By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

The terror attacks of September 11th, 2001 were a watershed event in American history. After more than a decade free of the machinations of the Cold War, the United States appeared to be advancing in its promises of liberty and justice for all.

And then, on a Tuesday morning like any other, 2,977 people were murdered in violent and senseless attacks that will be remembered alongside the attacks on Pearl Harbor. That day separated recent history into a pre- and post-9/11 world.

That fateful day also opened a Pandora’s box of ills for our nation’s domestic and foreign policies: the rounding up of Muslim immigrants, warrantless surveillance on mosques, extraordinary rendition and torture, and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan that have left nearly 7,000 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians dead.

Within days of the attacks, animus toward Muslims and Islam (which was wrongly viewed as the reason behind the attacks) resulted in hate crimes, vandalism, and even violence against people whose only crime was being a Muslim or looking like one.

What was extraordinary was the other, parallel, reaction by Americans: an explosive outpouring of support for Muslim Americans, combined with interfaith and intercultural initiatives across all sectors of society, including both increased outreach by Muslims and outreach to Muslims by those seeking to build bridges of understanding and peace. It was perhaps the fastest mobilization of compassion that the nation has ever seen.

The 9/11 attacks set up a confrontation between two visions of the soul of America: one, of a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, pluralistic nation that found richness in diversity and held fast to essential liberty; the other, of a country that clamped down on dissent and viewed diversity as a threat to its essence and character.

More recently, an upward trend of vitriol against Muslims, immigrants, and blacks, combined with calls for unjust policies targeting those communities, has opened all our eyes to the challenges and impediments in the long path toward harmonious interracial and interreligious relations.

One need only think of last summer’s deadly Charlottesville protests to see the danger inherent in that divisive vision.

And in some places, an outright rebirth of fascist ideologies and movements is threatening the world’s most advanced democratic societies. Popular nonfiction books like White Fragility and Blindspot point out the hard work ahead to overcome our deeply-held biases and resulting bigotry. This fight will not be easy, and it may be uncomfortable, but it is critical if we are to live up to our nation’s motto of E pluribus unum — ”From many, one.”

Every day, my organization, Islamic Networks Group, along with our affiliates and interfaith partners, chooses to fight for an America that is inclusive of all its people, an America that recognizes that our nation’s strength comes from its diversity. For the last 25 years, we have contributed to that vision by:

  • Interfaith engagement that brings representatives of major world religions together to present their faiths and their importance in today’s world, and the Know Your Neighbor program that reaches millions through social media campaigns bringing diverse Americans together to get to know and learn from one another;
  • Education through face-to-face encounters with Muslim Americans around the country reaching tens of thousands of audiences every year,  highlighting how Muslim Americans are essential participants in the American story; and through the INGYouth program that trains young Muslims to do the same in their schools;
  • Cultural diversity seminars for corporate leaders, law enforcement agencies, educators, and healthcare providers that help them overcome biases, address common questions, and understand people’s shared humanity before learning about them as clients, students, co-workers, or patients.

Muslim Americans like me respond to 9/11 every day, turning this tragic anniversary into renewed impetus to build an America of mutual understanding and harmony where we can all live together in one nation, with liberty and justice for all. Join us at www.ing.org.