Monday, May 2, 2011

How to React to Osama's Death?

How did you react when you heard  Osama bin Laden was dead?

My first—immediately suppressed—urge was to dance, “Ding, dong, Osama’s dead!” (I refer, of course, to the paean sung by liberated Munchkins, “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead!” in the Hollywood classic The Wizard of Oz, interpreted here by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald).  A more restrained and adult part of me held sway—an inner voice reminding me never to rejoice in the death or suffering of another, even a self-declared enemy—and I contemplated what the families and friends of those who perished on September 11, 2001 (some, people I knew) might be feeling, along with survivors of terrorism committed in the name of Al-Qacida around the world.

I don’t usually take my direction from the mouthpiece of the Vatican, but sometimes they say something I pretty much agree with—so when they do, why not repeat it?: “In front of the death of man, a Christian never rejoices but rather reflects on the grave responsibility of each one in front of God and men, and hopes and commits himself so that every moment not be an occasion for hatred to grow but for peace” (only difference for me, is I would add “and women” to that sentence and I think it’s true of most people, non-Christians too).  Thank you, Brandon Lacy Campos, for directing me to that quote and the one that follows: "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble" (Proverbs 24:17).  Surely there is wisdom in these words.

Some disclosure: I am a proud US citizen, and a proud Moroccan citizen.  I am Muslim.  Ethnically, I am Arab and Amazigh on my father’s side (though I know much more about the Arab ancestry as can trace my lineage to the founding Arab Muslim fathers of the modern Moroccan Kingdom, in the late 700’s C.E.), and Greek and Italian on my mother’s side (all of it from the island of Crete, with its ancient, pre-Hellenic, Minoan roots, and where I also trace ancestry to a Venetian family that first came to Crete in the 16th Century C.E.).  I am gay and in a committed relationship with a man (we’ve been together 6 years).  I admit to having an Ivy League undergrad & law school education, preceded by a private American and International School education in Casablanca Morocco, where I was born and raised. 

Bottom line: Al-Qacida never was going to be my friend!  And I doubt I will ever be theirs either.

I lived and worked in NYC on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked.  I saw the first tower go down on a TV in our office conference room (I worked for Children’s Defense Fund-NY on immigrants’ access to health care).  I saw the second tower go down as I walked down Fifth Avenue from our offices at 45th & Lexington to a friend’s apartment in Chelsea, not having been able to get by the camouflage-wearing National Guard keeping all from entering Grand Central Station, and from subways or trains home.  I remember a pervasive sense of fear as people pushed at the yelling Guards trying to keep order (those guards still are there, though probably not as rattled today as they were then).

I drifted down into Chelsea, passing clumps of people marching up Fifth Avenue, some covered in powder I could not comprehend, obviously refugees from the WTC.  I heard for the first time (not the last) a woman say to her companions, “We need to round up all those Arabs and Muslims!  I’m telling you!  Put them in camps like the Japanese in WWII!”  I silently walked on, unaware I was attending the birth of an onslaught I have since termed, “The New Anti-Semitism” (sadly, the “old” anti-Semitism is alive and well, even in the USA).

Then I witnessed the second tower go down in a cloud of dust.  People around me screamed in shock; it took my mind a while to register what the billowing cloud signified.  I doubt any one of us truly fathoms what we witnessed that day.

I still live in New York, most of the year, though I write this from Casablanca, in Morocco, a city and country going through tremendous transition.  The Arab Spring blowing through the region is airing out this corner of the Arab World too.  It has moved the King to re-launch a process of reform.  Perhaps the King now agrees with his sometimes-estranged cousin, Moulay Hicham, that the interests of the monarchy are best served by reform

Morocco also has suffered from Islamist terrorism in the past, some inspired by the late, unlamented Osama.  While things here have been pretty safe, just last week a café in Marrakesh was bombed—an odious act as yet unclaimed by any hostile government, faction, or terrorist group.  The café faced a historic square , a World Heritage site. The response has been heartening—Moroccan citizens across the country have rallied to denounce terrorism, global support pours in through online sites, and the government has proclaimed that the need for security can coexist with the project of reforms.  This gives me hope Morocco can be a leader for the region as it meets this challenge.  It also can show the world another face to Islam.  If the change takes, it will be a beacon for human rights and dignity, answering the call that kindled the Arab Awakening.

Thankfully, President Obama proclaimed “the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam… our war is not against Islam, because bin Ladin was not a Muslim leader, he was a mass murderer of Muslims.  Indeed, al-Qacida has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”

As a Muslim, Osama never spoke for me, nor did he ever represent what I saw as the best in Islam.  I understand what he was angry about.  He hated any “foreign” interference in Muslim lands: he hated the Soviets for invading Afghanistan (1979) and was radicalized then; later, when the US planted garrisons in Saudi Arabia, near Islam’s heart and holiest sites leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, he decided the US was his enemy and began a 20-year campaign against us (we fought back, obviously, and it is not over, though Osama may be gone).

Osama and Al-Qacida represent a fringe group within Islam that is self-righteously puritanical.  I believe they commit the ultimate sin in Islam, shirk: they arrogantly aggregate themselves with the Divine, asserting they know what the Divine's will is and denying the rest of us the right to think for ourselves or to approach the Eternal in our own way, on our own path.  

I am not the only American Arab or Muslim who rejects Osama and his ideology.  Many Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans have rejoiced, “Obama got Osama!”  I am glad to report most Arab and Muslim reaction around the world was the same, denouncing terror, rejecting Osama.  All but HAMAS, whose Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, condemned the killing and described bin Laden as a holy warrior.

At the same time as I completely reject the totalitarian ideologues within the Islamic Right, the surge in anti-Arab attitudes and Islamophobia in the US and the West following the attacks of 9/11 worries me today just as it made me feel unsafe on the streets of NYC, my home right back in 2001.  I remember being called by friends to join them at Union Square for candlelight vigils, and fearing leaving the apartment.  I feared another possible attack from the skies (or who knows where), but also was not sure my fellow citizens on the ground would not assault me (there were regular news reports of assaults).

Less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, back at CDF, I rode a packed elevator up to my office, overhearing yet another woman assert, "We need to round up all those Arabs!"  “Will they pass a law requiring me to wear clothing identifying myself as Muslim first?”  I thought to myself.  Thankfully, that has not happened, but the rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attitudes continues.

I recently came across printed out copies of hate mail and death threats the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society received—from Americans using anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slurs (not hate mail from Osama and Al-Qacida, who I am sure had no love for us either)—that we distributed amongst ourselves.  I remember Ramzi telling us how he, gay and Christian, was visited at 3 a.m. by the FBI at his apartment, who interviewed him and said they were there to ensure his safety, yet all the while their questions were only whether he had any terrorist ties.  

While anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes continue to rise, the FBI has improved at partnering with and serving Arab and Muslim constituencies.  Many non-Arab and non-Muslim Americans stood up for us and alongside us (and all those mistaken as Arabs and Muslims).  Among them were prominent Jewish Americans and organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, which joined in an interfaith group formed to protect mosques from attack.  In New York, Mayor Bloomberg and many 9/11 families spoke up against the hysteria regarding the World Trade Center (Adjacent) mosque.  I hope my fellow Arabs and Muslims with any of the “old” Anti-Semitism pay attention to this and excise that hatred.  Aware of their history "littered with injustice and tragedy,” our Semitic cousins came to our aid.  I, for one, am thankful for it.

Just like I cannot expect Islamic extremists out there to disappear with Osama’s splunk in the ocean, there will still be nut jobs committed to seeing Muslims as a threat.  Even Western Muslims’ seeking to integrate into our host societies—while retaining a commitment to our faith, as each of us, individually, may interpret it—may be seen as harboring a fantastic hidden agenda of Islamic Supremacy.  These lunatics fantasize about a potential Islamic Caliphate as much as Osama bin Laden!

I understand fear and pain due to loss of loved ones or a sense of insecurity resulting from the attacks; this incites anger.  I don’t understand that the fear and doubt would apply indiscriminately to all Muslims.  No matter how many times Muslims or Muslim groups act or say otherwise, some people remain convinced we are all dissimulating sleeper cell agents for Islamic militant groups like HAMAS.  Their Muslim Panics, alongside immigration panics and other obsessions make me wonder if the version of the US they will end up creating if they successfully infect America with their hate is not perhaps aptly portrayed in the innovative and dystopic facebook game, America2049, created by Breakthrough.

So, back to my conflicted initial urge and subsequent self-control: I am glad I did not cheer and dance.  I do not find it seemly or appropriate, and I am concerned about fall out images of Americans cheering in the streets will generate.  I understand why people joined the jubilation and celebration, but I also know how distressing I find cheering crowds burning American flags.  So, a self-declared enemy was laid low.  Maybe, as a Muslim relative here in Morocco said, “He was responsible for terrible crimes.  He got what he deserved.”  I don’t know.

I wish he had been tried in a court, all the while treated for his diabetes.  I think the compassion would have been a triumph over his hate.  I believe Martin Luther King, Jr., violence begets violence, “Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.  In fact, violence merely increases hate…  Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

What’s more, I know there is always another side.  Growing up a bridge between cultures, I learned this: every story can be viewed from an alternate perspective.

Casablanca, Morocco
May 2nd, 2011

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on a very thoughtful commentary. With 30 years in the Army behind me, a visit to NYC and the World Trade Center a year before the tragedy, and an appreciation for all religions, I felt you truly captured the nuances associated with bin Laden's death.


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