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Emerging Voices After 9/11

Michigan and the nation just finished a weekend commemorating the September 11th terrorist attacks ten years ago. But I think we should take a moment to think about those we don’t normally think about who were also touched by the tragedy.

Last week a former student reminded me what I did that day, when I had a large lecture class in Detroit  that morning. “Who here lives in Canada?” I asked.  Half a dozen hands shot up.

“Go home, now. Right now,” I said. They were startled. They knew I never let them out early. “But I have another class after this one,” somebody said. “If you don’t go now, you may not get home,“ I answered. I thought they would close the border.

They actually didn’t, but by that evening, the wait time was many hours. Then, things got worse after a story in the Boston Globe incorrectly said some of the hijackers came through Canada.

Canadian commuters were inconvenienced. But those who paid the highest price were Americans of Arabic or Middle Eastern descent. For some, nine-eleven has never really been over,

Last weekend, the Arab-American National Museum in Dearborn held a two-day conference on emerging voices in the post 9/11 era. I was asked to moderate a panel comprised mostly of Arab and Muslim Americans.

The topic was rising above the challenges of bigotry that has afflicted much of this country since the terrorist attacks.

I expected to hear a lot about hate crimes and the difficulty people had faced, and I heard some of that. But what impressed me most was that the panelists were critical of their own communities as well.  Salam Al-Marayati is president of the national Muslim Public Affairs Council, based in Los Angeles. He defends his people daily.

But he told a large audience that Arab-Americans needed to do more to interact with those who are not like them. “Don’t go to an anti-bigotry meeting put on by Arabs,” he said.

“Show up at a Christian one. Let America see who we are, that we are part of this nation.” And above all, he said Muslims and Arab-Americans need to stop going around saying they aren’t terrorists.

“Remember when Richard Nixon said ‘I’m not a crook?’ Naturally, everyone thought he really was one. He told Muslim Americans to get out there and tell their own stories instead. Let other Americans see who we are, he said. Dawud Walid, the head of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Michigan, is a devout Muslim and an assistant Imam.

But he was sharply critical of American mosques for failing to train and hire clergy born, bred and trained in seminaries on America.

He said those trained abroad tend to be preoccupied with theological or Middle Eastern issues, not American concerns.

“And we should remember that a majority of Arabs in this country are not Muslim, and a majority of Muslims in America are not Arabs,” Walid said. These men, and nearly everyone else at this conference have endured sneering comments and worse since the day the planes fell from the sky. What impressed me, however, was they seemed preoccupied mostly with being accepted as Americans.

Which actually may be the hijackers’ biggest failure of all.