims at a time like this. "Racism," was his simple and precise response. I trembled involuntarily.

You can't tell I am Muslim just by looking at me. I do not cover my hair. My eyebrows are waxed back to dark, defined, dramatic lines, that don't shout, "I'm an Arab!" Not anymore.

Gone are the painful days of a schoolgirl called "terrorist." No one asks about the camels in my yard anymore, or about the bomb in my backpack. My friend's parents can't forbid me to play with them because now I'm grown up. Not that I ever was a threat. I was just a kid who happened to have a different background, trying to peacefully share the same American playground as everyone else.

I grew up in Queens, and there, as anywhere in the metropolitan area, people of Arab, South Asian or homegrown Muslim roots learned to steel themselves against prejudice.

Until last Tuesday I'd forgotten how much armor I'd been wearing in emotional self-defense. What started in school evolved into decades of explaining oppressed people's frustration in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iran. I'd get the evil eye when I suggested that maybe people in other countries might not see our government as the same "good guy" we may consider it to be.

But Sept. 11 shattered my shields and silenced my historical clarifications. Nothing explains this. Nothing justifies this outrageous attack. We are all horrified beyond expression at the evil we have witnessed. This assault is on upright people everywhere: Muslims, Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and people of no faith.

I join Muslims all over the world recoiling in disgust that anyone could remotely associate this brutality with Islam. With Arab-Americans I weep for the children of Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq who have already suffered extreme deprivation and stand now to suffer even more. I weep for the young Americans who will be taunted and ostracized, as I once was, for crimes they would never commit.

Americans, all of us, are stunned by this act of violence.

Yes, it's imperative to find the guilty parties, try them, convict them and punish them. But it's also imperative that we do not blame the innocent and curse a whole community unfairly. The world is home to 1 1/2 billion Muslims - an estimated 7 million in this country. The overwhelming majority are good, decent people.

Islam is a faith based on peaceful submission to the will of God. Muslims are commanded to respect the faiths of others. We are instructed to do what is good and avoid what is evil. Chapter 35, verse 10 of the Quran says: "If any do seek for glory and power, to God belongs all glory and power. To him mount up all words of purity. It is he who exalts each deed of righteousness. Those that lay plots of evil, for them is a penalty terrible; and the plotting of such will be void of result."

Islam allows no excuse for the killing of innocent people.

So why are some Americans reacting so forcefully against Muslims? To take blind vengeance on Muslims or Arabs is another kind of evil that we, as Americans, have been fighting for decades. That evil is bigotry, so starkly stated by my fellow commuter in the shadow of the smoke last Tuesday.

Bigotry and racism won't help: not locally, not globally.

It will take years, perhaps generations, for all the emotional and political dust to settle from the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. For Muslims the pain and politics are multilayered. We have not only suffered the loss of loved ones but also are suddenly suspect - guilt by association. Numerous acts of violence against Muslim businesses have been reported around the country. Mobs have menaced mosques; women in traditional Islamic dress have been beaten. Many shudder with the knowledge that their homelands may soon come under attack.

I am heartened by what I've seen in many New Jersey towns: calls for solidarity among all our diverse communities and measured military response. The guideposts for action are in our great Constitution and the prayerful words of "America, the Beautiful": "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law."

What your Muslim and Arab neighbors, your doctors, your students and classmates, coffee-shop owners and gas station attendants need now is to be embraced, not rejected. We are not the "them" or the "they" that did it. We are part of "us." We stand with other Americans. Together we can build a more stable and understanding tomorrow.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011


On September 6 an inspired audience sat in the Greene Space at WNYC, as Valarie Kaur and fellow panelists Hussein Rashid, Ari Wallach and Beth Zemsky laid out a foundation for a hopeful new social movement for the 21st century. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already pumped, primed, and part of it … Certainly the 9/11 Walks project embodies it … Auburn Seminary, hosting of the event, took the brave step of naming it something: “Groundswell.” Kaur is the project director as it is conceived by Auburn.

The event was an opportunity for the audience, mostly from the “progressive left,” to learn how to make something of “collective intentional action,” as Zemsky, a social change strategy expert explained. It was a chance to c

onsciously frame a conversation for the future that goes beyond “rights” and “tolerance” to an age of welcome and partnership. It is a time for turning “campaigns” into lasting aspirational world views. It is also a time to include faith.

“Our generation, the Millennials,” said Kaur, “doesn’t see ourselves as black or white, Asian or American, Muslim or Sikh, straight or gay.” (I, who am of another generation with more years here deeply appreciate that sentiment, yet I wonder, who DO they see? We all see someone. Is it possible simply to see character and qualities like honesty, honor, intelligence and humility?)

I went to the microphone at the appointed time, and spoke of the 9/11 Walks. ”We are one way to connect with another person. we are decentralized. We ask people to ‘see no strangers,’” I said, referencing key points made by Hussein, Wallach, and Kaur respectively. ”And we are motivated by the enlightened longings and bold visions expressed here tonight. But we’re responding to one thing more that hasn’t been mentioned. Fear. An underlying fear of another, the other, existing today that makes all of our efforts essential. Fear of Muslims, fear of “crusaders,” fear of terrorists, fear of drones and fighters jets, fear of cyberattack, fear of occupation, fear of physical and cultural annihilation, fear of flying, fear of worshipping false idols, false leaders, and false pretenses. We, the 9/11 Walks, are taking our small steps as an act of hope and courage to make a mark of kindness on the face of fear. What else do YOU see as possible. What else can people do, what else can we do to face and diminish fear?”

One good answer was to make sure to tell your story to another and to hear the other’s tale, too. That makes the other person multi-dimensional.

Another good answer was to keep hope and your aspirational world view front and center.

What do YOU think we can do? We are already on this Walk together … Share what you think.