9/11 Healing Memorial at the Islamic Center of Southern California
Sarrah Shahawy is a pre-med senior at the University of Southern California. She is the President of both the student Interfaith Council and the Ansar Service Partnership, a Muslim student community service organization at USC. She is also a founding board member of The Hassan Hathout Legacy Foundation.
Assalamu Alaikum. Peace Be Upon You.
9/11 changed us. As we watched the Twin Towers topple, as we heard the anguished tears of those who lost loved ones, as we waited anxiously for the flood of news to end, we felt the change creep in and settle. That change was fear and in many ways, it never left. We felt fear on a personal level as we mourned lives lost and feared for our own friends and loved ones. We felt fear on a national level as we realized that the ivory tower we thought we had reached now seemed vulnerable. I was just a young middle schooler at the time, but even I could feel the fear.
For Muslim Americans, we felt another layer of fear: fear that we were not just in danger as Americans but as Muslims, fear that we were losing our already precarious position in the American plurality. How were we to reconcile our own experiences as Muslim US citizens with the image of radical Islam 9/11 had imposed on us?
I grew up in a Muslim Egyptian American home, in a religious tradition that has at its core the values of tolerance, diversity, human dignity, peace, justice, and love, values I was taught were both inherently Muslim and American. The interfaith spirit was ingrained in me at a very young age. The Quran says: “O Mankind. Behold. We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know and cherish one another.” So the cultural and religious diversity in which I had been brought up, living in Los Angeles, was not only to be tolerated—it was in fact, advantageous. Upon entering college, I joined the student Interfaith Council and am now the President. Interfaith dialogue and service became ways in which I could strengthen my own faith by viewing it through the prism that unites them all. I have come to realize that there is concrete value in interfaith dialogue and work. In a world where religion is accused of being a source of violence and hate, interfaith work, while celebrating our differences, reminds us of the common goals different religions have, the goals we can all work together to achieve: the eradication of hunger, poverty, disease, corruption. It is our duty to prove that religion is inherently a source of good, of peace, and of love. My grandfather, Dr. Hassan Hathout, used to tell me that Islam could be summarized by one verse in the Quran, in which God addresses the Prophet Muhammad and his message: “We have sent you for nothing but mercy to the worlds.”
This was the Islam that Muslim Americans worked hard to show the American public after the 9/11 attacks. And while it was hard work, we took heart because people listened. Our interfaith friends gathered to offer us support, moderate Muslim voices began to be heard, and we helped elect a President who promised a new era of diplomacy and interfaith cooperation. Our faith in the American promise of pluralism began to be restored.
But now, after we assumed we had made so much progress, a couple of sparks are set off by a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York, and we face again a surprising level of bigoted and ignorant hatred. We find ourselves again trying to prove our loyalty to the United States, struggling to stake our claim in the American plurality. How do we explain to angry protesters claiming that a monument is being built in New York honoring the religion that attacked them, that Islam is not the enemy, that Muslims in the United States are loyal to their country and mourned as other Americans did the day we were attacked. How do we explain that Muslim Americans never take for granted the freedoms we enjoy here, that we understand more than anyone the privilege of living in the United States, that we never forget and forever appreciate that in this country, we enjoy more religious, political, and personal freedom than in many of the countries from which our parents and grandparents came? How do we prove that it is the Muslim ideals of justice and freedom that make us also dedicated Americans?
And when we heard of the proposed “Quran burning” on 9/11, all we could ask is, Have they read the book they intended to burn? Would sincere Americans burn the book that tells us, “Let there be no compulsion in religion?” Would Christians burn the book that tells of the Virgin Mary’s personal struggle as she bore inside her the Word of God, the book that tells us that Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, had been purified and chosen over all the women of the worlds? Would they burn the book that recounts again and again the exodus of Moses as he led the Israelites from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom? Would they burn the book that warns us that slaying one human being is equivalent to murdering all of mankind and that saving one life is equivalent to saving all of mankind? Would they burn the book that speaks to us of the sanctity of human life, of equality between men and women and rich and poor, of our responsibility to help the orphans and the needy, of freedom of religion, of our friends in faith, the People of the Book, of the universal values of service, justice, and peace? Would they have opened the book before they burnt it? Do we not understand that by burning the Quran, we are burning Christian principles and Jewish stories and American ideals and that, most dangerously, we are setting fire to a part of the American plurality, the promise of the American dream?
But I have been filled with hope, because in times of adversity, we have found many friends. Muslims have been joined and supported by interfaith friends and secular opinionmakers all over the country in gatherings much like this one, we have received support from politicians of all ranks, reaching up to the highest office, and we feel that even at the worst of times, we are still empowered by our faith and our constitutional rights to work towards achieving our goals. And we are grateful. While there is much work to be done, we do not feel alone. I have faith in the strength of the American ideals on which I was brought up. I have faith in a new generation of Americans willing to engage in interfaith action. And I have faith in the new generation of Muslim Americans firmly grounded in their mutually enriching identities and actively engaged in working for “a more perfect union”, giving back to the country that has given us and promises us so much.
On this day, I feel that the best way to honor the memory of the victims of 9/11 is to conquer the culture of fear in which we still live and to never compromise our democratic ideals in a desperate attempt to defend them. We each have our part to play. The interfaith community must remain strong and united, as we stand here. We must remember that a threat to anyone’s freedom to practice religion is a threat to us all as people of faith and as Americans. When Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or any other type of religious prejudice presents itself in our nation, it should not be the burden of the targeted group to defend itself, but the responsibility of the entire interfaith and secular community to stand together, Christian and Hindu, Muslim and Jew, Sikh and atheist, Baha’i and Buddhist, to denounce religious discrimination and violence and cultivate instead a national atmosphere that fosters religious expression and interfaith collaboration, an atmosphere that is at the heart of what it means to be American.