Sunday, September 11, 2011

As the Wife of a Muslim-American, My Memories of 9-11

Like most everybody above the age of six, I clearly remember what I was doing on September 11, 2001 when our world forever changed.

I was at my work with a regional office for Habitat for Humanity when it happened. We must have had a TV in the office somewhere, because I remember that after the first plane hit, we were all glued to the screen.  None of us could believe what we were seeing as we watched the second plane strike, and then the towers fall.

As a staff, we were in the midst of planning for the annual Jimmy Carter Workcamp and Habitat's 25th year celebration and were due to fly out to it later that week.  It was because of this trip that my boss did something I will never forget.

He took me aside and told me he thought I should not go. He was afraid that there would be a backlash against Muslims in the country and that I should stay close to my husband.

His perspective shocked me, not as much as the attacks, but still, in a very personal way.

See, I know my husband, had known him for many years at that point.  There was no way, in my mind, that anyone could align this honest, caring, and somewhat goofy man with the types of men who directed planes as weapons of mass, and blind, destruction.  The men behind those attacks were not like any of my many Muslim family and friends.

I'd lived with my husband in his homeland of Turkey for many years.  I'd woken and gone to bed to the call to prayer.  I'd watched my mother-in-law, a woman as generous as my own beloved grandmother, cover her head and pray faithfully for her family's welfare five times a day.  I'd visited my husband's aunts, uncles and cousins on festival days and shared in the coffee, tea, and sweets.  I'd celebrated with his friends during Ramadan at the evening break-the-fast meals. The people, the customs, the holidays were as happy, peaceful, and loving as those I celebrated growing up in the Southern Bible Belt.

I'd also witnessed the "other side" during my time in Turkey.  I'd received missives from the Embassy every few weeks alerting Americans to new threats against Westerners.  And I'd watched on TV the Turkish news reports of terrorist attacks committed against Turks in Istanbul, or eastern Turkey, and once, Antalya where we were living.  We walked by the charred remains of the restaurant two days later, still smoldering, a child's stuffed teddy bear (I kid you not) in the rubble.  Those committing this violence were not like the Muslims I knew.  They were mad men hurting the innocent families of people I knew and loved.

Turkey has a large and varied population.  It always made me smile to hear them call themselves the melting pot, just like I'd always been led to believe was the domain of the U.S. -- except Anatolia has been melting together people of various origins and beliefs for thousands of years.

And that's just it.  No American would assume to think that we could label all Americans with one stroke.  Nor can it be done to Turks, or to Arabs, or to Persians, or Malaysians, or wherever Islam is practiced.

But, still, my boss' worry that my husband could be targeted by people who did not understand this simple truth became my own.  And so I stayed at home.  Along with the rest of the world, my husband, young son, and I watched the news every spare moment for the next couple of days.  Together, we went to give blood, joining with others in wanting to do whatever we could to help.  But, soon, he had to go back to work.

And that's when it happened.  My husband DID get a reaction.  He reported to me after a couple of days that people WERE treating him differently.  They were going out of their way to be even nicer to him, to let him know that they were not blaming him, nor any other Muslim, for the act of a few mad men.

See, the world is filled with beautiful people with shining souls.  Their acts of kindness just don't often make the news.  And while an act of terror can destroy many lives in the blink of an eye, the generosity of countless more good-hearted people, whether Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or Jew, western, or eastern, or some melting-pot in between, can restore the hope and faith of a world filled with people who love more than hate.

It is because of my faith that I join in the wish and commitment of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and pray, "Peace at home, peace in the world."

PS: I know that many Muslim-Americans did suffer repercussions in the days and years following 9-11.  But we live in a fairly progressive community, and what we experienced is just as real and true, if under reported.  My husband says that only once since that terrible day has he faced someone's prejudice against Muslims and he's heard stories from friends of a couple of other incidents.  But overall, we've experienced more the generosity of the human spirit rather than the dark side.

PPS: Update 9/11/2015 - I wish I could say that all the positive reactions that my family experienced and that I witnessed when I wrote this piece four years ago were still as positive. But times have darkened and the negative backlash against Muslims have grown--especially towards those who wear their faith heritage more visibly than does my family.  Fear and lack of personal contact twists people's minds. As a person of faith who seeks truth across borders, I stand with proactive people from all communities who seek to reach out and get to know each unite across borders rather than divide. For me, writing leads the way to creating and being the change I wish to see in the world.