When the planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, I was living in Seattle, on the other side of America. My brother and his wife were visiting me. We did not leave the house for two days because we were worried that Americans angry at Muslims would attack my sister-in-law, who wore a hijab.
On Sept. 13, 2001, one such angry American – Patrick Cunningham – tried to start a fire in my local mosque’s parking lot. When two Muslims coming out from night prayers tried to stop him, Cunningham – who was drunk – tried to shoot them; he missed, then jumped into his car and drove into a tree.
When we heard what had happened, we drove to the mosque and were moved to see flowers and messages of support already flooding its entrance. And from that night on and for weeks more, neighborhood men and women holding signs that read “Muslims are Americans” stood on 24-hour guard outside the mosque.
Compassion was not one-sided. Issa Qandil, a Jordanian immigrant to the United States, who was one of the two Muslim men Cunningham had tried to shoot, told authorities he forgave Cunningham and wanted to drop the charges.
The Seattle Weekly newspaper said that wasn’t possible, but that Qandil’s attitude of forgiveness facilitated a plea bargain. Qandil visited Cunningham in jail and told him that he understood why he did what he did and that he forgave him. Qandil even testified at Cunningham’s sentencing hearing, saying that retribution was useless and asked the court to be lenient. Cunningham got six-and-a-half years instead of 75.
According to the newspaper, Cunningham wrote a four-page, handwritten apology to the mosque in which he referred to “the two brave men of your congregation.” The attempted attack on the mosque in Seattle ended without harm but other attacks were successful.
The year after 9/11, I ended my marriage to the American I moved to the United States to be with. Up until that point, I hadn’t been alone with America. So when I signed my divorce papers, I got into my car for 18 days – just America and me. And paranoia: just before I left a group of Muslim men had been stopped on the highway. Apparently, a customer at a diner they’d just frequented had heard them speaking Arabic (not sure how she knew it was Arabic as most Americans wouldn’t recognize it from Swahili, say) and called the police, saying they were acting “suspiciously.”
My 18 days alone with America were a pilgrimage of sorts. When I first moved from Egypt to the US in the summer of 2000, I vowed I would not join any Muslim community in the US; I wanted to find my own way as a Muslim in my new home.
Each of the cities I’ve lived in throughout my life has heralded a new stage in my faith. I became a feminist in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, when I realized that the Islam we practiced at home was so different from that outside, which so often discriminated against women. I became a liberal Muslim in Jerusalem, where I lived in 1998 and where my ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbors reminded me of the ultra-conservative Muslims in Saudi Arabia. My journey towards liberal Islam required solitude in Seattle, communion between me and America on the road, and then resolution in New York.
Soon after the end of that road trip, I came across Muslim WakeUp, a liberal Muslim website that led me to a community of like-minded Muslims. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable sharing my ideas and values.
It is only in Cairo, my original hometown, and New York City where I feel no self-consciousness – not about who I am, what I believe, or what I look like – that I am perfectly at home.
I will not surrender that comfort as birds of a feather plan to flock to NYC for a hate fest to mark the 9th anniversary of 9/11. The right-wing group “Stop Islamization of America” will be hosting a rally against the proposed Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan. Attending will be a who’s who of bigots – former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, publisher Andrew Breitbart, and, most notoriously, the far-right Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who has called my religion “the ideology of a retarded culture.”
There is talk of a counter-rally. I am sure my city – where I marched in two demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq – will tell the bigots what several New Yorkers said at those anti-war rallies: “Not in our name.”