Thursday, September 14, 2006

9/11: time is a great healer

This whole week has been full of depressing news and lacklustre media coverage of the great dialogue and conversations taking place the world over as the world commemorates life five years after the 9/11 attacks.

As many of you may (or may not) know, I attended a conference in DC where I had the opportunity to meet and speak with scores of young adults who are doing so much in their communities to combat all that is evil in the world today. Especially heartening is to see people bridge the great divide between the West and the Muslim World. Dont mind if I continue posting on this topic, which I feel is of crucial importance in today's inter-connected world.

This week's column for the Post (from Pakistan) is where I mention my experiences briefly. I've copied most of it below:

To say that 9/11 has changed our lives is an understatement. And to say the world is now a safer, or better, place is an overstatement. Five years have gone by since those devastating attacks in New York City took almost 3,000 lives, yet New Yorkers still do not feel safer. Security threats emerge every day and terror levels change like the colours of the sunset. Through it all, Americans have shown their resilience and continue to fight against our common enemy: terrorism.

I was in Washington D.C. this past weekend and had the pleasure of attending a young leader’s summit as part of the “Hope not Hate” initiative spearheaded by an organisation I am actively involved with, namely Americans for Informed Democracy (AID). The conference, aptly titled ‘9/11 plus Five’, brought scores of students from all over the country together at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where for three days these students discussed issues pertaining to the state of affairs of post-9/11 America.

Needless to say, there were great expectations from this summit. Students had questions and the experts had answers. While panel discussions were very informative and comprehensive, it was small group discussions and chit chat on the sidelines that I found most interesting. The first session I moderated had about 20 students and in response to my first question about what they thought thus far, got a slew of varied responses that took the entire group on a journey of tangents. One young man responded that speakers were being too diplomatic and political and that no one would answer questions in a straightforward manner. He dared to go further and mention why: the Israel-Palestine conflict. A young lady sitting in front of him said it was unrealistic to think that he could expect a reasonable response in an entire lifetime of discussions, because if all it took was a panel discussion amongst experts, the dispute would have been resolved ages ago.

The discussions went on, tempers flared, and misunderstandings seemed to be driving the wedge between differing ideas even further. I knew the weekend was going to be a long one.

Shortly after this not-so-positive exchange of ideas came a pleasant surprise for the entire audience: Pakistani rock star, Salman Ahmad. After viewing clips of a PBS show that aired a while back featuring him, I had the pleasure of inviting him to the stage, where Salman was then interviewed by MTV News Correspondent Gideon Yago. I was familiar with Salman’s work as a UN Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AIDS, but never knew the depth of his involvement in educating and enlightening his fellow countrymen. This I was to realise only after viewing his film, The Rock Star and the Mullahs.

Subsequent group discussions had fewer and fewer students participating in them and this worried me for a little while. Am I a bad group leader? Are these youngsters not interested? Or worse, are they out partying? I was getting dizzy. Then I thought the only reason could be the fact that the conference was fairly long for students who were not used to sitting for prolonged periods of time outside of class. Three days can be quite hectic, especially when you are in a city like Washington where everything is worth seeing. Yes, even the White House.

On Saturday evening, I was asked to make brief comments about my experience as an AID student leader and I gladly shared my thoughts on how I got involved and went ahead and took the liberty of making a few more comments. I made it a point to stress that post-9/11 America was a difficult place to live for the Muslims and they were just as much in need of assistance and support as the victims of the 9/11 attacks are. I requested that conference participants go back to their communities and reach out to the Muslims. They would greatly appreciate the gesture.

For me, the last day was the best because it gave everyone an opportunity to leave with some thoughts on what they could do to “bring the world home”, as AID’s founder and president Seth Green would say. We were compelled to think how we were going to make a difference in a post-9/11 America where US policies were not appreciated. We were provided with 25 different policy recommendations that we could make to government officials and were to choose the top five. Not surprisingly, among the top five was expansion of economic opportunities as well as promotion of exchange programmes.

I was also pleasantly surprised to be interrupted during my cold pizza and soda lunch by a young woman named Julia who went to an all-Christian school in Pennsylvania and really took my words from the previous evening to heart. She asked me how she could go back to her community and actually act on what I spoke about: how she could engage the Muslim community. I told her about the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and the use of local mosques. In my heart of hearts, I just hoped our fellow brethren would welcome her with open arms just the way she wished to help them with an open mind.

At the conclusion of the conference, I was not sad the way I thought I might have been. Perhaps just a bit at the prospect of resuming a somewhat “normal” life back in New York, but other than that I left a more enlightened person. I left with a vision and now have the tools to make it a reality. I had once heard that time is a great healer and now five years after 9/11, I am seeing its healing powers. We were all hurt badly by the effects of those attacks. Now only time will tell how quickly we can heal ourselves.