As the ten-year anniversary of “9-11” approaches, it is important to reflect upon that event and its meaning as we look toward the future. Not to do so is to lose our perspective and our vision, both of which are needed to be good Americans and fully human.
Now, I realize that on the morning of September 11, 2001, you seniors in this room were about 8 years old – which would put you in about the 2nd grade. And you freshmen were just beginning your formal education as kindergarteners. For those of us who are parents and were raising young families at that time, I remember doing the best we could to shield you from the utter shock and horror we were seeing on our televisions. All of us as adults desperately tried to make sense of it all as the events unfolded on that day. But it was impossible to grasp in the heat of the moment.
As I lay in my bed that evening – thinking about what had just happened and trying to consider what might this mean to our family, our school, our country and the world in the months and years to come, the one overriding question I had in my mind was “Why do they hate us so much?” This was probably the first response of many shocked Americans in the immediate aftermath. It was certainly an understandable response. When attacked, the natural tendency is to narrow one’s focus to protect hearth and home. But now that a decade has passed, I have had some time to study and contemplate the events on that day, some of which I will share with you tonight.
From a historical context, one scholar who I believe offers an important perspective is Reza Aslan, a Professor at UCR and a Muslim American commentator. In his books and interviews, he has suggested that the Islamic world is now undergoing a Reformation similar to what happened in the Christian world in the 16th and 17th centuries. From your World History classes – you will remember that coming out of the Middle Ages, Europe awakened as commerce and exploration quickened during the Renaissance, giving rise to an influx of new wealth. Gold and silver from the Americas, taken from the Aztecs and the Incas, transformed Europe. In our own time, mega-dollars from oil have similarly transformed the Arab world.
In 16th-century Europe, an information explosion followed the accumulation of new wealth. Improvements in mechanical printing led to a proliferation of pamphlets criticizing the monolithic hold of the Roman Catholic Church over European culture.
As a result, the Protestant Reformation was born. In our own time, a new information revolution including television, cell phones and social networking (the latter made possible by Facebook, Twitter and other internet innovations) have accompanied the influx of oil wealth into the Muslim world. The outcome has been similar to the results of the Protestant Reformation, namely religious and secular upheaval. In 17th-century Europe, bloody internal religious warfare followed the information revolution of that time, thoroughly disrupting European life.
In the Islamic world today, something similar is happening. Oil wealth and the imbalance of power in these nations have encouraged the propagation of extreme religious interpretations spawning teachings that have never been mainstream in Islam. Islamic religious tradition is under tremendous stress both from this source and from the challenges accompanying the latest information technological innovations.
According to Professor Aslan and others, Islam, a civilization that has long cherished established traditions, is coming out of its own Middle Ages. As we have seen firsthand this past spring and summer, the results are revolutionary. Just within the last year, popular Arab uprisings have swept the Middle East giving rise to hopes that something good may ultimately come from all this change. Bloody civil wars are the saddest aspect of this transformation. Most of the blood that has been spilled so far is Muslim blood, caused by Muslims abusing and killing other Muslims. It is reminiscent of the Peasants’ War in Germany during the Age of Luther, when much evil was committed in the name of Christ. Thomas Müntzer, who represented the most radical version of the Protestant Movement at that time, has an Islamist parallel in Osama bin Laden.
This broad, historically comparative perspective suggests that 9-11 was not just about America. Rather “9-11” was a shocking event designed by its radical perpetrators to capture the imagination and future direction of an Islamic civilization that today contains one and a half billion people.
During the first three centuries after the death of Muhammad in the 7th century, Islam spread northwest to Spain and southward to India. Rarely has the world witnessed any civilization achieving so much instant success. But that was long ago. For the last two centuries, Muslims worldwide have experienced the shame of western intrusions into their once dominant civilization. It started with a French and English rivalry to dominate the Near East in the early 19th century and continues today with a desperate western dependence on Middle-Eastern oil needed for the continuance of our way of life.
Then came “9-11.” By attacking the American geographic and economic center, Islamist radicals proclaimed that they represented the best hope for a revival of a vibrant Islamic civilization capable of standing up to the West.
The events on 9-11 necessitated multiple responses on behalf of the United States and the West to protect our safety and way of life. These brave men and women continue to fight for our freedom, and for all that we cherish in a free society. While you were quite young during the actual attack, you have grown up hearing about and seeing firsthand the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other military operations in Libya and elsewhere.
But what I want to focus on tonight are the efforts that have been made in some quarters over the past 10 years to equate Islamist terrorism with all of Islam. To put this in western terms, if a similar logic were applied to Christianity, it would be like portraying the Ku Klux Klan as typical of all of Christianity. Now, we all know how absurd it would be to claim that the KKK represents in any way the vast majority of Christian beliefs. Members of the KKK read the Bible with an extremist perspective and then contort the information to justify their ugly, bigoted, and often terrifying practices. To equate Islamic terrorism to all of Islam would be to make the same tragic flaw.
For the most part, Americans have resisted this tendency to damn an entire culture, and this response is deep in our best cultural traditions. We are a diverse people, who exist only because we have learned the hard way that acceptance of all of us is necessary for the well being of any of us.
For the last ten years, this lesson has been renewed in the United States by myriad quiet efforts at building positive relationships among the three Abrahamic faith traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For example, right here in Claremont, Jews, Christians and Muslims have come together for the past several years to hold a peace walk on 9-11, demonstrating that the three Abrahamic faith traditions need not be at war with each other. Members of the Webb community, especially Rehana Mowjood, have been instrumental in planning this event. Mrs. Mowjood’s son Dr. Rahmi Mowjood graduated from Webb in 1990. I coached him in football back in the day, and you might remember him for his chapel talk last year on honor entitled “Eddie Would Go.”
Twenty years ago, having given Fawcett Library a resource collection on Islam that currently has no equal within our region, the Mowjood family demonstrated its generosity to Webb. In December, this bequest will be celebrated at a special event that will be publicized as the event draws near. By its deeds, this Muslim American family has witnessed over the years that they are contributors to building a better America. Unlike extremists, their work is never in the headlines.
Unfortunately, the many positive efforts by Muslims like the Mowjoods to disassociate Islam from its popular identification with terrorist extremism typically go unreported. How many Americans are aware that in 2007, 138 leading Muslim scholars from around the Islamic world publicly called upon Christians worldwide to join in a process of historic reconciliation between the world’s two largest faith communities? Since that time, Yale Divinity School has offered itself as a center to continue a meaningful interreligious dialogue within the United States, a process that has also included some Jewish participants. And just this past year, right here in our own community, Claremont Lincoln University was established with a $50 million endowment to encourage an even deeper academic and inter-religious collaboration between Christians, Muslims and Jews. This work occurs away from television cameras. A generation ago, Marshall McLuhan aptly described the visual nature of modern news reporting that favors mayhem over reflection in proclaiming that in our time “the media is the message.” Video clips of exploding buildings shown over and over and public rants by media entertainers are guaranteed to produce higher ratings than do stories about positive contributions.
Webb has long attempted to create a proper framework to discern current events. Keeping one’s past in a perspective that includes more than today’s headlines is one aspect of such an education.
To live in the present with no knowledge of the past is to live in an unnecessarily restricted mental cage characterized by fear and desperation.
The study of history, which has always been the keystone of the liberal arts, provides liberating perspectives and from that come insights that contribute to building a better future.
The study of history does not encourage an uncritical acceptance of the past. By viewing past struggles that in their own time bred desperation and fear, we can see that much of what is good in our own present often has come about through terrible conflicts not unlike what we are experiencing now.
As we look to the future, having been informed by the past, we do not see just one clear path to take. Challenging past assumptions in rigorous debate regarding conflicting visions for the future is part and parcel of a free society. Hopefully, women and men graduating from Vivian Webb and Webb leave this place with critical thinking skills that are the best fruit of our educational process and equipped to be leaders in a democracy. We hope that our graduates individually experience successful lives. Yet this is not our only objective. My own wish for my tenure as headmaster is that Webb will provide its students the opportunity to become engaged in service to the community as much as it does contribute to their individual success.
The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities is apropos for any age and will close my remarks here. Dickens’ words certainly fit our own times. The famous 19th-century English novelist wrote concerning the French Revolution that contained much vicious upheaval and bloodshed. He penned, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” This year’s anniversary of “9-11” reminds us not only of that “worst of times” that occurred ten years ago, but also of Webb’s continuing educational mission to encourage human yearnings for a better world.