Do you remember where you were, what you were doing that fateful morning on September 11, 2001? A Pew survey shows that 97 percent of Americans remember exactly where they were when 9/11 occurred, the highest percentage, followed by JFK’s assassination (95 percent) and Pearl Harbor (89 percent).
I certainly remember where I was when the terrorists attacked. I was eating breakfast, preparing to drive to my classes at the University at Central Florida when my husband called to tell me to turn on the television. I thought it was a cruel joke. Sadly, tragically, it was reality. Life changed for everyone that day, and the term 9/11 is indelibly inked into our collective consciousness. How we as a nation became more paranoid, more stressed, is the subject for another time and place. Countless studies show the effects of 9/11 on our health, short-term mental well-being, and so much more. But these reports often fail to address the positives.
What positives could possibly come about as a result of a horrific terrorist attack on our nation, you may ask? I, who try to find blessings in adversity, can find plenty. As citizens who tended to be pretty inclusive, we became more aware of the world around us, started taking an interest in the politics of others. We learned geography and history and political science, not in some classroom but on the world stage in front of our eyes. We slowly even learned not to trust the media, and to find alternative sources of acquiring information.
As Americans we discovered that all of us are not white, that many of our neighbors are brown and black, Jews and Muslims who need support in times of discrimination. The outpourings of sympathy and care that countless American Muslims claim to have received from strangers is testament to our growing power as a cohesive, pluralistic, and tolerant society. Much public discourse around Islam and what that meant in an American environment came about as a direct result of Islamophobia after 9/11. American Muslims, like myself, found out that we had a voice, and that there was always an opportunity to improve ourselves, our political environment, and our media. American Muslim women gained the strength to embark on gender studies from an Islamic perspective, to have their voices heard in a way they hadn’t thought possible before.
Perhaps most importantly, 9/11 resulted in an enhanced interfaith environment, one that had never gained as much traction before. We learned the hard way that intolerance and misunderstandings about those of other faiths can lead to stereotypes, discrimination, and worse things. The number of interfaith dialogue events and diversity programs increased exponentially after 9/11 for a variety of reasons, and we all became better people of faith and better human beings because of it. And we didn’t just stop at conversation, although that itself was a tremendous jump forward, we began working together to a better society through social projects involving disaster relief, homelessness, education, and so much more.
We learned to be stronger in times of crisis, and that is an important lesson. Perhaps that’s why 97 percent of us remember where we were when we heard about 9/11, because 9/11 became much more important than just a terrorist attack. It became an impetus for change within ourselves. Each anniversary takes us closer to healing, but never to forgetting the lessons learned. When I say “never forget” I don’t mean it in a vindictive way, but in order to remind myself never to forget the resilience of my society, the things I learned and the ways I improved myself. Never forget.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.