Aftermath at Ground Zero

Faiz Khan, M.D.

Posted Dec 23, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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9-11- Aftermath at Ground Zero:  An American PerspectiveAn Islamic Voice

Preface:  This essay grew from a string of lectures IŒve delivered as one who functions occasionally as an American Muslim Imam (of part afghani extraction), and professionally as an American Muslim Emergency Physician and Internist who was on duty in a New York City Emergency Room on September 11th and then subsequently at Ground zero.  It stemmed from an intention to re-introduce an authentic American Dialectic to American non-Muslims and a reminder to people of religion (Muslims being one segment sorely in need of reminder) as to just where authentic religious practice has its place in relation to the geopolitical scene.  Several individuals and groups requested that some form of my observations be written ֖ so I humbly offer this to anyone sincerely navigating their way to gain proper perspectives. 

Who so ever taketh the life of an innocent, it is as if killing entire humanity; who so ever saves a life, it is as if the saving of all humanity.  Quranic verse echoing earlier Judeo-Christian Scriptural tradition.

Id like to share with you an elaboration of Islamic paradigms as they relate to these recurrent cycles of violence and suffering that have plagued human civilization since the dawn of recorded history.  These unfortunate incidents are almost always an outcome of corrupted politico-ideological, economic, or social agendas. Those of us who have formally studied history know that this type of perversion is no stranger in the panoramic march of time.

Our brief flash here on this planet is perhaps different only because we possess skills of mass communication, technology and industry, which enable us to manipulate minds and inflict suffering on an unprecedented quantitative scale.

The QurҒan itself defines Islam as the Perennial Way of Peace through submission of the individual and collective human ego to Divinity.  This Islam began with the primordial couple, Adam and Eve.  The missions of the Prophets, Noah and Abraham, who are named in the Quran as Muslim, expressed this way.  To be Muslim is to be at Peace with or in submission to Divinity.  In post-modern secular humanistic English, or the vernacular of western academia, this implies maintaining a state of peace with oneҒs own psyche, domestic relations, society as a whole, and of course the environment.

The Quran reveals that there were many model Muslims sent to all civilizations.  It highlights those in the biblical traditions such as Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, David, Solomon, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Jonah, Moses, Aaron, John, The Exalted Virgin Mary, and The Spirit of God, Jesus Җ son of Blessed Mary.

These same sentiments are also expressed in the words of Zarahustra and The Buddha.  This way of Submission and Peace also underlie much of Hindu scripture.  So the Quran qualifies itself as a Reminder, Direct Revelation and Recitation (among other things) from Divinity.  This QurҒan was received in the sixth century by a highly purified and saintly figure, Muhammad.  Hence, Muhammads mission was to rejuvenate and crystallize the way of the Muslim, and those who claim to follow his precedents and rituals adopted the title Muslim in the historical context as a proper name Җ the parochial definition with which most are familiar.  It historically followed then, that Muhammads disciples referred to this way of life as Al-Islam (The Way of Submissive Peace) Җ this title also being a reflection of a Quranic injunction stating that merit accrues only when the entrustment of earthly life is spent in sincere attempt (allowing of course for human shortcomings and frailty) to mould it in accordance with Submissive Peace toward The Divine.  It cannot be overstated that authentic understanding of the Islamic religion requires realization of an exegetic axiom that highlights the shifting definitions of the terms Islam and Muslim between their QurҒanic and parochial contexts both of which are valid in their respective levels ֖ the former of which is often overlooked in todays mental habit of compartmental rigidity and pathologic over-parochialism. 

Explicitly and implicitly, this QurҒan and this way of Muhammad embrace all that is authentically an echo of Divine inspiration in all religious tradition.  The Muslim feels at home with all who believe in God and an eventual meeting with Divinity.  The ways of Holiness, Mercy, and Justice cannot be monopolized; they are not the sole right of any believer.

The Quran asks believers to come together in what is common and good.  Now it is categorically clear that no authentic way of life grounded upon submission to Peace and Divinity allows indiscriminate slaughter.  This includes massacre and pillage, extermination of entire societies, executing policies that starve entire countries, atomic incineration, and employing weapons of mass destruction.  Indiscriminate violence during armed conflict has reached an abhorrent stage.  The past 75 years or so is a shame upon humanity.  One can label it modern warfare or hide behind the term collateral damage, or call it terror.  The final common denominator leaves us with horrific suffering and bitter anger, resentment, and scars in the collective consciousness of entire societies.

Such actions have nothing to do with Islam; such abhorrent behavior is explicitly forbidden in many areas of the QurҒanic scripture; this forbidding of conflict with any non-combatant is also re-iterated in the personal injunctions of the Prophet Muhammad (known as the Hadith accounts).  To ask if acts of terror are justified in Islam just because perpetrators pay lip service to religion and ritual, or dress a certain way is ludicrous to Muslims.  To get a sense of this, it is akin to asking a Christian if genocide is allowable in Christianity since Hitler often made reference to his role with Divine Providence.  It is like asking a Jew if authentic Judaism justifies slaughtering praying worshippers of another faith since Dr. Baruch Goldstein, in the name of Judaism and claiming the spirit of Purim, gunned down innocent people as they prayed in a Mosque, or if Judaism allows wars of aggression and bulldozing homes and appropriating land of innocent civilians.  These acts have nothing to do with authentic practice of any religion; rather, it is absence of authentic religious practice that permits humans to sink so low.

This has nothing to do with Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other authentic tradition.  Muslims from North Africa, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have asked me, Why does America hate us? Why do they directly or indirectly work for our slaughter? Why do they bankroll and support draconian regimes in our own lands?Ӕ  [Many from Latin America pose the same question to Americans of Latino culture].

And now more American non-Muslims are asking, “why do the Muslims hate us? Why is it open season on America?”  I, of course, in the middle, feel like sitting both sides down, quieting the air and just having them listen.  First, Id tell both to use proper terms.  America is a nation founded on the ideals of a republic centered on principles of democracy Җ period. A Muslim is one who follows the religion of Islam - a global religion centered on submission to the ways of Peace and Divinity - period.  There is nothing inherently un-Islamic or anti-Muslim about the ideal of America a ֑ Nation that stands Under God, Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  There is nothing inherently un-American about being a Muslim or Islam Җ which defines itself as simply authentic religionђ and is reported by most American sources as the fastest growing religion within the United States despite the un-American spinђ most media outlets place upon it.  I don’t mention this to proselytize, (there is no such thing as a missionary zeal to save soulsђ in the Islamic heritage), but simply to underscore the idiocy of throwing the concepts of religion and nation state into a competitive arena; it makes no sensethe apples - oranges discordance analogy barely scratches the illustrative surface in this context. Unfortunately, sloppy buzzwords and mediocre use of language and terms are the mark of the day and lead to false understanding and subtle emotive hysteria.

Next, IŒd turn to my fellow foreign Muslims and tell them America is not a monolithic entity.  I watch their jaws drop as I replay for them how American non-Muslim women in Detroit donned the orthodox Muslim head covering as a sign of solidarity with Muslim women to confuse the ignorant few who would target Muslim women with harassment.  I watch the eyes of my foreign fellow Muslims widen as I recount how church groups would keep watch on grounds of Mosques to protect Muslims on days of worship, or as I tell them of the many Americans who stopped in on an Afghani restaurant one evening to ask if things were OK,or if there was anything they could do to help, or the desperation many American civic and religious groups are in to let the authentic voice of Islam be heard.  I tell them of the tears that Ive seen roll down the faces of American non-Muslims when they learn that foreign policy originating from Washington is starving entire nations and leading to infanticide by the thousands.  Then sternly, I reprimand them for their ignorance Җ How dare they insult my fellow Americans?  I tell them not to confuse foreign policy initiated in geographically Western corridors of power (which could not possibly sustain itself without accomplices within their own nations and communities), with the term America.ђ  I would remind them not to confuse terms and not to whitewash everything with the term America,ђ since these agendas violate the very principles of the American ideal.  I tell them it hurts me to see the label Americanђ attached to these agendas, which betray a clear Orwellian transformation in terms of foreign policy.  No, there is nothing American about it, and Americans donӒt hate you, I would declare. How do I know?  Because - I am an American.

I would turn to my fellow Americans that are not Muslim and declare with the same passion that Muslims are not some monolithic entity.  Just as I reprimanded my fellow foreign Muslims for lumping together concepts and terms, I would do the same to my American brethren from other faith traditions.  These cycles of violence have nothing to do with Islam or Muslims, just as cruel foreign policy that employ acts of brutality and terror in various third world nations have nothing to do with being American or the American public.  My fellow American non-Muslims are relieved upon understanding that acts of terror and harming of innocents unequivocally violate the principles, spirit, and letter of Islam in the grandest of all fashions.  Many even claim they intuitively knew this to be true since such a popular religion could not be predicated upon violence, but they still appreciated and even needed to hear explanations from an American.  I note the amazement as I tell them of the sadness and shock I witnessed by those Pakistani or Egyptian Muslims when told details of the events of September 11th, or the vigils that were held in the streets of Iran. 

When I am asked why certain foreign Muslims were celebrating at the destruction of the twin towers, I remind them of the ignorance that abounds all over the world.  I tell them of the perception of American policy as tyrannical and responsible for scores more destruction.  These ignorant folk equate The World Trade Center as a symbol of a policy that has brutalized their families and societies.  Finally I tell them blows during conflict are always celebrated by the misguided massesԅit was not so long ago that the killing of more than 200,000 Iraqi civilians were met with waving flags, parades, and full fledged marketing as missile after missile flew.  Happy RamadanӔ is sarcastically written across shells and missles that fly into Afghanistan and slaughter thousands of very simple folk who dont even know what The World Trade Center is, while the public cheers as if this was something akin to a WWF contest.  Millions more are starving through the weather as a result of years of embargo and intensification of sanctions…  all being celebrated with tough talk and glorifying rhetoric.  Quite frankly, it is the idiots who celebrate conflict Җ idiot defined by those who lack understanding of what actually happens when missiles land, when people watch their loved ones starve, or when the World Trade Center crushes thousands yes, only idiots celebrate these things, and idiocy is more common than one might imagine. Idiocy is not a trait of any religion or nationality, again Ŗ lets not confuse terms. 

My American friends of other faiths are even more intrigued to learn that the lines in ғMuslim nations for gaining visas to America are endless,since Muslim citizens of all nations will be the first to praise AmericaԒs espousal of domestic fairness and dignity.  They know its a place where, despite onesҒ religion and ethnicity, hard work and merit will still give you an honest return relative to anywhere else.  Compared to their own nations, bribery, corruption, extortion, privileged connections and nepotism are at an all time low.

Nope, there is nothing Islamic about activity that is criminal - like bombing the World Tade Center or targeting American civilians; there is nothing Islamic about activity that is non-criminal - such as weaving rugs, or making baklava, or playing cricket; as there is nothing Christian about apple pie or playing baseball which is obviously true, since I love apple pie and led my men֒s baseball league in hitting last season and alasօ I am a Muslim.

Next, I turn back to my fellow Muslim foreigners and urge them to accurately attach blame to those factions that employ exploitation, oppression and terror and hijack American patriotic expressions for justification.  Likewise, I turn to my American friends of differing religion and urge them to attach blame to those splinter groups that employ terror and then hijack Islamic rhetorical terms for justification.

I cry to my foreign Muslims, please believe me, no matter how nifty the suits and clean cut and civilized the appearance of those who speak for the guilty factions appear on T.V.  No matter how often the words ӑfreedom, ґnational interest,  ґdemocracy, ґ America, or ґjustice emerge from their lips.Ҕ 

With the same vehemence I turn to my American non-Muslims and beg, please believe me, no matter how long the beards, how regal the turbans and caps, and how flowing the robes of those who pose for the perpetrating groups. No matter how eloquently the term ԑAllah, ґjihad, and other religious phraseology emerge from their lips.Ҕ 

By this time the reciprocity is clear.  The common denominator is this:  Wolves hide best in sheeps clothing; indeed it is necessary for the insidiousness of the agendas Җ as is maintaining an ambience of fear, distrust, hatred and insecurity.  It is devilish savagery in the guise of religion, political sophistry and patriotic slogans, which is easily marked and uniformly condemned by the sincere of all faiths.  When I initially watched the inciting events of this current mess, as an American Muslim many things came to mind.  But it was when the insults and accusations flew from one side to the other and the finger pointing was at its height that I was reminded of a Quranic passage which talks about a certain type of hypocrisy which lay in the human psyche.  It claims that when we are on the receiving end of an exchange, we demand justice, fair play, leniency, and immaculate compliance to accepted standards.  But when we are on the giving end, we seldom find the discipline or desire to mete out the same.  Conversely speaking, how profound then, is the playground taunt, which is prompted by the eventual defeat and protesting cries of the toppled bully Җ you can dish it out, but you canӒt take it.  The hypocrisy of the entire situation now is blinding.  Both sides are delusional and the innocents of the world are hostage.

Speaking of both sides is not entirely accurate because on a deeper level, the polarization of conflict is misleading.  In reality, it is a dark component of the collective human psyche at war with itself in a horrific dance melee of devastation.  To appreciate this, one needs to look past externals, the numbers and the endless violent episodes of these past couple of centuries.  This is no easy task.  September 11th is hard enough to get past, let alone all of the other tragedies.  Yet again, as in my own profession as a physician, it is poor practice to solely chase symptoms.  No cure is possible if that route is taken. 

The QurԒanic verse opening this essay hints at this.  By likening the slaughter of one innocent soul to all of humanity, the Quranic verse implies a few things.  For one, it is underscoring the value of just one human life Җ so how much more horrid the loss of many.  This is a meaning most draw from this verse.  But at the same time, the verse is de-emphasizing quantitative judgments on loss of life by likening just one to the billions of humanity.  Many now are unfortunately solely responsive to quantitative loss of life. 
So when it comes to terror, victimization, and massacre, externals include numbers, venue, race, religious labeling, rhetoric, modus operendi, etc.  Externals are symptoms and no doubt important, but it is the cause, or etiology we must boldly face.  It is a behavioral cancer and barbaric viciousness recessed in the human psyche; a darkness that when unleashed makes any sane individual ashamed at being a member of this human species.  It is a suffocating and constricting egoism whose manifestations the great spiritual traditions warn against. These ways include fanaticism, extremism and rigidity in approach to any ideology or religion.  Also included are the ways of reactionary hysteria and automatism of decision and action.  Then we have good old fashioned hypocrisy in its many flavors; we must also mention the ways of arrogance and elitism.

  Arrogance and elitism have their root in another tendency that is denying others the sacred and inviolable or inalienable (depending on your outlook) rights inherent in the human make-up while reserving those only for one֒s self or select group.  To assume this view, one must fall prey to a fanaticism that calls for a reductionist view of other human beings a view that reduces the human being to an expendable creature.  One example of reductionism is today֒s dominant corporate culture that seeks to reduce the human being to a sexless unit of consumption and production period.  Value in this scope is economic viability regarding the degree one can consume and produce materially - period.  Unfortunately, reductionism breeds further reductionism in a downward spiraling fashion. We are told in the Qur֒an that one of Satans defining characteristics was his unwillingness to recognize the human being; instead, he saw only a beast made of clay Җ this is the ultimately secularized reductionist view of life -which denies the spiritual essence of the human that gives rise to the very notion of being.  It is easy then, to exploit the labor of a beast of clay, to starve entire nations of clay beasts, to oppress and disregard the lives and even indiscriminately kill beasts of clay.  It is hard to do such to a fellow human being if that is what we believe one another to be. 

  In mentioning today֒s corporate culture, let us not forget the way of obsessional acquisitiveness that plagues the human psyche. This, of course, includes the propensity to hoard wealth and resources and arrange flow of such in an exploitive, one-way manner some conscientious and thoughtful people utilize the term predatory capitalism, which is the predominant form practiced these days.  I assure you Adam Smith is turning over in his grave with disgust at what postmodern humanity has attributed to his insightful perspectives.

When these above ways manifest and overcome the practices of an individual or collectivity, I promise you agendas that promote terror, oppression, exploitation and brutality as a means to a given end. 

It has been the precedent of the Prophets, Saints and sages of all the great world spiritual traditions to combat these barbaric tendencies.  The emphasis of all religions lay on this and this alone.

On a cursory level, the Islamic tradition contains bodies of exoteric injunctions and even legislation.  The following can be concluded about military action from the Qur֒an and the Islamic traditions.  First, that taking up of arms will be a hateful thing to many, but at times where defense from hostility, violence and brutality threaten lives, it may be truly indicated and hence permissible.  In addition, it is worse to live in an abject and wretchedly oppressed state as opposed to taking measures to correct and struggle against agents of oppression, exploitation, and brutality. It was the American Senator Patrick Henry of Virginia in the late 1700s who echoed this very sentiment as he turned to the British Crown and exclaimed, ғGive me liberty or give me death and recall that some state flags read ԓLive free or die and ԓDont tread on me.Ҕ The much celebrated slogans of the French revolution, unbeknownst to most, were initially Liberte, EgalateҒ, Fraternite, OU LA MORT (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, OR DEATH). 

The QurҒan also states that had human beings not been given the capacity for armed resistance, surely oppression, corruption or chaos would overwhelm the planet and that Mosques, Synagogues, Churches and any place where Divinity is remembered would be destroyed this implies a kinship between sincere followers of all religions in their mutual commitment to check the darkness of injustice, exploitation, and corruption.  The Qur֒an also prompts that those who are able should dedicate themselves in rallying to aid those that are being victimized and oppressed regardless of the religion of the victimizer or victimized this being done fi-sabeelillah (in the way of God), which implies the aid be given selflessly with no strings attached and no intent of political leverage or gain. 

Furthermore, the Qur֒an qualifies rules of engagement.  Arms can never be used in aggression, or for any other purposes save defense.  The enemy is defined as those who initiate and employ violence, aggression, or oppression toward the victim.  Extending action to non-combatants is strictly prohibited.  When the enemy is engaged, the Quran exhorts to firmness and valor.  Once the instigating situation is corrected, arms must be abandoned, and any call for diplomacy and truce must be immediately respected Җ even if insincerity in a call for peace or respite is obvious!

Other Islamic traditions mandate that any other factors such as greed, aggrandizement of any form, and ego or hypeӔ can never pollute ones intention to take up arms. Traditions further dictate to never desire an encounter with the enemy. We are told of Ali, The Prophet MuhammadҒs cousin and son-in-law, who, in the heat of an engagement in the 7th century was spat upon by an enemy soldier.  Ali immediately sheathed his sword and withdrew.  When his enemy confronted him after that day and enquired as to why the withdrawal, Ali stated that after being spat upon, he felt the burning of his own ego and pride and hence withdrew so as not to be guilty of fighting for the sake of personal insult.  Islamic tradition also tells us of those martyrsӔ who will earn condemnation by God since they were false in their struggle as they fought not for the sake of selfless good, but for their own hidden agendas, pride, or ambitions. There are no reported instances of any of the Islamic models of conduct ever seeking retribution for personal attacks or insults. Hence, Islamic tradition dictates that armed resistance is a check meant for safeguarding the welfare of a people; it is not an instrument of personal or collective agendas (this concept resonating with the notion of Just Conflict found in Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian traditions)

To drive home the point that armed struggle is a last resort after all diplomacy has failed, we are told of instructions given to the battalions in the early days of Islam when war was carried out only by combatants and in places away from civilian infrastructure.  Not only were any non-combatants off limits, but also so were farms, trees and other infrastructure.  Upon engagement, the Muslims were instructed to allow the enemy the first strike and then ask for a respite.  At that point, the Muslims were instructed to bring out their slain or wounded for display to the opposition and ask for the last time regarding resolution of the conflict"is there no other way?” 

Around these and scores more similar traditions, injunctions and exhortations, grew a code of conduct during conflict that easily rivals the Geneva Convention regarding rules of engagement and even handling of prisoners who, in accord with the Islamic tradition, are to be fed and clothed with the identical food and clothing used by their captors.  Failure to do so and failure to offer safe haven to captors is considered an insult to Divinity and the Prophet Muhammad himself.

But itŒs obvious that you can only legislate so much, you can only police and enforce so much.  The truth is that the ideal is what it is, and people are what they are Muslim or not.  History is probably full of more examples of non-compliance with these injunctions than it is with honoring them.  Legislation and policing are one of the lowest and least effective forms of behavioral inductionօin my opinion just above use of lobotomy and pharmacotherapy.  This is why the great spiritual figures of the world pay far more an emphasis on the transformative effect of spiritual growth and purification and no authentic religion stops at mere boy scoutӔ rules and legislative enforcement.  As one matures, the impetus prompting to honorable behavior should eventually stem from within - through proximity to Divine Grace and bonding with the great spiritual masters in the respective world faith traditions.  This is crucial, since the perennial wisdom of all great faith traditions define the human primarily through possession of a willful soul, hence adding a spiritual identity (above but not in conflict with a rational one), as the quintessential factor in the human envelope.  It makes sense then that it is proper care, evolution, and healthy development of this element which leads humanity to reach the great heights of existenceconversely, neglect of this, even with existing őexoteric and legal injunctions in place, induces devastation and destruction since either the injunctions or their enforcement can be circumvented or even neutralized.

  Love, respect, forbearance, patience, compassion, generosity, selflessness, insight, wisdom, honor, duty, courage Җ these qualities and other beautiful ones sorely lacking today cannot be legislated and enforced these come about with adherence to religion in it֒s completeness.  In the Islamic tradition, actualization of these qualities against hostile forces internal to ones soul as well as from external stimuli is known as the greatest struggle or The Greatest Jihad.

The term Jihad is a most misused and misunderstood term.  It does not mean ґHoly War҅there is no phrase such as Holy Warђ in the Islamic tradition the origins of this phrase likely date back to European origin during the Crusading Era.  Jihad literally means struggle or effort/exertion.  My parents will claim that their most intense Jihad was dealing with me and trying to keep me on the straight and narrow as an adolescent growing up in New York.  To care for a sick person is considered a Jihad.  Engaging in the pursuit of knowledge is considered a Jihad- we are told that the ink of a scholarly master is holier than the blood of a martyr.  And of course, in the occasions as mentioned, armed resistance against agents that seek to harm or brutalize is a form of Jihad. 
The preceding words are not meant to minimize the role of law-enforcement or exoteric injunction.  Exoteric and legal injunctions and enforcement are essential as a starting point, always as a common denominator, and in their safety-net role, similar to guard rails on the highway journey all souls travel ֖ they should never be abandoned.  Those who somehow think that through their exaltedness or self-justification, rules dont apply to them suffer from a great naүvet and delusion.  The greatest of all spiritual masters in the world religious traditions were meticulous in their adhering to certain outward forms and injunctions, and always abided by law as long as letter and form coincided with intent and spirit.

The last message Id like to leave you with is that the handling of this conflict in the lay media borders on buffoonery.  The dialectic in which the events are presented is extremely simplified and even false at times; a complete detailing of factors that have contributed to the 9-11 attacks and the current bombing of Afghanistan has hardly been touched upon.  Last, the devastation of that region prior - by various imposed regimes and now the destruction of the country by this illegal war has set new standards in disregard of human life.  I ask that you please not delude yourselves into believing that you are informed by watching CNN钒s clips, bytes, and spins.  This only leads to compound ignorance, that irremediable state whereupon the afflicted are ignorant of the fact that they are ignorant - this is due to a nave presumptuousness and faith in a childlike fantasy that media technology somehow effaces incompetence, lack of human objectivity, censorship, and even frank bias, which are very much alive in modern media.  Compound ignorance naturally dulls any sense or desire to broaden a perspective or opinion. 

So I implore all of you who consider yourselves informed to actively read the alternative and independent/investigational press as well.  In addition, I ask all of you to delve into your respective faith traditions and find that spark which eternally ignites a will to promote compassion, truth and justice - in whatever context that you may encounter.

Faiz Khan MD