I remember sitting in my desk laughing at the television when all planes were diverted to Canada. Someone in the class busted out with a joke, “Yeah, screw Canada,” and we all started laughing desperate to find something to keep us from crying. Mrs. Hardin, our senior English teacher who deserved more love than she received for how much she challenged us, turned off the television and began to cry herself, “You guys don’t get it, do you? People are dying. God only knows how many people are dying, and you’re laughing. What’s happening right now is going to change your lives, and you don’t even get it.”
We sat there in silence. I’ve never felt so guilty in my life, but a few minutes later, Mrs. Hardin turned the television back on as the images bounced back and forth between the Pentagon and the Trade Towers, what was left of them. And black smoke; lots of it. I became obsessed with the images, unable to look away from the television.
By third block, there were confirmations that the attacks were likely the result of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Images on the television showed Middle Easterners dancing in the streets and cheering. “They’re dancing today,” I said in fury to my Calculus teacher, “But tomorrow they’ll all be dead.” She agreed. But I didn’t really understand what I was saying. I knew nothing about them. Nothing. To me, they were just a different color and for some reason, they wanted to kill us. So the natural response seemed to be that we would have to retaliate. Yet, for every part of me that was ready for vengeance by mid-afternoon, I carried this sickening feeling buried deep down as I looked around at my peers thinking we’d find a way to overplay the need for “justice,” that nothing positive could come from the possibility that all those dancing Muslims could soon be dead. I was deeply conflicted, a part of me ready to fight; another part of me believing that couldn’t be the answer. And what was worse, I knew nothing about Islam, mostly because in American high schools, we were taught nothing about religion, lest someone complain about the separation of church and state. The attempts to keep Christianity out of the public sphere had made us all stupid when it came to other religions.
By fourth block, I sat in an art class with Mrs. Haubold. She turned on the television for Tony Blair’s speech, but a few other students wanted it off. A couple of girls in the class passed notes around about their most recent relationship issues, which made me even more furious. In Tennessee, it seemed, what had happened that morning so far off and in New York or Pennsylvania was already forgotten by some. I didn’t understand students who weren’t obsessed with what was taking place. But Mrs. Hardin’s words sunk deep within me, “What’s happening now is going to change your lives, and you don’t even get it.” I had to “get it.” I had to figure out what Mrs. Hardin meant.
And so it’s been ten years, and now I’m surrounded by Islam and working in the Arab world. I’ve even taken on an Arabic name, Fouad, which means heart. I sometimes wonder here what Fouad could’ve said to that young, naive Philip sitting in the classroom watching the television angrily and building up stereotypes and generalizations for an entire race of people I knew absolutely nothing about. I wonder if I had been educated on Islam, would I have been able to say on that first 9/11, “Hey, that’s not Islam. That’s a twisted, extremist take on a beautiful religion.” Would I have been so quick to suggest that hate was the answer to hate? Would I have been able to ask myself deep questions about why this tragedy was happening or about how to handle the grief in an appropriate way?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I could have been educated to think about what was happening in a more critical way. But part of why my work here, my blog, my need to speak out against injustice toward Muslims, my need to speak positively about a religion that is not my own… all stems from my need to recognize that if I had not bothered to educate myself about Islam or to think critically about the tragedy of 9/11, I might still be that young man who answered hate with hate. I might still be advocating stereotypes and passing judgments on many Muslim Americans who are supposed to have the same rights as any other Americans.
And so remembering has become incredibly important to me but only where remembrance breeds humility, understanding, and peace, never vengeance. Do you get it? Do you understand what happened or why it happened or how it changed our lives? A lot of Americans today will pray for the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 or for the American troops fighting overseas. I believe firmly that we should add to that list of prayers our brothers and sisters in America and abroad who have had to feel the impact of our choices to answer hate with hate rather than to seek peace and understanding. And I would add a prayer that educating ourselves to think critically about this tragedy and others like it, becomes a priority for us in the hope that nothing like 9/11 or the responses to it could ever happen again.