Upon hearing those words, I was overwhelmed with a horrible sinking feeling and fear gripped my entire being. "Oh no!" I said to myself, and I prayed, "Lord, PLEASE do not let it be Muslims."
As I drove home, I listened to the chaos of the immediate aftermath on National Public Radio. I heard of the Pentagon being struck; the White House being evacuated; the fourth plane crashing in Pennsylvania. I held out hope that this would all turn out to be a disastrous traffic accident. When President Bush said that the World Trade Center and Pentagon were the targets of an apparent terrorist attack, however, I was overcome with an intractable sense of doom, even more fear, and a little panic.
I went home and watched both towers collapse on television, not being able to move for two hours. I hoped that what I was watching unfold was all a bad dream from which I was about to awaken. Unfortunately, it was no dream.
I went to my daughter's school to take her home. She goes to an Islamic school (where my wife teaches the 4th grade), and I watched as parent after parent took their oblivious children by the hand and into their automobiles. School officials made sure every child was accounted for, and they closed the school for fear of a retaliatory attack. The school remained closed for four more days.
Even though a year has passed, I still shudder when my thoughts return to that morning. Whenever I look at the photographs taken in the days after the attacks or the gaping hole in the New York City skyline, my heart sears in pain. The attack and its aftermath--the detentions, the anti-Muslim backlash, the profiling of our community, have changed me completely. The person I was on September 10, 2001, and the person I am today are complete strangers who would not recognize one another. Four words describe this change: reflection, resignation, anger, and resolution.
The terrorist attacks have caused me to reflect on the nature of Islam and the state of the American Muslim community; over my role in American society; over my own biases and prejudices. The weekend after the attacks, our mosque held an open house. Two men on motorcycles dressed in leather jackets rode up. Everyone's eyes followed them suspiciously. As I greeted them, I was extremely nervous. But they were two of the nicest men I have ever met--sincere and respectful in their questioning--and I was glad to have met them.
I have also reflected much on Islam and Muslims as a result of the terrorist attacks, and I've concluded that we Muslims must take a critical look at ourselves and examine how we let our faith become infected with such violent people.
These past 12 months have also led me to come to the realization that, however wrong it may be, Muslims must always contend with the ugly legacy of terrorism. It is partially unfair: terrorists come in all stripes, but the persistent media focus on terrorists of the Muslim flavor would make anyone think that, as a recent editorial commentary in a suburban Chicago newspaper declared, "All of the Arab countries in the Middle East have 80 percent of the terrorists in the world, trying to destroy the United States and Israel." Nevertheless, the monsters who murdered 3,000 Americans indeed proclaimed themselves to be Muslim, and Muslims have to live with that undesirable legacy and acknowledge it.
When a pundit criticizes "Islam" by citing the sins of individual Muslims, if my response to that criticism does not acknowledge the fact that there are indeed terrorists who maim and murder in the name of Islam, then I become apologetic and bombastic. Frankly, I do not blame fellow Americans for becoming frightened of American Muslims who fail to even acknowledge that mutant strains of Islam exist and are a problem to be dealt with. Early in my medical training I learned that the first step in treating a disease is having the patient acknowledge they have said disease. Denial can be deadly.
Although I recognize that Muslims must live with that undesirable legacy, I am still angry. I am angry my country was attacked so viciously. I am angry that so many innocent Americans were brutally murdered in cold blood. I am angry that people, who ascribe to the same faith I do, would commit such a horrible deed. I am angry that there are clerics who actually teach the things that all of "Islam" is villified for. It makes me horribly angry to know that there are people who commit vile acts, do them in the name of Islam, and smear billions of Muslims with their filth. Although they most certainly do not represent Islam, they most certainly stain its beautiful fabric.
Yet, I am angry for another more important reason. More than angry, I feel cheated. The Islam that I came to know growing up and in my young adult years was a very narrow interpretation. I know now that Islam is a much more broad, dynamic, and beautiful faith than what was given to me, and I feel cheated out of knowing the true face of Islam. I do not blame my parents; they did their best to instill in me the Muslim values I will need throughout my life. Without their love and care, along with God's blessing, I would not have even remained a Muslim. Nevertheless, there is so much about Islam, the real Islam, I do not know, and I wish I had come to know the true Islam sooner in my life. Further, I wish it did not have to take a heinous terrorist attack to lead me to the realization that the real is Islam is different that what I had known previously.
Racial profiling of Muslim Americans is indeed wrong, and I resent having to undergo more scrutiny solely because of my Muslim name. Yet, as I was told by an African-American colleague, "Racial profiling is not new...get used to it." Now I have had a taste, if only the tiniest one, of the experience of African-Americans. African-Americans shed their blood on the streets of America so that I can live relatively free from discrimination. I am ashamed that I did not speak out more forcefully against the racial profiling and discrimination against African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities before. Never again.
Since September 11, I have been a constant critic of our community in my Friday prayer sermons, and I have dedicated myself, through my writing and other ways, to help make our community better. In addition, the backlash against the Muslim community, coupled with the "expert commentary" on Islam by woefully ignorant "scholars" and "terrorism experts," has fueled me to work towards educating Americans on what Islam truly is and share with them the American Muslim experience.
September 11 was the darkest day I have ever lived and was indeed "the day when everything changed." It is our duty as Americans to ensure that everything changes for the better. If not, all those who died on that morning last September will have died in vain. We cannot allow that to happen.