Never in my life have I felt so much apprehension and fear, anger and despair, shock and disbelief, such as I — and countless Canadian Muslims — experienced during the early hours of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
As I watched the unfolding horror on television news with my wife, we saw surreal images of the smoke column engulfing the first tower of the World Trade Center; then minutes later, live on camera, the unbelievable scene of yet another giant passenger airplane smashing into the second WTC tower and instantly exploding in a blazing inferno. “Oh my God!” we cried out in utter disbelief. But after that, there were no more words to describe the indescribable, only tears, and the beginning of profound sadness, anger, and fear.
As those terrible morning hours slowly passed and the tragedy multiplied in rural Pennsylvania and Washington DC, with the deliberate crashes of two more airliners, I called my American sister and her husband in Atlanta to ask about their well-being and that of their four children.
And in between, I prayed earnestly, hoping against hope that these unspeakable horrors would not be revealed as the diabolical work of ignorant, insane Muslims, compounding their heinous sins by attributing them to acts of faith.
At the Canadian Islamic Congress, we went public as quickly as possible to unequivocally condemn these massive airborne terrorist attacks on the U.S. and appealed to Canadian media professionals to refrain from accusing and stereotyping specific faith and cultural groups as posssible perpetrators.
Muslim scholars and spiritual leaders around the world responded similarly, with categorical statements that criminal terrorist acts are sins that have no place or endorsement in Islam and could not be committed by any true Muslim. World-renowned authority, Prof. al-Qaradawi, asserted that “any sane Muslim who abides by Islamic laws would never have caused this,” adding that acts of terrorism are crimes that distinct from nationality or religious background and must be treated as such.
As the nightmare of Tuesday progressed and the extent of this unparalleled tragedy seemed to grow by the hour, I fielded hundreds of media requests for interviews, not all of them impartial, sympathetic, or benign.
Because most media people and government officials were so quick to link these skilfully orchestrated disasters to the expertise and influence of militant Saudi dissident, Osama bin Laden, I and all Muslims were clearly “marked” as guilty-by-association.
In the midst of this condemning atmosphere, I tried to do my religious and theological homework, starting with the most basic question of all: What does Islam’s core scripture, the Holy Qur’an, say about killing innocent people?
I almost knew the answer by heart, but it was a comfort and strength to read throughout our Qur’an that God created all of humanity from one great, single soul (4:1, 6:39, 6:98, 7:198), and that it repeatedly emphasizes the equal value of all human lives, irrespective of colour, nationality, gender, religion, etc. And the Qur’an is uncompromising in its teaching that, in killing one innocent person, the sinner is as quilty as if all humanity had been murdered (5:32). The Qur’an, in other words, teaches zero-tolerance of deliberate, pre-meditated killing.
The same Qur’anic verse celebrates instead how great a deed it is when a person helps to save even one other human life because that is like saving all of humanity. Yes, the Qur’an does permit self-defense and is not unique in this respect, but it does so from within a deep foundation of teaching the sacredness of human life and the severe punishment from God that awaits anyone who kills the innocent (6:151, 17:33, 25:68).
I have known, understood and loved these teachings almost from the time I could listen and speak. But now, after having lived proudly in Canada for more than three decades, I find myself having to defend them, and to repeatedly remind those who should know better, that the very name of the religion I practice is derived from the word “peace.” What a terrible and saddening irony!
But that is my reality now. During the past 48 hours, waves of blatant and cruel anti-Islamic language have been spewed indiscriminately over news and op-ed pages and throughout broadcast networks in this country, endangering not only their implied Muslim “targets,” but all Canadians.
Acts of stabbing, vandalism, physical attacks, verbal insults, and psychological abuse have been reported by frightened Muslims to many community and spiritual leaders. A Christian CIC employee also reported receiving an anonymous telephone call, condemning her association with “your Muslim terrorist friends…”
Worse still, some Muslims have already received death threats, as Canadians and Americans alike lash out in unfocused anger against those they perceive as being co-responsible.
The true reality is that Canadian Muslims are grieving as deeply as everyone else and we in fact grieve a double tragedy, for even as we mourn the lose of lives including the lives of Muslims we are also forced to look over our shoulders.
We live during these terrible hours and days after Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in constant fear of being found guilty-by-association, mainly because of North America’s prevailing ignorance about our faith.
Only time can tell when, or if, this swelling wave of apprehension and fear within the Canadian Muslim community will subside. But one thing is for sure: the ghastly crimes committed this week against our American neighbours will leave deep psychological and spiritual scars on every Canadian — Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
May the God of peace, justice, and wisdom give healing to all victims and their loved ones. May our collective authorities exercise true and appropriate justice upon those, wherever and whoever they are, who committed Tuesday’s despicable crimes.
And finally, may God grant to all Canadians the wisdom and understanding not to find me, my family and all Canadian Muslims guilty-by-association.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.