An age-old problem and a modern situation

Megan Angelo

Something about the second anniversary of Sept. 11 was more disquieting than the first one. On Sept. 11, 2003, we found ourselves in a gray area, asking questions about the future as well as the past. As each year passes, will our memorials of the tragedy wane? How much safer are we now than we were on that day two years ago? What have we really been doing with the tremendous amounts of money and manpower at our disposal? And along with all the new uncertainties that surfaced as we revisited the tragedy, we still meditated on the query that has yet to be satisfactorily answered: why did it have to happen?

Among the most moving display of resilient Americans made in the aftermath of the attacks were our earnest attempts to learn about the Islam faith and Middle Eastern culture. Long before the haze of ash and grief had lifted from over the country, people were reading up on jihad and struggling to keep track of the new Arabic names emerging in rapid succession from the mouths of government officials.

But no one feels that we have made much progress.

If getting inside the heads of the people that hate us was simple, we would have destroyed the barriers between us and them long ago. But a careful inspection of the past two years and the stagnation we have met in understanding the attackers on a personal basis exposes at least one obstacle. The deep-rooted struggle to keep faith and state segregated has once again risen up to complicate matters.

When Americans sit down to analyze the people who managed to implode our general sense of safeness, we forget to make some key distinctions. The Islam faith is not synonymous with violence, anti-American feelings, or even the Middle East. In fact, Islam is throughout the world and within the United States.

In other words, the hatred for America that the Middle East displays so intensely has more to do with our political embroilment in the region and our social inability to identify with their culture than the religion a handful of murderous zealots claimed as their own. It is, in reality, the peaceful nature of Islam that attracts so many followers century after century.

Sept. 11 and its ensuing implications were not caused by Muslims. They were caused by fanatics who grew up in a society that has never had as much material comfort or as little social bloodshed as the United States. They were plotted by those who were enraged by the knowledge of the millions of opportunities denied them and wasted on others who had simply been geographically luckier. Being a Muslim was merely one of their attributes, hardly more relevant than the color of their eyes. But to Americans, hearing the word “Islam” in the same sentence as the word “terrorist” time and time again has blurred the division between the two terms.

Another obstacle in our quest to make sense of the post-Sept. 11 world has arisen from the relaxing of the usually closely maintained boundaries between faith and the federal government. In the wake of Sept. 11, people turned, logically, to their churches and their faiths for solace. President Bush first vaguely alluded to and then openly mentioned God in his statements, portraying Christianity as a source of strength, the tenuous thread of hope to which Americans were clinging.

Under normal circumstances, the president’s unabashed religious references would have come under heavy fire from strict proponents of church-state separation. But during the bleakest period in recent American history, anything that made us feel better became admissible. Constitutional policy was no longer our concern; finding the motivation to carry on was the order of the day.

Having procured a place in political rhetoric, Christianity traveled overseas. Barely before the streets of Iraq had cooled from warfare, followers of various Christian denominations were packed up and traveled to the Middle East, moved by their beliefs to “save” the people of that region from Islam. In an unprecedented show of arrogance, citizens of the United States – not government officials – showed up just steps from mosques uninvited, uninformed and undeterred by threats on their safety and the hostility of the would-be converts.

This contemporary evangelical undertaking further displayed how little Americans realize about people of the Middle East and how susceptible we are to the desire to make everyone else like us instead of considering that other cultures, unfamiliar as they may be, do have some worth.

Ironically, we also helped to substantiate the plight of Muslims who condemn terrorism. The American Christian “missionaries” so determined to impose their faith on unassuming Middle Eastern Muslims proved that, indeed, some members of every religion will take it just too far.

In two years, we Americans have tried so hard to learn, and it is to our credit.

But unless we force ourselves to regard the values of religion and the principles of nations as separate and unrelated, we will never truly understand.