September 21, 2001

Changed forever

Shock, fear, anger, and hope for justice in a world that has suddenly become much smaller

by Dr. Arif Babul

It’s Saturday, Sept. 22. Today, for the first time in nearly two weeks, I feel eerily at peace. Yesterday, tortured and depressed, I attended Friday prayers, seeking solace. Finding none until a gentleman stood up and spoke gently and eloquently about the catastrophe that unfolded before our very eyes on Sept. 11, about the mindless violence that was inflicted not only on the people who died tragically in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, but on all of us. He spoke of the importance of letting out the bottled emotions, of reaching out to each other, to God.

A silent scream exploded from deep within my very being.

I still remember being awoken by a phone call early that Tuesday morning, stumbling downstairs, turning on the TV, and being shattered by the agonizing images that flooded into our home. My wife stood there in shock, crying. Our young children stood beside us, watching the tragedy at the World Trade Center repeat over and over and over again, not completely comprehending what was happening but recognizing that something terrible had taken place.

Before moving to Victoria not too long ago, we lived in Manhattan, south of 14th, in fact, for several years. New York was, in a way, home — a place of warm wonderful memories, the birthplace of our eldest daughter. Even at a distance of four years and 3,000 km, Manhattan remains very much part and parcel of our being. Perhaps Manhattan has seeped into our bones. This was not an attack on someplace over there. It feels like a knife-wound deep in our chests; the pain refuses to go away. My wife, to this day, can’t watch the images on TV without breaking down.

Within minutes, it struck us. Our friends. Our relatives. Most of these people lived downtown or worked in the financial district. Three had offices in the World Trade Center. Most of the next few days passed in great panic, fear and anguish. The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. The phone lines to Manhattan were down and if it wasn’t for e-mail, I am not sure what we would have done.

Thankfully, all our friends and family members are alright. Of the last two, one had been unable to contact us until Friday morning. Although he had gotten out without injury, he stayed behind to help get his injured friends and colleagues to hospital. Unfortunately, many members of our wider circle are missing. One had called his parents just moments after WTC #2 was hit to say that he was alright. He is missing.

Nearly every night, the first few days, I woke to find my wife sobbing in her sleep, dreaming of buildings collapsing, of searing fireballs, of friends jumping from high windows.

And as I think back, it all seems rather surreal. I recall, in midst of all the turmoil, dropping my five-year-old off at school and instructing her that this was not a good day to tell anyone that she was a Muslim. All this after spending years teaching her to be proud of her heritage. She, an American by birth. The irony of it all. And all this while she was trying to grapple with the calamity of watching her birthplace, a city she had raised to mythic status in her mind, in flames and under attack, knowing that daddy and mummy are worried about Arrianne, her childhood friend, and Uncle Nizar and Rasool, among others.

Am I paranoid? Perhaps. I don’t fear my neighbours and colleagues. For the most part, they have been incredibly concerned and supportive. It is the random acts of violence that I fear. It was not that long ago that I was subjected to shouts of “Paki” as I walked to and from school. It was not that long ago that I was assaulted merely because of my skin colour. And yes, that was right here in Canada.

I remember well the hatred and racism directed towards Muslims in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. And yes, I am heartened to hear the media, politicians and community leaders attempt to distinguish between Muslims in general and the crazed monsters who perpetrated this heinous crime supposedly in the name of Islam.

But then I learn of a 15-year-old boy beaten unconscious in Ottawa because he was of Arab descent. I learn of a friend subjected to taunts of “Saddam” right here on the UVic campus. And I learn of a statistics class where the instructor, seeking an example to illustrate a math concept writes on the board “Muslim — many wives.” Most in the class thought it funny. I don’t. I’m sure someone in the class must have squirmed in discomfort. And it is with such insensitivities in mind that I am sure many will perceive The Ring’s glaring oversight in soliciting views from Muslims in their last issue as something more.

These days, I still wake to find my wife thrashing and crying out. Now she dreams of cars running her over, of strangers chasing her.

My colleagues ask if I am okay and I chat to them, mostly wanting to let the heaviness out, to clear my mind of the malaise that had set in. Invariably the talk turns to the identity of the terrorists and though no one prompts me, I find myself strangely compelled to apologize, to defend my faith. Why? Because everywhere I turn, I hear the words “Islamic terrorists” and “Muslim terrorists” and I cringe at the fact that my faith is now being associated with the actions of a criminal minority.

Why? Is it not obvious that terrorist acts are committed by individuals and groups for reasons that often draw upon a complex mix of cultural, religious, nationalist, economic, social and psychological motives? When anti-abortion activists bomb clinics and murder doctors, nobody describes them as Christian terrorists. And in the terrible heyday of Irish sectarian strife, I don’t recall those who exploded car bombs in streets filled with innocent people being described as Protestant or Roman Catholic terrorists. And though declared to be terrorists by Israel, I don’t recall followers of the radical, racist Meir Kahane being referred to as Jewish terrorists.

“Muslim terrorists.” Day in and day out, the phrase is repeated in print, on the television and on the radio. Is it any wonder that there is an increase in abuse directed towards Muslims?

I will, however, apologize to my children. For we Muslims have stood silent for far too long while extremists hijack our faith, perpetrate barbaric violence in its name, and seek to extinguish our cherished birthrights through coercion and violence. And by birthrights, I don’t mean the civil liberties that we enjoy in the West, but rather the established historic right of individual Muslims to their interpretation of the faith. We have failed to stand firm and uphold the Quranic edict that there shall be no compulsion in religion.

Perhaps we Muslims in the West felt insulated. After all, living here with all our freedoms, there wasn’t much cause for concern about what was happening over there. The Sept. 11 tragedy ought to serve as a wake-up call. Perhaps it is time for us to collectively assert that the imposition of a particular faith or an interpretation of faith on an unwilling individual or population is unacceptable, no matter where in the world it occurs. Such an imposition causes degradation of all civilized standards of human behaviour. And that we too cannot escape becoming its victims. I now worry how long it will be before my daughters can proudly assert their heritage in public.

Shock gives way to anger. The dead — 6,000 innocent individuals of every race and religion: Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus; British, Canadians, Americans, Pakistanis, Indians, Kenyans, Ethiopians, Japanese — must have justice. Justice? My mind echoes with the anguish of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis being turned away from our shores, the tortured gasoline-induced fits of Native Canadian children dispossessed of their culture, heritage, and identity, the screams of 500,000 innocent Iraqi mothers weeping as their babies face certain death due to the punitive sanctions imposed on them by us in the West.

I hear the screams of more than a 100,000 Tutsis being hacked to death while we stood silently aside, the dying gasps of helpless Palestinians being slaughtered at Deir Yasine, and in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. And I hear the screams of Bosnian Muslim women watching their sons and husbands being dragged off to sure death, and they themselves being savagely raped as we in the West hemmed and hawed.

Justice? Yes. But justice for all, I hope. For the world has suddenly grown much smaller. And we will never again sleep easy, knowing that we are within easy reach of the anger of the disgruntled.

Dr. Arif Babul is a faculty member in UVic’s department of physics and astronomy.

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