I remember it very vividly. I was sitting in my American history class in high school in New York City and suddenly, someone came to the door and whispered something to my teacher. Immediately, the teacher announced that all of us had to go to the auditorium. The time was 9:00AM, the date, September 11, 2001. As I was walking away from the auditorium when we were finally dismissed for the day, I ran into a classmate, and asked her, "I bet the world is going to change for all of us from now on, won't it?" She responded with "I think that the world will change the most for Muslims." Her answer surprised me then, but in light of the recent Florida Quran burning controversy and the New York Muslim Cultural Center building debates, it all makes perfect sense now.
For almost a decade, the September 11 anniversary was a somber call to unity and patriotism, yet divorced from politics. This year, that was not to be. This year, the commemoration of the attacks that witnessed the largest single-day loss of life on American soil will be imbued with political implications as the Islamic Center debate and the Quran burning controversy are heating up. President Obama recently said in a news conference that this day is an "excellent time" for us to realize that millions of Muslims are law-abiding American citizens who are fighting the same war on terror and that many of them died in the 9/11 attacks and were some of the first responders to the scene. I think this message did not really sit well with Terry Jones, a pastor in Florida who preferred to commemorate the attacks by burning Qurans. It seems like Mr. Jones changed his mind and will no longer burn the Qurans, but his "torch" of hatred has infected other groups who tore pages from the Quran only a few blocks away from our Law School, next to the White House as the commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attack was taking place.
The idea of burning the Quran brings me to another incendiary issue, the building of an Islamic Center a few blocks away from Ground Zero. To be honest with you, as much as I was against the Quran burning from the very beginning, I was on the fence about the Islamic Center being built next to the World Trade Center site. On one hand, sure, they have the legal right to build the Center, but then again, nobody is disputing that, and that is not even the issue of controversy. The real issue that has stirred so many passions from every political spectrum of our society is whether it is the right thing to build this center; given the fact that many people feel that it is insensitive to build a Muslim affiliated center so close to the place of an attack that was carried out in the name of Islam. I think President Obama said it best when he said that we are not at war with Islam, but with the terrorists who have distorted Islam. Thus, by being committed to this center, we can show to the radicals that America embraces and welcomes Islam in its midst; the real Islam, the Islam of peace and tolerance. While at the same time, it is the regimes like that of the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or the current Iranian Government, or even our allies, the Saudis, who interpret Islam in such a way that would never allow the same level of freedom for Christians, Hindus, Jews, Baha'is, and Atheists under their rule as our society does.
Although it is important that the sensitivity of the people who were affected by 9/11 is respected in light of the Community Center, it appears that if one actually looks at the facts of the Community Center, that has already been done. From what I understand, the center is more about building inter-religious bridges, instead of burning Qurans, as the Florida Pastor wanted to do. The Center's interfaith component's name "Córdoba House" is supposed to invoke the peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain.
After the United States defeated Nazism in Germany and the jingoistic imperialists of Japan, did we brand all Germans as Nazis and all Japanese as enemies of America? Of course not! We helped these two countries regain their own traditions and culture that existed before the taint of extremism, and these countries remain some of our strongest allies to this day. At the same time, when Bin Laden's al-Qaeda, a group that is much akin to Hitler's Germany attacked us on 9/11, we needed to go after them with words, and not swords. We cannot win the "hearts and minds" of a people by ignoring and trampling over their culture and lands. The only way to defeat an extremist ideology, whether that is a violent fatalistic perverted version of Islam of al-Qaeda and the Taliban or a perverted view of Shinto that was hijacked through the Emperor Worship of WWII era Japan, is to extend an open hand to the peaceful and tolerant strands of those same religions. On that fateful day, 19 men did not just hijack airplanes; they hijacked the religion and way of life of over a billion people. I want to be able to go back to that girl that I spoke with in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and reassure her and the Muslims living in the United States and around the world that America is on their side, and together we will build a better world of tolerance and understanding that will be respectful of traditional Muslim values and culture and not by using tanks, bombs, or oil diplomacy to destroy those same values and turn them into the violence witnessed on 9/11.