In a perfect world, or at least a perfectly informed one, most Americans would have known something about Islam as the 21st century opened. They would have been aware that over one billion of the world’s people belong to this faith that emerged from the monotheistic soil of Christianity and Judaism. They might also have known that Muslims would soon be the second largest religious group in the U.S., after Christians. And that statistic might have come alive in American imaginations in the form of the doctors and teachers, parents and citizens it represents.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. September 11, 2001, was many Americans’ catastrophic introduction to Islam. Certainly, up to then, there were Islamic images that populated the American sense of the world out there — threatening images, many of them, associated with bombed embassies or the first failed World Trade Center attack. Islamic terrorists were default suspects, too, we recall, in the immediate hours after the Oklahoma City bombing.
But September 11 was the day, as someone said, when the Middle East came to America. That Tuesday we woke up as post-Cold War people — citizens of the prosperous remaining superpower. By Wednesday we had become post-9/11 people, with newly fearful eyes on the world. And our new enemies declared themselves agents of Islam.
I was in Washington, DC, on that day seeking funding for the wild idea of a weekly public radio program on religion. I had been piloting programs for about a year, getting an enthusiastic response from listeners and a tepid one from programmers. Talk of religion, many argued, was necessarily proselytizing and divisive. Moreover, faith wasn’t an appropriate focus for a weekly hour of public radio — not a reasonable, weighty subject for public life like politics or economics or the arts — best left as a private matter.
My appointment was to happen at 11 a.m. I was staying at the Dulles Hilton, getting ready, preparing my thoughts, and did not have the television or radio on. The terror of the day first reached me when I called to ask for directions and was told that the meeting was cancelled. When I reacted with surprise, the woman at the other end screamed down the phone, “Don’t you know that we are under attack?” Shortly before I picked up the phone, the “third plane” had flown over my head from Dulles airport and slammed into the Pentagon. I turned on the television set and watched the second tower fall.
As my hotel filled with stranded travelers, I headed home to Minnesota in a rental car. I listened to the radio all the way, taking in the way religion ran irrepressibly through this nightmare. I remember gripping the steering wheel hard, knowing that I had this one little hour of radio with which perhaps to address it. And though I had deep experience as a journalist and a freshly minted graduate degree in theology from Yale, my learning curve on Islam was as steep as that of my listeners.
At this remove of time, at this ten-year milestone that compels us not merely to recall but to take stock, I’m aware of how difficult this learning curve has been. We had to unlearn, or learn to nuance, the earliest words, phrases, and images by which we initially made sense of chaos. I’d include the phrase “Islam is a religion of peace” in that category. Muslim and global leaders declared this with the best of intentions, extending it as an olive branch. But those words were not big and complicated enough, not vivid and dramatic enough to counter the pictures — of airplanes crashing into buildings; of people in business suits leaping to their deaths; of children orphaned and spouses widowed — we all had in our heads.
On the first anniversary of September 11, I interviewed Ingrid Mattson on my program, which was, by then, off and running as a monthly national series. Mattson later became the first woman president of the Islamic Society of America, one of the largest and most influential umbrella groups of American and Canadian Muslim citizens. I asked where she would point non-Muslims for pictures vivid enough to arrest and correct those catastrophic images of Islam that were introductory for many. Here’s how she answered me.
“Well, you’ve hit right on it. Violent actions are much more dramatic and memorable. A Muslim who’s motivated by faith will sometimes in their life have an opportunity to do something, you know, grand. But most people don’t. Most people, they live out their faith day to day by small actions of generosity, humility, and gratefulness. I think what Americans need to do is look around them and see many hospitals, for example. There are many Muslim doctors, and day after day they are serving people, they’re helping people. Certainly, it’s a result of their training, but it’s also an aspect of their faith. There are Muslims working in soup kitchens and in shelters. That kind of drama … requires some kind of active outreach or at least a desire to look for those Muslims on the part of other Americans. But I believe that in the end it’s worth it.”
Ingrid Mattson’s words, like her demeanor, were gently passionate, dignified, genuinely humble. I did not quite realize it at the time, but she embodied the defining characteristics of “ordinary” Muslims that I would discover in the course of my radio adventure in the decade ahead, the decade we are now marking. “Humility” is a weak word in modern ears, but it is a magnificent quality to experience in a person of integrity. We know this in our immediate circles of peers, family, and friends. Islam is at its heart deeply humble and profoundly egalitarian. It is most importantly a faith of being over speaking, a matter of when and how you pray, how you live, what you do.
I can report that, as Ingrid Mattson said, looking and listening beyond the headlines and into Islam — meeting Muslims halfway along that road to mutual understanding — is worth it. I have been immensely enriched by my Muslim conversation partners these past years. As soon as I returned from Washington in that fall of 2001, I began to learn about the spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual heart of Islam. The languages and cultures that fostered it — Quranic Arabic, Persian, and Urdu — are rich with poetry, lush with beauty, steeped in learning. The thirteenth-century Muslim mystic and poet Rumi became one of the best-selling poets in the West in recent years, yet few knew to connect his gorgeous, playful, and cosmopolitan sensibility with the faith of over one billion of the world’s people. He was a madrasa teacher, a theologian, a lover of life, a creator of beauty, and in his Islam those things are interrelated.
I have come to love a phrase that I hear repeatedly from my Muslim conversation partners: “the core moral value of beauty.” This draws on a traditional Islamic teaching that God is beautiful and loves beauty. I first received it as a gift of thought in a conversation in the months after 9/11 with Khaled Abou el Fadl. He was raised in Egypt and Kuwait and barely escaped a fundamentalist path as a very young man. Today he is an esteemed professor of law at UCLA, a global humanitarian, and an interpreter of Islamic law in the modern world. His books have been passed around in secret in his birth country of Egypt for many years. He is fervently persuaded that the future of his faith depends on its recovery of its own core moral value of beauty. This is a taste of what he means by that, in part.
“Beauty is in creation. And ugliness is in the act of uncreation, or the undoing of creation. And I’ve never seen beauty in destructiveness. And those who find God in terrorism, in all types of violence, there is something that in my universe, in my experience, something that has awfully gone wrong … One of the extremely invigorating things for me [is] when God identifies God’s beauty, God’s own beauty, God talks about compassion, mercy, forgiveness, talks about the ability to balance, to understand the balance in a different context.”
This kind of talk might sound frivolous in Western ears. But Khaled Abou el Fadl has put his life on the line for the recovery of this heart of his religious tradition. Like other remarkable and courageous Muslims I’ve encountered across these years, he does so in full knowledge that the outcome of this work is not certain and will not be completed in his lifetime. He is investing the best of himself for the sake of generations to come.
“We are under attack,” the woman screamed at me on the telephone that day. That indeed is how it felt in that moment, and we would not be human if we had not experienced it that way. But this, too, was a first impression we had to overcome. The terrible scourge of terrorist radicalization of young people, the politicized distortion of Islam’s holy teachings, the violence that continues to be done in the name of this faith — these are expressions of what is first and foremost an internal crisis within Islam. The numbers of Westerners who died on 9/11, and in other terrorist attacks since, pale in comparison to the number of Muslims who have died in such attacks. Muslims are on the front lines of this war, not Americans, not the West, not Christianity.
Suggestions that Islam needs a reformation are not very apt or helpful, in my mind. Long-term change will take its own shape in this very different tradition of hierarchy, theology, and devotion. And yet it is fair to say, I believe, that Islam is in an historic moment of ferment comparable to the decades of turmoil and brutality that preceded and followed the Christian Reformation. Islam, after all, is 700 years younger than Christianity. Roughly 700 years ago, Christians were the ones burning heretics at the stake and waging global holy wars.
Yet — and here is the most critical defining difference between that era of religious ferment and this — the Crusades were not televised. The Inquisition was not available for viewing on the Internet. The “terrorizers” of the Thirty Years War did not have modern travel, communications, and weaponry at their disposal.
Thankfully, the world continues to surprise us, and to dare us to see ordinary lives of dignity behind these kinds of dramatic acts that overwhelm headlines and obscure our vision of normalcy. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approached, Islam and “the Muslim world” stormed headlines in a whole new spirit. The fear that grew from the sense of being under attack had trained us to imagine “Arab streets” as a breeding ground for suicide bombers. Now it appears that the same frustrations and energies we feared have also, while we were not watching, become breeding grounds for democracy.
In March of this year, I took part in a remarkable gathering of activists and leaders from around the Muslim world. It is an annual gathering that was galvanized this year by the seismic change that has rippled from Tunisia through Egypt and beyond. The Egyptians and Tunisians in particular were quite transformative simply to be around. They manifest a sense of having lived through a miracle, even as they face the tasks ahead with gravity. “We have discovered ourselves,” one long-time Egyptian activist proclaimed.
And there is a sense in which this moment challenges Americans to a new era of self-discovery as well as a new encounter with Muslim people and cultures. As we watched ordinary men and women, young and old, become citizens for the first time on Tahrir Square, we saw a version of our own national narrative unfolding. We saw humility and egalitarianism and lived goodness embodied. These qualities mingled, and will continue to mingle, with the darker capacities of humanity and of religion. But they allowed us to adjust our eyes to unforeseen beauty and possibility. They return me to words of another of my Muslim conversation partners in these years. Leila Ahmed, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, is Egyptian-born and was the voice in a show we called “Muslim Women, and Other Misunderstandings.” She said this:
“I no longer believe there’s an Islamic world. Because where exactly are the borders? Are they in Chicago? Where are they? Where does the Islamic world end and where does the West begin? Is it in Paris? Where is it? I do think what happens in this country is going to be as much about the Islamic world as whatever happens ‘over there.’ The Islamic world is no longer over there. That’s one thing. The other thing is, I think what we do, what we Americans do, will profoundly determine what becomes of what we’re calling an Islamic world.”
These words have rung in my ears for years, and at this milestone I’m able to hear them with a new measure of hope. In a very basic human sense, the questions and dilemmas facing Islam affect all of us. They are our questions, our dilemmas — not merely the domain of government or armies, but of citizens. They deserve our best thinking, our deepest courage, and our highest virtues.
This article was originally printed in the Fall 2011 issue of Oklahoma Humanities magazine.