By Diana Skelton (United States)
In New York City in the days following September 11th, 2001, we saw an outpouring of volunteerism and fellowship. New Yorkers, who are so often criticized as being rude and unfriendly, came together for candlelight vigils, to feed and encourage the heroic rescue workers at 3 am, and simply to look strangers in the eyes with mourning as we walked among flyers describing the thousands of people still considered “missing”. In those days and weeks, the city was also blanketed with American flags, hastily printed in tabloids and cut out to tape to every window, flags woven or knitted and sent to school-children from as far away as Japan–and flags displayed by immigrants in the taxis they drive and on the cash registers of every tiny 24-hour convenience store they run.
“Jingoism,” said a Tanzanian friend of mine. His word surprised me. In the face of such a massive terrorist attack, in the face of the deaths of people of every social and ethnic background and religion, the flags at first seemed like an affirmation of the desire to live in a pluralistic society, one where the Twin Towers represented many things: not only the place of work for talented financial wizards and working-class people in the service industry, but a place hosting many free cultural performances open to all, and also a place of worship where Muslim prayers were held regularly in some of the stairwells. But the past decade has proved my friend overwhelmingly right. The wars the United States has waged in Afghanistan and Iraq and an ever-more polarized political dialogue have turned the US into a place where the idea of building a community center and place of worship two blocks from the World Trade Center site led to nationwide fear-mongering, simply because the community involved is Muslim.
How can the anniversary of 9/11 be an opportunity for us to move past jingoism and fear-mongering? In the Arab Spring, we have seen many brave people rise up against repressive governments. While admiring their courage, some Americans are worried that religious belief is a source of inspiration for some of the protesters. But seeing religion as one source of organizing for social protest should not look unfamiliar to us:
• When 19th century slaves were forbidden to congregate, the only way for them to speak together of freedom was in their own religious observances where their spiritual songs could take inspiration from Exodus and Moses.
• In the 1960s, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was an important step toward civil rights.
• Many different religious groups helped organize the protest movement against the Vietnam War.
Anthropologist Saba Mahmood, whose work focuses on Egypt and the Middle East says, “There is a desperate need to challenge the current way of framing things, as a civilizational stand-off between Islam and the West. This way of thinking is not only dangerous but also unsustainable […]. I believe that we have the historical language and analytical skills to think differently, to imagine a future in which Islam and the West are not locked in some zero-sum game.”
Looking back on these past ten years calls to mind Langston Hughes’ 1938 poem, “Let America Be America Again”:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”) […]
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be!
On this anniversary of that day that changed everything in America, may we work toward the America built on volunteerism and fellowship, the America with equality for all in the air we breathe.