Sunday, September 10, 2006

9/11 - A Test of Faith

I knew. I knew the minute I turned on the television, before my first cup of coffee, before I could light my candle, before the sleep was out of my eyes. I knew. I knew that what I saw transpiring some 2,000 miles away on my television screen was going to be a test. A test of my faith as an American Muslim.

After five years, my faith as a Muslim remains unshaken. Sadly, I can't say the same about my faith in America and Americans.

This was not my first personal test and I'm not a wuss. I've lived through three major earthquakes and two riots in Los Angeles, two battles with cancer, marriage, divorce and a 10 year battle with COPD. But they were nothing compared to 9/11.

Nor was this my first political test. I lived through the protests against the war in Viet Nam in the 60's, organizing and protesting the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (and then losing my job because my boss saw me on television protesting in front of the Israeli Consulate), physical attacks and death threats from the JDL (and losing a friend to a bomb planted by the JDL on the door knob to his office in Santa Ana, California) and having my birthday clouded forever by the coincidence of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. But they were nothing compared to 9/11.

I lived through setting up press conferences at the Islamic Center to defend Islam as a peaceful religion in the wake of the terror attacks on Istanbul's synagogues in 1987, being strip searched at Heathrow in January 1991 (and the horror of watching bombs fall on Iraq a few hours later), worrying about friends stuck in Kuwait and unable to flee the invasion, and the first attack on the World Trade Center a few years later. But they were nothing compared to 9/11.

I lived through all of the above and more. But I always felt like an American. Now? Not so much ...

In the days immediately after 9/11, I noticed the flags. Flags, flags everywhere. On poles, on cars, on pickup trucks, on clothing and lapels. Red White and Blue. But more importantly, I noticed the rhetoric. Phrases like "crusade", "clash of civilizations", "with us or against us".

And living, as I do, alone, 30 miles south of the middle of nowhere and 250 miles west of East Armpit, Texas, for the first time in my life I began to be afraid, very afraid. Not afraid of an airplane crashing into my house. Not afraid of another terrorist attack. But afraid that, isolated as I am, I needed to be very aware of my surroundings, my neighbors, my internet activities, my phone conversations.

In the first year, my health deteriorated sharply. I stopped teaching Arabic and giving seminars on Islam and the Muslim World. I relied on my dogs to alert me to strangers on my property. And I actually read the "so-called" Patriot Act and HEPA and all the other pieces of new legislation meant to "protect us". I even called the police one night to come replace a burned out porch light because I was frightened, disabled, alone and more than slightly paranoid as Jenin was being decimated and the US marched blindly towards war in Iraq ... and the police came and put in a new light. (There are advantages to living in a town this small.)

I changed. I could no longer watch a sitcom with a laugh track on television. Still can't. And I take notes while watching the news, often taping one program while watching another. In five years the rhetoric has only become more strident, with even the President using terms like "Islamic Fascists". Every utterance by a talking know-nothing head, a "so-called" expert, a media darling, or a member of the Bush Regime spouting the hateful talking points of the day, grates like fingernails on a blackboard.

If I was a news junky before 9/11, I'm a full-blown addict now. But over the last five years I've narrowed down the voices I can trust to just three: Amy Goodman, Keith Olbermann, and Jon Stewart. The fact that the third is a comedian speaks volumes...

So this weekend, as every television station is commemorating the 5th anniversary of that horrible morning, as ABC is getting ready to air yet another inflammatory made for TV movie, as CNN continues to run "In the Footsteps of Bin Laden", as the talking points roll around the echo chamber that is the media, and as more and more truths come to light in the mainstream, I mourn for my American identity. I mourn for the faith I had in this country and its people to always do the right thing -- eventually. I mourn for the America that came together to rescue Baby Jessica from the well. I mourn for my lost innocence.

Every morning I light a candle which burns throughout the day on my kitchen stove. And on that candle I place my prayers for my family, my friends, for women and children everywhere, for Iraq and Iran and Palestine, for Darfur and Gaza, for troops everywhere in harm's way and for the victims of collateral damage.

Starting tomorrow, I will also place prayers for my lost America.