Board Chair Afia Yunus reflects on the Legacy of 9/11

On August 4, 2019, my phone rang. I answered with a cold hello. “There’s been another shooting.” A friend of mine and fellow agent of change informed me in four simple words explaining the horror and violence that too many of us in America have become disgustingly accustomed to. For the first time in my adult life, I did not respond with the fear ridden question that I had responded with for so many years – “Was he Muslim?” 

Since the unforgettable, life altering attacks of 9/11 when I was 14 years old, I have braced myself after each shooting to hear that the answer to this question was yes. So ingrained in me was the expectation that national media will immediately label the deranged perpetrator as an “Islamic extremist” the moment it’s confirmed that he attended a local masjid, had a Muslim sounding name, had Muslim family members, or wore a beard.  

For the first time, that thought and question did not even cross my mind. The past two years of mass shootings perpetrated by violent white supremacists has transformed the image of terrorism from a brown skinned “foreigner” to your neighborhood white male.  Violence by extremists claiming a Muslim identity has declined and continues to be outnumbered by domestic, home-grown terrorism spewed by white supremacists that is on the rise. This is our new reality. 

This new reality begs the question: Will we respond to it by isolating and vilifying an entire group of people as we did after 9/11? When a handful of people who identify as a particular race, religion, or followers of a particular ideology commit violent acts, will we demonize the entire race? 

Those who committed violent attacks in the name of a religion of 1.8 billion worldwide hijacked my faith. My fellow Americans, most notably the U.S. national news media, would not only watch the hijack, but win points for the assist by feeding into the false narrative that Islam is a religion that condones and even encourages violence against innocents. The blatant lie that adherents to the world’s second largest religion, including nearly 4 million in the United States, would subscribe to a religion that rewards mass murderers with virgins in Paradise is at best sheer ignorance and at worst insulting, demeaning, and anti-Islam hate speech disseminated by Islamophobes.

As a Muslim woman, I refuse to do to an entire group what my nation did to me and my fellow Muslims. I will not dehumanize and hate all white men, all Democrats or Republicans, all advocates for gun ownership, all Christians, and, more importantly, all who look, act, speak, or believe differently than me. I refuse to entrench further into my tribe, otherize an entire group of people, fear them, villainize them, and blame them for the acts of a few. Instead, I will commit to reach across divides, get out of my comfort zone, and attempt to develop meaningful connection in direct opposition to the toxic polarization that feeds its belly with ignorance, hate, and divisiveness. 

That is why I support The One America Movement.  Because I know, from lived experience, that meaningful connection through shared human experience, deep listening, and service can evaporate the drowning waves of toxic polarization. Much of our polarization is rooted in false narratives about the “other.”  If I know from lived experience that not all Muslims are terrorists, must I not also realize that not all white males are white supremacists? 

As Brené Brown writes in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” One America brings people together across divides to act on issues that matter in their community. By being involved with this organization, I have gotten “close up” with people I never would have otherwise.  People across the political, religious, and racial divide come together in shared vulnerability to engage in the deep listening necessary to transform our perspective of others. I have learned that it is our scar tissue, our difficult experiences and personal trauma, that make us all part of one group: human. Instead of sorting ourselves into grouped identities, where Republicans only associate with Republicans and Democrats only associate with Democrats, let us create a new group of humanity wherein empathy, compassion, and grace reign. 

On this anniversary of 9/11, I am reminded of the power of fear and how it can drive hate. I encourage myself first and you all to resist the urge to hate and entrench further into our silos. Let us open when our minds want to close, let us engage when our bodies want to armour, and when we seek to push the “other” out, let us find connection through service.

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