Osama Bin Laden was a dark man with dark thoughts whose blind obsession with hate poisoned relations between Muslims in Jews. On September 11, 2001, I was walking out of first period when the first tower was struck in New York City. Two hours later, our math teacher would announce the news to us. “If you pray, pray. America is under attack.”
But Osama’s bid to divide the world between Muslims and “infidels” led Muslims everywhere to seek out solutions to extremism in our religion. For me, the solution was clear: engage the Jewish community.
Jewish Americans were in shock after 9/11, but many were also prepared. Israel, the Jewish state, is the world’s most terrorized nation in history. But it is also the home of America’s largest expatriate community. That close, inseparable connection to Israel is what helped the Jewish Community in America know how to respond on 9/11. Many Jewish community leaders had been to Israel during the worst of Palestinian terror campaigns the mid-90s, and had first hand experience dealing with terrorism, its victims, and its perpetrators.
Within hours, JCC’s, synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish institutions across the country went into crisis mode. Classes were cancelled, security called-in, and phone calls to public safety officials were made. The Jewish community was ready. But we American Muslims were new to terrorism. Pluralities of us are African American. Less than a quarter of Muslims in America are Arab, and many are refugees fleeing terrorism and genocide, like Bosnians (many of whom I know thank Ellie Wiesel for saving their lives with his speech at the National Holocaust Museum) and Somalis.
All of a sudden, Muslims were feeling the pressure of 100 years of gross mismanagement and malfeasance of leadership in the Muslim World. Most mosques did not have a dedicated public relations contact. Many did not have trained clerics on staff who could issue religious orders condemning 9/11, and therefore failed to shed light on the fact many Muslims serve in uniform, and many more had fled their countries to escape terror, not cause it. Our religion had been robbed from us in an instant, and we all knew it would take considerably longer for us to win it back.
I was thirteen when Al Qaeda’s operatives brought down the twin towers and struck the Pentagon. And like most Muslims in America, the hunt to bring Osama Bin Laden down has been personal, I know people who died that day, and I know people whose loved ones died that September day, too. And then, later the night of the attacks when I thought no one could feel the way I did, I thought of Israel.
My contribution to the fight against terror came in the form of outreach to the Jewish community, and particularly through advocating for Israel. Israel is a small, diverse country with a host of problems that all developed countries face. But what was peculiar to Israel until 9/11 was the sheer voracity of those who disliked it. Terrorism was a by-word for daily life. “9/11 is every day in Israel” a Jewish friend told me the next day in the lunch line. I decided then that I wanted to learn all I could about the Jewish people and the Jewish State. I spent my time at UMBC learning and experiencing all I could about Israel, a country dogged and shaken almost daily by mini-Osamas, and a country Al Qaeda has often described in the most gruesome and offensive terms.
My experiences with the Jewish community changed me and the way I think about the world around me. Through leadership and perseverance, I eventually became the Jewish Student Union’s Israel Chair, and later the President of the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsion Pi while at UMBC. I worked to show my fraternity brothers and friends at college that Islam made me no different than them, and in many cases we found together how similarly our religions looked at the world.
Judaism in Baltimore taught me much. At least once a year I gather my Muslim family to celebrate Shabbat (we’re working on substituting Hebrew for Arabic and Islamic prayers so that the celebration might be a weekly occurrence, since I’m the only one who knows the Hebrew), and very rarely does a conversation with a mosque leader go without me referencing the professionalism found at shuls in Pikesville. Judaism taught me how to embrace Islam from a compassionate angle based in the study of logic and reason, something both I and my loved ones deeply appreciate.
Shortly after leaving UMBC, I put my intimate knowledge of the Judaism and Jewish people to good use, working behind the scenes with Muslim groups to raise awareness about the true face of Israel as a country of compassion and diversity, and of the Jewish people as a remarkable nation that all religious minorities should aspire to be like. A few weeks ago, I spoke to a group of trained Muslim Imams (clerics) from the mideast about my experiences as an “honorary member” of the Jewish community.
The devout clerics, some the rising stars in religious jurisprudence, surprised me when they endorsed my past work with the Jewish community and then asked that I keep them up to date on my progress from now on. This past week while soliciting donations for me to attend AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference, Muslim Americans have given the most generously, totaling nearly half of my donations. In previous years, such a thing would have been unthinkable. We are finding that as much as Osama Bin Laden had set out to divide Muslims and Jews, he has unwittingly brought us together.