I remember that morning clearly. I was standing in the Clayton Hall lobby at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio as I watched the second tower fall. An eerie silence fell over the students gathered around the television screen. A strange community had developed. It was as if we knew that years later we would look back on this event and see faces. Faces that became neighbors eventhough we didn’t know their names. As the two towers fell on that tragic September 11, we all knew the world would never be the same.
We all felt the creepiness of crisis. It’s feeling mirrors excitement. A culture mediated by screens (even then) often has to remind itself that the news is not another episode of “House of Cards.” September 11 was happening. It was happening in a real way and this community of students in a midwestern university lobby dealt with the disconnect. The chasm between Ashland and New York played out through shock and awe on the television screen followed by more trivial matters of what would happen to classes for the rest of the day. Guilt follows the cognitive dissonance as we watch tragedy on television from the comfort of our lobbies.
The news swirled as to who was responsible for such a heinous act. After crisis, humanity enters the Garden of Eden all over again. Someone plucked the apple from the forbidden tree and we sure as hell are not to blame. Scapegoats reveal deep-seated anxieties and America quickly found a scapegoat with “the Muslims.”
I was never raised to hate. Actually, I was raised to respect others and not think too highly of myself. But I got caught up in the paranoia. There were students on my campus with strange last names from far away places. There were women who wore hijabs. I was a freshman from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I had never encounted such realities. Suspicion grew into distrust quickly. As the towers fell, I felt unsafe. Homesickness prevailed. At that moment, America was a strange home. It was too general. I longed for a deeper, more specific, expression of home.
It just so happened that I had Logic and Computing, a computer science course, that fall. The professor had one of those strange sounding last names. “Ajwa.” I remember trying to pronounce on the course listing. Was it “Ah-ja-wa?” No, The “j” must be silent. It must be “Ah-wa.” As he pronounced his name to the class and shared his background, I was floored. Worlds crashed into one another as the world around me was crashing. “Good morning, I’m Dr. Ajwa (pronounced ‘A-sh-wa’), I’m Muslim, and I’m mortified by the events that have just occurred.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Over the next few weeks, this Muslim who my paranoia tried to write off as violent, dogmatic and anti-American welcomed his students into his classroom like he was welcoming us into his living room. He was warm. He was kind. He was generous. Each class over those first few weeks, we began with a time of prayer where we were invited to silently pray “to our God.”
Dr. Iyad Ajwa changed my life because he changed a critical, prejudiced perspective. I could no longer lump all followers of Islam in the same camp. They were not all of the same stripe. I really didn’t care that Dr. Ajwa was a Muslim. He had become a friend. September 11 was not the day “Muslims attacked America.” It was the day that radical Islamists attacked America.
September 11 was a tragic day! May we never forget the horror of lives lost. Americans experienced horror and tragedy that occurs often around the world. It doesn’t make our pain any less but it allows us to be reminded that violence, no matter where it occurs, is not what we were made for.
September 11 also represents a day when tragedy, violence and crisis gave way to friendship. Iyad and I have done a few talks together about how we, me as a Christian (evangelical no less) and he as a Muslim, share friendship, break bread and have a deep appreciation for the other.
On the seventeenth anniversary of that awful day, may you be challenged not to hatred, prejudice or bigotry. May you, instead, be provoked to friendship and civility. As I look back seventeen years ago, I see 17 year old me in that Clayton lobby. I was only two weeks away from my eighteenth birthday. Seventeen years later, as I butt up against birthday number 35, I’m mortified by violence but in awe at how God can take horrific crises and spin them into peace-renewing friendship.