Greetings of Peace (al salamu 'alaykum) dear Friends,
This week marks the 22nd anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11, in my mind, the day that changed everything for Muslims. It kicked off the rise of what would become the incredibly lucrative (for some) and devastating (for Muslims) billion-dollar Islamophobia Industry, which bore abundant evil fruit from which we all now suffer. For my generation and those who are old enough to remember, 9/11 was one of those markers in time that one will never forget. If you ask, "What were you doing when you heard about 9/11?" people remember. It is the equivalent of asking the generation that came before mine, "What were you doing when you heard JFK was assassinated?" They will recount to the last detail what they were doing.
It is strange and a bit breathtaking to know that 22 years have passed since that morning, which is still so clear in my mind's eye. Yet another reminder about the transience of time. We were living in Los Angeles. Dr. Abou El Fadl was still asleep and I had just turned on the TV news in the living room. I watched in horror as every channel replayed the World Trade Center towers being struck again and again by airplane, the first plane at 8:46 am ET, and the second plane a mere 17 minutes later. It was like nothing you had seen before or could begin to wrap your brain around. It was absolutely terrifying and destabilizing. I immediately woke up the Professor, telling him, "You are not going to like this." We stared in shock and silence, watching the images replay. All we kept thinking and repeating as du'a (prayer), "Please God, don't let this be Muslims."
Cherif was in middle school at the time; Mido was still with God, not to arrive for another four years. Once we learned this heinous act of terrorism was likely committed by people claiming to be Muslims, we decided to pick up Cherif early from school and wondered if we should keep him home indefinitely. The world was in chaos, with all attention turned to what would come next. Our imagination ran wild with what repercussions would come against Muslims, and what, if anything we could do - either to help the situation at large, or to protect ourselves from what might come.
Presciently, not three weeks earlier, Dr. Abou El Fadl had published an important explanatory piece in the Los Angeles Times titled, "Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition" (August 22, 2001) in which he wrote:
"...Muslim jurists considered terrorist attacks against unsuspecting and defenseless victims as heinous and immoral crimes, and treated the perpetrators as the worst type of criminals..."
"...Modern Muslim terrorist groups are more rooted in national liberation ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries than they are in the Islamic tradition. Although these terrorist groups adopt various theological justifications for their behavior, their ideologies, symbolism, language and organizational structure reflect the influence of the anti-colonial struggle of the developing world..." [Link to read the full article]
It was the perfect piece to explain why terrorism was not part of our tradition. But in the wake of the terrorist attacks, it was hardly a time for reading and reflecting. We were a nation in crisis. After 9/11, people were in shock. They didn't understand how something like this could happen. How could it be that any religion could condone such an act of unmitigated violence and evil?
The Professor got busy. Within three days of 9/11, he published another piece in the LA Times titled, "What Became of Tolerance in Islam?" (September 14, 2001) in which he explained the reaction, the aftermath, and the lead-up to 9/11 in addressing the question: "What happened to the civilization that produced such tolerance, knowledge and beauty throughout its history?" [Link to read the full article]
I remember so clearly that after the initial shock wore off, there was a brief window of time where people became genuinely interested in understanding and learning about Islam and Muslims. Many people who knew nothing about Islam felt that they should learn something about Islam. They had not yet embarked upon what would soon become a crescendo of fear, racism, and hate.
At the same time, long-time Islamophobes licked their chops and jumped on the opportunity to exploit public fear. Whether or not one believes the conspiracy theories about who and what was REALLY behind the 9/11 attacks, it is undeniable that from that moment on, the investors of hate vastly outspent the investors of salam (peace). In fact, there is absolutely no comparison to speak of. Islamophobia began its meteoric ascent, fueled by billions of dollars of investment. Some notable investigations followed the money, which yielded truly insightful if not truly alarming discoveries: FEAR, INC.; CAIR; and the Southern Poverty Law Center, among others have done great work in tracking the money poured into building the Islamophobic network after 9/11.
The counter-movement? None to speak of. The counter-narrative? Barely perceptible. The counter-spending to push back against the growing Islamophobic tide? Effectively nil. And now, 22 years later, we see the undeniable effect. Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps. Rohingya Muslims massacred by genocide. Palestinians murdered and tormented daily, while barely surviving in an open air prison. Muslims suffering in war-torn nations everywhere. Muslims in India on the brink of genocide. African Muslims on the brink of starvation and fleeing their Muslim homelands. And this is barely a partial list (forgive me for the countless other tragedies worth mentioning that are not mentioned in this handful of examples). In the West, this Islamophobia industry has caused Muslims (and people who look like Muslims) to be murdered and mosques to be damaged or destroyed. Its prolific dark output has sowed fear, hate, and suspicion among non-Muslims, and caused toxic doubt and crises of faith among the faithful. It has made Muslims feel vilified, targeted, and unsafe, and worst of all, ashamed to be Muslim.
Here is perhaps the most obvious point to all of this: when one side is focused on a mission to create fear and enmity against a people, and on the other side, the people who are targeted are either unaware, don't believe this mission exists, or do nothing to defend themselves, what will ultimately happen? When one side pours billions of dollars into spreading misinformation about a people, while those who are targeted don't educate or immunize themselves against the misinformation, nor invest in creating a counter effort to effectively neutralize the misinformation attacks, who ultimately wins? Who ultimately loses?
It is beyond interesting for me to go back and revisit these articles that Dr. Abou El Fadl wrote back in 2001. In many ways, 9/11 also changed everything for the course of our work and our lives. Interestingly, 2001 is the same year that four of Dr. Abou El Fadl's books ended up being published and released despite different writing and production timelines: Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law; the first version of The Search for Beauty: A Conference of the Books; And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses; and Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women. 9/11 prompted Dr. Abou El Fadl to fight back by appearing all over the news, radio, television, in public speaking events, lectures, documentaries, etc. to educate about the Islamic tradition and also speak frankly about injustice, puritanism, and despotism in the Islamic world. He called out the Wahhabis and systematically deconstructed their arguments in public. He also criticized the Muslim community for an insufficient response to 9/11. It was the first year we began getting death threats. In January, 2002, the Los Angeles Times profiled Dr. Abou El Fadl for his work in "Battling Islamic Puritans."
I take this opportunity to revisit our own microcosm of history in the last 22 years. What a difference 22 years makes. Islamophobia went from relative obscurity to fully mainstream in that short time. If someone were to chart the increase in the number of Muslims killed around the world over that timeframe, I am sure the result would be astounding. But apparently, a chart like that is impossible because the deaths of Muslims around the world were not counted. Apparently, they are not worth counting, as reality revealed in that same time period, Islamophobia notwithstanding.
What troubles me most is what will happen in the next 22 years if Muslims don't take proper action. Time marches on and investments grow. The investments of the other side have already paid off in spades. What about our side? When do we begin investing in earnest, like our lives depend on it - because they do?
Compared to the other side, we have done nothing, given nothing, invested in nothing. We are handing over victory to the dark side without a fight when ours is the message of light, love, and goodness. As we know from our tradition, God will not help us until we begin helping ourselves, and with God, we can do anything. Perhaps if more Muslims start to believe this and at least match the investment of the other side, things will be different 22 years from now. One must do more than hope. We must act and act quickly. May God help us all.
Wishing you a reflective 22nd anniversary week of 9/11. May it be full of inspiration, determination, and good action insha'Allah (God willing). Look forward to seeing you online soon! Note that this weekend, The Book of Illuminations halaqa will be on Saturday at 6 pm ET. :)
In Peace and Hope,