I was in Bangkok for a training session this year on September 11. I was sad to be unable to spend Eid with my family in Karachi. However, as I heard the hype on the media that weekend on CNN, surrounding the “clash of civilisations”, epitomised by a pastor in Florida threatening to burn 200 copies of the Quran, riots in Afghanistan and debates on the mosque project near Ground Zero, the spirit of Eid (also falling on September 11) was further overshadowed by other global events and moods. As I watched the solemn ceremonies at Ground Zero on September 11, 2010, I wondered: nine years down the road, had the events of September 11, 2001 affected me? And if so, how? What were my thoughts and views on the event?
I was not affected by the attack on the Twin Towers directly as I had never lived in America and visited it very rarely. I did not know of anyone killed or harmed in the attacks (though many of my friends who lived in New York at the time described the event in moving and graphic terms). Yet for so many of us, the world changed that day. As an open-minded Muslim who loves travelling and has friends and acquaintances around the world, life has changed. I live in a world where global opinion about Muslims is becoming increasingly unfavourable. Whether it is manifested through increased hurdles in visa application processes and tightening of airport security or the dramatic headlines on the CNN, being Muslim is no longer a non-issue or as natural as breathing. To me, and many others I know in global centers such as New York, London and Singapore; religion was once a personal matter. Relationships, whether personal or professional, were ruled by characteristics such as decency and common courtesy. Yet, all this seems to be changing. Being Muslim is an “issue” – it has suddenly become something that almost has to be defended, consciously or subtly. Sometimes the question mark is not open – it is a fleeting look on the other party’s face when I tell them that I am from Pakistan.
So how has the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York affected my life? Perhaps, for me, the destruction of the Twin Towers has also meant the destruction of a level of tolerance, trust and understanding in the world; the kind of multicultural relationships and openness that the Twin Towers themselves symbolised. People of all faiths died when the Twin Towers fell: the victims were not only Christian or American. Likewise, it seems that the world has lost a level of dynamism, friendship and progressiveness that existed before 2001. Economic boom, the fulfillment of dreams and a “global society” were the emotions of the 90’s. Instead, the overriding post-September 11 emotion seems to be “fear”.
A very wise aunt of mine recently said that the fires of hatred only stoke more fires and destruction. Sure enough, in the aftermath of the disaster in New York, two countries – namely Iraq and Afghanistan – paid the price for the first act of terror. Both were attacked by the US and its allies in a search to weed out and destroy Muslim terrorists held accountable for the attacks on the Twin Towers. However, nine years down the road, US efforts have proved to have had limited and dubious success. Short of completely destroying the two nations and creating an ever growing, increasingly powerful (and ubiquitous) army of global terrorists, little else has been achieved. Deaths of US military personal and innocent citizens in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan continue, yet the terrorists apparently remain undaunted. The expensive military operations have had an adverse impact on the American economy. Travel and other forms of movement have become increasingly cumbersome and daunting, yet suicide bombings continue unabated.
I myself avoid travelling to Europe and America. Instead I prefer travelling in Africa, Far-East Asia and the Middle East – also interesting and historic parts of the world. At the back of my mind, it is all too difficult and embarrassing to explain: no, I had nothing to do with the attack on America. I was at work in another country at the other end of the globe when the attacks occurred. I am an educated, well-travelled Muslim. I don’t encourage hate-crimes or corruption. I felt so sad for the victims and prayed for the peace of their families. Like so many other Muslims, I whole-heartedly condemned this act. Yet nine years later, that seems to have been forgotten by so many.
Of course, here in Bangkok, nine years later, there is still hope. There are still enlightened people who look beyond stereotypes and try to understand and communicate. I met such people during the course of my work here. There are people around the globe who are friends with people from other faiths and religions; who have kept an open-minded approach – and who judge a person by their actions, not global rhetoric. There are also leaders like Obama, himself from a mixed background, who urged the pastor in Florida to avoid his planned act of hate.
It is those people who have the ability to think independently and take courageous decisions who keep this world going – and the balance of goodness in it.