After September 11, a Decade of Prejudice

By Asma Afsaruddin

If we were to go solely by newspaper headlines and broadcast media reports, a decade after September 11, 2001, we would have to conclude that the world has become overwhelmingly crisis-ridden and that some things got worse when we thought they could not possibly get worse.

Religiously inspired militants continued to plot terror attacks within the United States and other parts of the world.

Homegrown terrorism raised its ugly head when Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad attempted to blow up a car in Times Square but mercifully failed.

High-profile incidents like the controversy surrounding the Park 51 community centre in New York dominated the news last year. So did the Koran burning launched by Pastor Terry Jones in Gainesville, Florida, which in turn generated violence in Afghanistan.

According to every major opinion survey conducted in the last five years, anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States has grown exponentially and hate-filled rhetoric from right-wing groups continues unabated. All of these incidents are dismal and potent reminders of persistent mistrust and suspicion between what is broadly called the Muslim world and the West.

The list could go on.

But before our long faces become permanent, we should read the smaller print as well. The events that were not proclaimed in banner headlines are worth a second look.

A Senegalese Muslim man was among those who had sounded the alarm about the smoking car bomb planted by Shahzad in Times Square and helped save countless lives.

The Park 51 community centre project enjoys the wholehearted support of the Manhattan Community Board 1 – a New York City community board which represents the people of lower Manhattan – and September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

To counter religious bigotry, interfaith events are more common than ever and are being carried out by low-profile but highly effective religious practitioners. In Omaha, Nebraska, deep in America’s heartland, a tri-faith initiative is planning to build an interfaith campus, slated for completion in 2014, consisting of a synagogue, a mosque and a church on a 37-acre tract of land.

Recently, Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain backed away from his earlier Islamophobic remarks and held out the olive branch to Muslim leaders in Washington, DC.

And Pastor Jones? Today he is a lonely man abandoned by most of his parishioners for his extremism. A recent New York Times feature on Jones reported that in front of his church, signs that declare “Islam Is of the Devil” have been edited by outsiders to say “Love All Men.”

This list could go on.

An apt way then to describe the past decade is that it has been challenging, frustrating and inspirational – all at the same time. It is a decade that brought many of our raw emotions and prejudices to the fore, forcing us to deal with them in the public sphere where they could not be ignored.

For every act that has threatened to bring us back to the precipice of polarisation and hatred, there has been another that showed us a much more humane and enlightened way forward.

Nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously remarked that what does not break you will make you stronger. That day, September 11, did not break the indomitable spirit of those who refuse to give up faith in humanity and who believe in the intrinsic goodness and resilience of the human spirit.

We enter the next decade stronger for continuing to face down the forces of hatred and divisiveness and choosing to replace them with compassion and understanding.

Asma Afsaruddin is Professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of the forthcoming Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought and Practice (2012).

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