Professor Matthew Pierce reflects: “Whose tragedy was 9/11?”
It was nearly dinnertime in Egypt when the towers were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. As usual, people were squeezing through Cairo’s congested streets as they commuted home from work, and the news moved like electricity through the city. Everyone began to tune in to the radio or television.
A friend of mine, also an American studying in Cairo, called and told me the news. I rushed to his house to watch television, joining those in my home country who were watching one of the most shocking events in our nation’s short history. The next morning, it took me a long time to get to the school where I was studying Arabic. At every corner along the way, people I knew — and many I didn’t — came out to speak to me and to offer their condolences. At school that day, my dear Muslim teacher immediately put her chair next to mine and looked at me with tears in her eyes. She asked me how I was and how my family was coping. Did I know anyone in the tragedy? Did I need anything? Did I want to take some time off?
Throughout that day and the following week, other teachers, students, shopkeepers and taxi drivers went out of their way to check on me. Again and again people expressed their sorrow that this had occurred, and stressed to me that Islam condemns this act of hatred. In light of this experience, I was surprised to hear prominent American voices saying that Muslims had not denounced this act. To this day, despite the long list of major Muslim leaders and institutions that have unequivocally condemned the terrorist act, I still hear some concern that Muslims have not spoken out against the attack.
Experiencing 9/11 in Cairo gave me a different perspective on events than many of my friends in the United States. In the months that followed the tragedy, I found that my attempts to understand the act of terror in relationship to global political, economic and social contexts were not always well received, and that many were disturbed or angered by my insistence on remembering that all religions can be (and have been) used as a tool by those with violent aims.
We all have different memories of that day, ten years past. But whose tragedy was 9/11? Whose memory are we commemorating on this day? Certainly the families of those who died in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia have the first right to mourn on this anniversary, and we as a country grieve with them. People of many religions were numbered among the victims, including dozens of innocent Muslims. Among them wereRahma Salie, who was seven months pregnant at the time, and Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a NYPD cadet who died while trying to save those trapped in the burning towers.
As the years have distanced us from the original tragedy, I have grown concerned that the right to mourn this day has been denied to some of our fellow Americans. I fear that we have collectively allowed a caricature of one religion to bear the burden of guilt. But we must remember that the attack on Sept. 11 was an attack against humanity. It was the attackers’ ability to dehumanize others that enabled them to kill thousands of innocent people and traumatize a nation. I can think of no response to such a horror more fitting than a refusal to ignore the humanity of others and an attempt to understand the concerns, perspectives and value in all people.
With these memories on my mind, I begin my first year at Centre College. Though I remain concerned about our inclination to scapegoat and dehumanize other groups of people, I believe that through education we have the opportunity — indeed, the moral mandate — to increase our understanding of others and to see things from multiple perspectives. In so doing, we may be able to see more fully how the events of 9/11 have hurt all Americans, of all religions. And in our humanity, we mourn together.