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Summit Examines U.S.-Muslim Relations Five Years After 9-11

Family members listen to the names of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center during the September 11th commemoration ceremony in New York, 2006. (Photo: Justin Lane / AFP-Getty Images)

Five years after 9-11, U.S.-Islamic relations continue to deteriorate at a rapid pace. Recent polls reveal that 90 percent of residents in predominantly Muslim countries view the U.S. as the primary threat to their country. To examine this relationship, 300 young leaders from around the Muslim world and the U.S. came together to develop a blueprint for long-term engagement between the U.S. and the Muslim world. The summit, called "9-11 Plus 5," took place in Washington, D.C., from Sept. 8 - 10. Participants looked back at the lessons and changes over the five years since the 9-11 attacks, as well as how U.S.-Islamic world relations can be improved in the years to come. The leaders, upon returning to their communities, will host town hall meetings to promote better U.S.-Muslim world understanding from a grass-roots level.

The summit was hosted by Americans for Informed Democracy, The Elliott School of International Affairs, and The Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in conjunction with The Families of 9-11. It featured a wide variety of speakers and topics. Over the three days, young leaders heard from the relatives of 9-11 victims, 9-11 Commission members, Ambassadors from the U.S. and the Muslim world, leading scholars of Islam, news correspondents, and even a Pakistani rock star, who has sold over 25 million albums and is a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador renowned for his humanitarian efforts.

The noted summit participants composed the following essays:

9/11 Five Years Later: What's Our Legacy?

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing," Winston Churchill once said, "—after they've tried everything else first." Five years after the attacks of 9/11, it is painfully clear that we are still trying other options.

9/11 was a singular event in American history, and it is time we Americans ask ourselves what the legacy of that national trauma will be. This is not the first time that a blow to the American psyche has been inflicted, but the nation always recovered and went on to prosper. Five years after Pearl Harbor, the United States had not only defeated the Axis powers in a two-front war but had also embarked upon the largest reconstruction and recovery project in the history of the world; five years after the assassination of President Kennedy, American society was permanently transformed by the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

What have we accomplished in the five years since 9/11? The entire world was horrified by those attacks, and although it is hard to remember now, the outpouring of grief and sympathy that Americans received was unprecedented. In Jordan, so many people came to pay their respects that the American embassy in Amman was forced to turn them away. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, representing the world's 56 Muslim nations, condemned the attacks as "contradict[ing] the teaching of all religions and human and moral values." France's Le Monde newspaper ran the banner headline "Nous sommes tous Américains"—"We are all Americans."

9/11 presented an opportunity for the American people once more to work together with foreign nations, and to do something about the great problems of our time. Instead, our government chose to go to war in Afghanistan alone, oddly ignoring the offers of assistance from sympathetic nations the world over. Before that campaign was even complete, the government would again demonstrate its disdain for the world's sympathy by starting an internationally condemned war in Iraq. Now we are fighting two very difficult wars in which tens of thousands of lives have been lost. And worst of all, these campaigns have no end in sight.

The Middle East remains terribly instable, seemingly on the verge of explosion at any moment. We have been lucky enough to avoid any new terrorist attacks in our country, but terrorist groups have struck or attempted to strike in Canada, Britain, Jordan, Spain, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Russia, and beyond. Anti-Americanism in nations all over the world has surged, and the suspicion and hostility of average Americans toward Islam and Muslims is likewise higher than ever. Meanwhile, our leaders talk of the "global war on terror" and confronting "Islamo-fascism," but no one seems to know what these words actually mean, let alone how we will know when we have achieved our goals, or what our goals actually are.

Five years after 9/11, it is time to stop and re-evaluate where we have gone. President Bush is right: 9/11 was indeed the first battle in what will be an ongoing war for the future of civilized people. But the term "war on terrorism" is facile and misleading. Terrorism, after all, is a tactic. It is not an ideology or a nation or a people.

The American people are sophisticated enough to understand the difference between Afghanistan and Iraq, or Iran and Palestine. It is time our leaders stop treating us like children; it is time to stop calling different fights in different countries against different enemies by the same name in the hopes that this will be enough to secure our unquestioning support.

Our battle is not against Islam or Muslims. It is not a fight against Islamic fundamentalism, or "Islamo-fascism," one of the most absurd terms that has ever become a part of our national discourse. The Nazis called themselves Christians and believed that they were acting in conformance with God's will—but no one ever called them Christian fundamentalists, or "Christiano-nazis." Our fight—and it is one that we can and must win—is a battle against poverty, against lack of education, and against depravation of civil and political rights. These are the demons that must be slain, for they are the root causes of the despair, suffering, and anger that so often lead to violence. As it happens, these demons are nowhere more prevalent than in Muslim countries in the Middle East, but this does not mean that we are fighting a religion with over 1.2 billion followers worldwide.

It is time again for America to embrace the moral high ground. How many billions have been spent on war, death and destruction since 9/11? Imagine if that money had been spent feeding the world's hungry, educating the unskilled, ending gender inequality and securing the civil rights of refugees and other marginalized people? What if we attempted to actually promote democracy in the world by isolating and punishing all dictators, not just those who aren't our 'friends' and happen to rule over oil-rich countries? What if we focused on fully engaging in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to finally make real the two-state solution that all parties already know must be put into place? It is this last point that would do the most not just to make ourselves and our Israeli friends safer, but also to finally prove to the Muslim world that the U.S. can be a fair and even-handed partner for peace.

Americans can accomplish great things. We have risen to the occasion time and again to remake the world into a safer and more just place. On this fifth anniversary of 9/11, let us recall the spirit of cooperation and unity that we all felt in the weeks and months after 9/11. Let us harness our great national spirit and put it to good ends. Instead of being suspicious of and hostile to Muslims, let us empower the 8 million Muslims living in America so that they can serve as our global ambassadors to the Muslim world, and so that they can show the world that the U.S. is not represented by Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Let us fight once more on the right side of history.

It is our actions as individuals that will decide what the world will look like on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Kareem Elbayar is a law and international affairs graduate student at the George Washington University Law School. He wrote this article after attending the 9/11+5 Conference on American/Muslim Relations, hosted by Americans for Informed Democracy. This article was originally published by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

A Critical Response to the "9-11 Plus 5 Summit"

Five years ago, I had been in Washington, D.C., on a business trip, when the horrible attacks of September 11, 2001 struck the American homeland. My boss was in a car, just minutes from the Pentagon, when his driver noticed white smoke billowing in the distance and decided to turn the car around. I was walking toward the Mall, when I was told by policemen to turn around and head back to Georgetown, because "the World Trade Center had been hit." At the time it made no sense to me — why would people in Washington be worried about being attacked, when the Twin Towers were so far away? As the day went on, the pieces of the puzzle came together and revealed devastating tragedy. I had friends working and living in New York City who were dreadfully affected by the events of that day. I personally witnessed the anger, confusion, and fear of a nation and people I knew to be confident, hopeful, and warm-hearted.

By September 11, 2003, I had returned to Washington, this time as a graduate student in Georgetown University's Security Studies program. Three years on, I have once again returned to this beautiful capital of this beautiful country, to embark on further studies. In many ways, the events of September 11, 2001 influenced my choices. I felt that studying this awful subject called terrorism could in some way help me to help others understand better how to deal with misperceptions and anxiety. Last month, I signed up to attend this Summit because I hoped that in some way, it would help me continue the journey I started five years ago.

The "9-11 Plus 5 Summit" has just begun — it is the end of Day One (Sept. 8) — and already I am disturbed, frustrated and thoughtful.

These feelings did not arise immediately; I found former Newsnight host Aaron Brown's keynote address thought-provoking and inspiring in turns. He made the audience laugh, and shared laughter is always a good beginning for a gathering of diverse individuals with diverse views and experiences. At points, his account of his day, the day on which "we all wept," the day that left Aaron Brown "heartbroken," brought me to the verge of sympathetic tears.

The optimistic note on which the conference began resounded with me. Seth Green, President of Americans for Informed Democracy, had an infectious enthusiasm that no doubt will continue to influence many of his peers. The four distinguished panel speakers had valid and interesting responses to the sometimes thorny questions and issues that various students raised.

By the end of the Q&A session for the panel, and after my small group discussion, however, I left the conference with more questions than answers, and more doubts than hopes.

Why am I feeling so pessimistic about the way forward, and about the role that our global young and youthful can play, in shaping responses to terrorism five years after 9-11?

Perhaps it is because I realized that even among the young people I met and observed today, who are the brightest hope for a changed future, there are already prejudices and deep differences in language, perception, views, and aspirations. While the critical questions from some audience members should be lauded, there were a few instances where participants seemed to reduce the debate to one between "rational" people and "crazy," "irrational" individuals.

There were walls built up even before serious questions were asked about why we perceive that day's events, and the way towards resolving the chaos that ensued, so differently. One participant I spoke to feared that if he told his small group that he studied "religion" that it would somehow label him in some way, and force him into a corner. He had just returned to the U.S. from the Middle East, and wore a short beard. That he was a young, Caucasian-American male and not a member of a minority group brought home the irony even more strongly to me.

There were calls for recognition of the "tough" issues, such as how the U.S. should re-examine its policy on the Palestinian issue, as well as its foreign policies in the Middle East, which were encouraging. But at the same time, there were those who wanted to leave those same tough issues well enough alone. They thought that the present situation was quite adequate for their needs. They thought that their braver colleagues were somehow disrespectful of the panel of esteemed speakers.

Call me idealistic, and I am no longer a very young person, but it is precisely the youth who need to be demanding that tough issues are addressed. They will be the leaders of their generation, and cannot shy away from these tough questions. Asking for a long, hard look at imperfect solutions is the first step to addressing a complex, difficult issue like counter-terrorism efforts. It is also the first step towards healing properly the wounds that 9-11 left behind, which arguably are still raw and hurting five years on.

I will return to the conference tomorrow, and on Sunday. The conference is after all subtitled "Hope not Hate," and I can only hope that these nascent frustrations that I feel will be replaced by more optimism and comfort, through honest and tough discussion with more colleagues.

Julia Min Li Lau is a first-year PhD candidate majoring in International Relations at Georgetown University's Government Department. She was formerly a senior political analyst in Singapore's Ministry of Defense. The views in this article are entirely her own, and should in no way be reflected as being affiliated with either institution.

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