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Can 9/11 Be Seen As A Blessing?

An excerpt of a speech I recently gave for the Muslim Women's Fund.

 Can We See 9/11 as a Blessing?


The topic I was asked to speak about today is What it Means to be an American Muslim in the 21st Century and the legacy we Muslim Americans leave our Children.  As an author and activist, I’ve been a small part of the national conversation about Muslims so I’ve been in the unique position these past years to watch it evolve.  


Nearly a deacade after 9/11, a surprising backlash against Muslims is occuring in the U.S. Muslim children are being taunted in school yards around the nation.  A Florida minister threatened to burn the Qur’an.  Hate crime against S. Asian and Arabs is at an all time high.

The climate is such that some Muslim American have gone so far as to legally change their name so as not to be identified as Muslim.  


I think the natural thing we want to do right now is to not call attention to ourselves as Muslims.  Because we think that will keep us safe.  That may be a viable short term solution.  But if we want to build a future where we and our children can safely express our faith, then now of all times it’s imperative that we each do what we can -- even the smallest bit -- to soften the backlash and correct the misinformation.


To encourage all of us to have patience during this disturbing time, I want to paraphrase a quote from the Dalai Lama.  In 1989, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize for his continuous peaceful protest of the Chinese Occupation of Tibet.  The prize brought the plight of Tibet international attention.   When the Dalai Lama was asked how he felt about the Chinese occupation of Tibet and his resulting exile.  Rather than be bitter, as I -- and I think, most of us, would have expected --  he said something that astonished me.  He said, The Chinese Occupation of Tibet had brought about a huge blessing.  Because of the international attention, Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism were no longer confined to the border of that tiny, remote country.  Instead, they had spilled over into the world. Everyone is now aware of Tibetan Buddhism and of the Dalai Lama.


I’m going to ask everyone here to think that 9.11 has done something similar for Muslims.  

Right after 9.11, Muslims and Islam became the center of every conversation on  national TV and at the family dinner table.  NonMuslims the world over suddenly wanted to know who Muslims are, to understand what we believe in and, in the United States, the Qur'an became a national bestseller.  True, this isn’t the same as the Muslim Community getting the Noble Peace Prize.  We aren’t receiving international adoration.  And no Hollywood -- or Bollywood -- celebrity is coming out in support of our cause.


But if we can have the kind of wisdom the Dalai Lama does, perhaps we can learn some important lessons from this time.  And so keep the faith and courage we need to continue countering the growing backlash.


Let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves, what blessings have come out of 9.11? I think for me, the answer is this:  Despite the hysteria and fear we’re experiencing, more Americans understand Islam better today than ever before.  And more Muslims understand Islam better today than ever before.  And that, to me, is the blessing of 9.11.


But what does all this have to do with our identities as Muslim Americans?  Here are 3 significant ways in which the American Muslim ummah has changed in the past decade since 9.11:


1.  Muslims have grown more tolerant and accepting of other Muslims.


When I was growing up, the biggest conversation happening within my Indian-Pakistani Muslim community was what I often refer to as: spiritual materialism.  We’ve all heard the phrase, Keeping up with the Jones to describe material competition.  Well, this was, Keeping up with the Khans.


Conservative Muslims tended to measure their faith by the rejection of another’s faith.  

That person is Shia so that person is not Muslim.  That woman doesn’t cover so she is not Muslim.  That person doesn’t pray five times, that person missed a day of fasting, that person drinks wine.   Because we didn’t have to battle the outside world, we had the luxury of dragging ancient tribalism into 21th century America and battling each other, proving ourselves somehow more worthy of Allah by condemning others.  I spent much of my childhood feeling like an inadequate Muslim.  I didn’t cover.  I wore make up.  And for a woman, I was very vocal.  


Today, the tent of who comfortably and confidently calls themselves a Muslim has grown.  Conservatives don’t spend their time trying to kick me out.  I don’t spend my time defending and justifying my Muslimhood.  The crisis facing Islam today has forced Muslim Americans to mature, to realize and accept that there are multiple expressions of Islam.  


2.  We’ve become more unified as a community.  


Among my peers, we have stopped asserting our differences to others by stating that we are Shia or Sunni.  Instead, we have learned to stand together under the larger umbrella of Muslim.  No longer are the differences dividing us.  But our commonalities are bringing us together, making this ummah whole.


3.  We’ve found our voice.


Whether it’s an attorney like Ferhana Khera who is the executive director of Muslim Advocates and who recently testified at the Senate Hearing to help protect American Muslim Civil Rights.  Or Daisy Khan and Imam Faisal who’d like to open the Cordoba House near ground zero to build better understanding among the various faiths.  Muslim Americans of all backgrounds are finding a voice, whether it’s through politics or grassroots, fundraising or angel funding, legal or social means.  


Not only are there more Muslim American organizations than ever before, not only are we each more aware of various Muslim communities around the nation than ever before, but most of us are finding a space for ourselves in this larger American Muslim ummah, a space where we can comfortably express our individual spirituality.  Most of our parents came here in the late 60s/early 70s and integrated into American society.  Our generation is no longer content with just integrating.  We are active in politics, in writing articles for the Huffington Post, we are actively influencing and changing the national and international dialogue about Muslims.


What I am saying is that the reason Americans understand Islam better today than ever before is because we, as the American Muslim ummah, have forced them to.


I want to read something the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and staff writer for The New York Times, Andrea Elliot, wrote just a week ago:


“ ... in my years of writing about American Islam, I have been reminded again and again of the sensitivity that labels bring to this extremely diverse community. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say, “I’m just Muslim.” They don’t want to be pigeonholed as a particular *kind* of Muslim, especially in a post-9/11 world prone to overly-simplistic notions of the faith and what its various practitioners represent.

At the same time, this is not a monolithic group. There is, of course, a whole range of ways in which Muslims observe their faith or identify with it. The spectrum includes self-described secular Muslims, progressives, conservatives, reformists. And each one of these categories encompasses different groups.”


That statement is something American Muslims can take pride in.  We’ve successfully educated journalists on how to represent us.  Which isn’t to say there isn’t a long journey and many challenges ahead .  For instance, we had to endure Chairman Peter King’s hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims.  


But for every instance of backlash and fear, there is a monumental step forward that I believe can only happen in America.  Unlike parts of Europe that have banned the veil, the U.S. Department of Justice has worked to enforce laws that allow women to express their religious beliefs.  The Dept. of Justice actually sued a county prison in New Jersey for wrongfully firing a woman because she wore a headscarf.  And, unlike in Saudi this past week where women continued to be banned from voting, Muslim women across the U.S. have the right to vote.  And again just this past week, Senator Dick Durbin held a meeting protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims.  And CNN released a fabulous documentary entitled, “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door,” which actually highlights how fear and lack of information are the root causes of much of the backlash against American Muslims.


The struggle against intolerance, the back and forth pendulum of justice and injustice that we are experiencing during this volatile time in the U.S. is because we are living through a time of change.  The Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, no movement for justice happens without a struggle.  We just happen to be the generation living through the struggle.  We are pioneers.   We are paving the path not only for our children but for the next generation of children of all Americans.


Since 9/11, how we’ve defined ourselves as American Muslims has evolved and matured.  And that definition will continue to evolve and mature based on our actions, our words, and our choices as we continue to move forward in this struggle.  Having witnessed the overall arc of the national dialogue on Muslims, I am not disheartened by what is happening at this present moment because I know it’s transitory.


The blessings that have come out of 9.11 give me the hope that the legacy that all  Americans -- Muslim and not -- will leave our children will be the legacy of opportunity.  The freedom to live their faith based upon the persuasion of their minds, hearts and souls.  As the constitution itself promises, our children will have the freedom to live their faith in peace.