Laith Saud: Questioning the Legacy of 9/11
As a liberal-democratic nation, as America, we do ourselves not only a great service, but engage in the fundamental philosophy of ourselves by remembering that legacies, although found in the past, reach into our present and help shape our future. If 9/11 shall be the legacy that defines America, we must critically engage that legacy and, more importantly, remember that perhaps legacies do not define us but that we, indeed, are the authors of our future, of our legacy. I could point to several implications of 9/11, of course the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the most obvious. The so-called War on Terror promised to re-shape the Middle East. But, at least for today, let us concern ourselves with the social implications of 9/11, how some have used 9/11 to re-shape America.
The last eight 9/11’s were not quite like this one: This year various groups and parties vied with one another in an effort to make full use of 9/11. In Florida, Pastor Terry Jones threatened to hold a Qur’an burning day. Jones claimed, ironically, that by burning the Muslim holy book he would make some sort of enlightened point. For several reasons he abandoned the project. In New York City, dozens of groups used the day to continue their opposition to the construction of an Islamic center near ground zero. Opponents of the center like Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) argue the center “reignites and reopens wounds for the survivors of those who died.” We in fact are seeing opposition to the construction of mosques and Islamic centers throughout the country, not just near ground zero. And lastly, there is the curious debate about the President’s religiosity, over half of the country does not know what religion Obama is or believes wrongly he is a Muslim. Now, were these phenomena tied simply to the ignorance of individuals than perhaps it would not matter, but they are not, rather these phenomena are coalescing a political movement, a movement that seeks to re-shape America according to a by employing the legacy of 9/11.
On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by terrorists and those terrorists happened to be Muslims. Since the vast majority of Americans were unfamiliar with Muslims, even though Muslim have lived here for centuries, the air of exotica obscured our vision and the threat of insecurity provoked our need for certainty. In the name of certainty some held fast to the belief that this country was attacked because it is a freedom loving, divinely mandated Christian nation. You see, if Obama is a Muslim, he is “one of them.” If Obama is not a Christian then he is certainly “not one of us.” This is the logic of the current controversy surrounding the president, if this logic did not persist, than the controversy would end. It is the origins legend of this nation that holds the controversy intact and the legend of America’s supposedly divine purpose is a cornerstone of the political vision of the far right these days. Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and others have loudly promoted this vision throughout America and it is increasingly imposing itself. Yet here an example of the malleability of legacy is revealed: America was never founded on such a notion. American thought, the same thought that produced the constitution was a product of the Enlightenment, not of Christianity. Let us examine the legend America’s supposed Christian origins.
According to James Madison, the architect of our system: “”The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed.” But perhaps this is too abstract, surely the founders were not aware of Islam and Muslims we might think, yet we would be wrong. In the Treaty of Tripoli John Adams wrote “as the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Muslims (Musselmen); and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Islamic (Mehomitan) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” I should point out that this statement is dictated in a treaty that concluded a conflict. Even in the height of hostility, the Founders remained true to their Enlightenment principals, they remained civil by remaining rational and by so doing produced what is indeed our great system. I wonder if the far right will succeed in changing the legacy of our origins. I also wonder if it will adversely affect the strength of our system into the future.
According to an article by James Hutson, chief of manuscripts at the library of congress Jefferson, Washington, state assemblies and early constitutions made not only vague references to religious freedom but explicitly cite not only Islam but Judaism and Atheism as enjoying the privilege of religious freedom. “Let Jews, Muslims (Mehometans), and Christians of every denomination find their advantage in living under your laws,” requests a petition to the Virginia State Assembly in 1785. Of course this commitment to religious privilege culminated in our most precious first amendment. But I think it is the issue of privilege, perhaps, that is so potent. If America was a Christian in origin, than our privileges would belong to Christians alone. If the laws of the land were meant to protect Christians and Christians only then questioning the Presidents religiosity might be consistent with the American legacy or protesting the Islamic center in NYC might demonstrate reverence. But America did not originate in the Bible, it originated in the mind of human reason, to quote Adams again from 1788: “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature. . . [In] the formation of the American government. . . it will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven. . . . These governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
Since reason is the true cornerstone of our system and 9/11 is playing such a significant role in the politics, perhaps we should examine the legacy of 9/11 through reason rather than religion. The opponents of the NYC Islamic center invited Geert Wilders, an anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker who calls for banning the Quran to speak at the protests. I find it strange that opponents to the Islamic center invited a European, who advocates the banning of books, to come to a nation that bans neither books nor religious liberty. But for the opponents to the center, the Christian-ness of Wilders takes precedence over the American-ness of Muslims here. During his speech Wilders remarked “openness cannot be open-ended…while not a single church is allowed in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What in the world does Saudi Arabia have to do with American Muslims? A certain movement in this country is suggesting that to be non-Christian is by definition to be non-American, so Wilders, a Dutch lawmaker, is more welcome to speak to 9/11 for he will affirm a new American legacy, the legacy of American intolerance. Opponents are using 9/11 to advocate discrimination, they are arguing that since the terrorists who attacked America then were Muslim, all Muslims are subject to public discrimination. If you do not believe me, consider the invasion of Iraq. We invaded Iraq, a costly devastating war, on the basis of a stereotype: The terrorists were Muslim, Iraq is a Muslim country, therefore we should invade Iraq.
As simple as it may sound, this was essentially the calculation the average American made. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the invasion of Iraq was never about WMD, it was about 9/11. Although there was no evidence, 70% the country believed in a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama b. Laden, a link that was as likely as one between Harry Reid and Glenn Beck-I mean they are both Mormon, right? And today, hawkish neo-cons are trying to convince us that American Muslims, trying to exercise their religious liberty in their own country are somehow complicit in 9/11. Now, just as then, 70% of the population is conceding to argument by stereotype.
America is a nation of reason, which unlike a nation of dogmatism, is accountable to thought and logic. The debate over the NYC Center can be dealt with quite decisively, freeing ourselves for more important political issue. I just have one question for the Islamic center critics: Were the American Muslims who were killed on 9/11 any less American or any less victims of the attacks? Of course they were not. And none of the opponents of the center are claiming that American Muslims were less American or less victims; no, rather they are asking us to be sensitive to Christian, Jewish and Humanist feelings at the expense of American Muslim families, who likewise lost love ones on 9/11. Jewish, Christian and other Americans can claim the tragedy of 9/11; they are permitted to grieve and to consecrate the land as hallowed ground, but American Muslim families who lost love ones are not, they are held back at arm’s length and remain the forgotten victims of 9/11.
Here the seductive power of stereotyping reveals itself; it is not the act of discrimination that entices, it is the claim to privilege that accompanies such discrimination that excites the mind. We can grieve, you cannot. We can build, you cannot. A politics of privilege always persists in diverse societies and on occasion erupts into violence or institutionalized discrimination. In the 1940’s, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were place in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor; forty years later, President Reagan signed legislation that apologized to Japanese Americans for a policy based on “racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” All evidence shows that the internments were popular with the public at large at the time. With the exception of perhaps Mayor Bloomberg, where is the political leadership today denouncing anti-Muslim bigots? In the 1960’s, whites were given preferences on buses, blacks were not. Instead of asking themselves why they were riding the bus in the first place, white southerners were electing men who offered them privileges, however cheap and superficial those privileges may be.
Perhaps in the future Muslims, Jews and Athiests we will be asked to not run for president, even though they have the right, out of “sensitivity” for our Christian origins. I just wonder how I should tell my eight year old American born daughter, who talks about being the first female president of the United States, that even though she has the right, she shouldn’t try, because that would be too insensitive. But then again, I swell in pride when I remember that what makes America perpetually progressive is that when America is wrong, it is wronged Americans who stand strong and set her aright. Just as our persecuted black, Jewish and Catholic forbearers made this nation better, by pulling her closer to the ideals of the founders, I know today that American Muslims, along with those who stand with them, are the bearers of reason and, thus, the voice of America’s true self. Nonetheless, my hopes this 9/11 wrestle with the certainties our past. John Adams voice wrote to his wife “that a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.” As an American, I do not have the luxury to allow American liberty to expire—and for me, I have re-claimed the legacy of 9/11 from the clutches of the ideology and set it onto the course of reasoned reflection and expanding liberty.