Most Americans remember where they were on September 11th, 2001. I recall the day vividly. I had recently moved from New York City to Washington DC to teach at Johns Hopkins University – SAIS. I was teaching Malaysian politics when the first attack occurred. During the class break, I told the class that a plane had gone into the Twin Towers. Like most of us, we thought this was a small plane and I continued teaching. By the end of the two-hour class period, phones had been ringing non-stop and it had become clear that terrorism had reached US soil. We were all soon glued around the television, and one of my colleagues familiar with US policy responses remarked correctly “there will be war”. The building soon emptied out, but since I did not have a proper internet connection due to my move, I stayed at the office, reaching out to friends. When I got around to leaving the office it was around 5pm, and I walked my twenty or so blocks home. There were military and National Guard personnel on street corners, shops were shut and the streets were deserted, as Washington DC had become an eerie war zone. At home, I watched television that featured the violent attack and personal stories of crisis over and over again in what would be a national trauma.
I was listed as one of the missing in New York, as some of my relatives could not reach me due to the move. My immediate focus was to reach out to my students and friends who I knew worked in the Towers and to reassure loved ones that I was fine. Just as I had confirmed that the last friend on the list of those in the Tower was okay, I received a call from my aunt letting me know that my cousin’s wife Debbie had died in Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. She has been a United Airlines stewardess, and it would later be revealed that she had been stabbed in the attack as hijackers took over the plane. I spent the next few days comforting family and friends, who lacking the same level of international exposure, could not fathom the reasons for the attack and were in shock. Attending the heart-wrenching memorial ceremonies was deeply emotional, and to this day, I will never forget the personal suffering of the innocent.
In the immediate wake of 9-11, I had hoped that this would event would lead to an outreach with the international community and with Muslims in particular. I also hoped that there would be a serious reevaluation of US policy in the Middle East, especially with regard to Palestine, which remains intractable and a serious problem. I urged engagement and ramped up my energies toward promoting a better understanding of Southeast Asia. As the region was tarnished with the terrorist brush, given the planning of 9-11 attacks in places such as Malaysia, it was vital to provide the contextual frameworks for events and to remind those unfamiliar with the region of its diversity and complexity.
Instead, I watched the US turn inward, as reactionary nationalism reigned and fear drove policy. Ten years later, the US remains embroiled in two wars, and many of the underlying reasons for the attacks persist. While safety is seen as protected through tight airport monitoring, visa regulation and intelligence gathering of chatter, real understanding and engagement is sorely lacking. The sources of tension arising with US policy in the Middle East, despite the Arab spring, persist. Deep distrust and suspicion remain and in many ways have hardened, as the US is seen as the boogeyman by many in the international community and Muslims and Islam is mistakenly seen as a driver of terrorism. The suspicions have extended globally into local contexts where black-and-white perceptions of communities color constructive engagement and understanding. Throughout the world, in Malaysia and Indonesia in the region, religious misunderstandings have widened after 9-11, as a serious gap exists between Muslims and non-Muslims, and among Muslims themselves and within other religions, with inadequate dialogue to strengthen understanding. Intolerance and gross mischaracterizations continues to poison relationships.
New Approaches Needed
The ten year anniversary of 9-11 serves as yet another call for a different tack for policy and approaches. On the global front, there is a pressing need for withdrawal of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as local actors should be given sovereignty and control their own destinies. Pressure on Israel to do the right thing on Palestine must deepen, as global leadership toward a peaceful solution is needed more than ever. A richer understanding of the diversity of experience in the Muslim world is sorely needed. More broadly, in the realms of academia where I am most familiar, there continues to be a need to foster inter-religious dialogue and understanding, and to breakdown erroneous stereotypes that underscore misunderstandings and intolerance. This need for respectful discussion is pressing. Now, more than ever, as there is serious reflection on 9-11, and more information about the event has emerged, there is a need to move away from policy driven by fear and insecurity towards policy geared toward hope and security.
My cousin has moved on in his life. While Debbie will always be in our hearts and memories, on personal levels, many of those more affected have proved resilient and moved forward. The time now is for our policies and approaches to have a similar future-oriented outreach, one that is at peace with the past and embracing the promise of a better tomorrow.
Multiple Dimensions of a New Post 9-11 Era
There are four areas that stand out that need immediate attention. The first is to increase tolerance. While we may not agree with different beliefs and practices, the time for acceptance of difference is now more pressing than ever. Trends in the US suggest increasing intolerance and religious conservatism, which are worrying trajectories that need to be tackled head-on. These trends are the source of conflict and tension, leading to polarization and zero-sum political dynamics that are difficult to resolve.
To address tolerance, there is an urgent need for dialogue, inter-religious, inter-racial and cross-border discussions, the second issue. Has not the terrorism in the past taught us about the need to listen and adopt more constructive approaches to difference within communities?
This movement toward the future is tied to a third dimension, the need to appreciate our common humanity. Mistakes have been made and continue to be made, but in order to address them, blame and condemnation is not useful. The focus instead should be on the lessons and the path ahead, with an appreciation of infallibility and common desire for a better future across constructed boundaries. We have shared dreams of peace and better futures for our families, and this common bond ties us together.
Finally, ten years later we have to appreciate the active need to genuinely understand and respect the views and experiences of others, whether it is in the US, Southeast Asia, or elsewhere, and, importantly, take responsibility for promoting understanding and addressing injustices. We ask ourselves, what have we done to make the world safer and more peaceful after 9-11? How much do we really understand different world views? What can we do now to make a difference to the injustices than persist?
As I believed in the days immediately after the attack, I remain of the view that deeper broader engagement – global and local – will move us toward effectively addressing the core problems than drove the terrorist attacks and will provide for a more secure and livable world. As we remember the 9-11 attacks, the time has come for a new decade of hope and peace, one in which friendship, outreach and engagement dominate over the forces that drove violence, war and needless suffering.