In between some admittedly harried days getting ready for the Peace and Dialogue Awards, we got the chance to hear from a few of our friends in the interfaith community about the effect 9/11 had on them and their beliefs. Our own Sanya Mansoor interviewed three faith professionals, Rabbi Capers Funnye, Fr. Robert Schreiter C.PP.S., and Rev. Tanya Sadagopan on their perspectives on interfaith dialogue and 9/11. Sanya also interviewed Maham Khan of the Interfaith Youth Core about her experiences as a Muslim college student on the days after 9/11. While the stories of these four individuals were originally supposed to be condensed into one post regarding 9/11, it got a little long. Plus, Maham Khan’s affecting stories about being Muslim after 9/11 were different from the lessons we learned from the faith professionals. So, we decided to separate them. Below is the story Sanya wrote after interviewing Maham Khan.
Interfaith Dialogue in Action
by Sanya Mansoor, Intern at the Niagara Foundation and Student at Northwestern University
Dozens of young Muslim men knelt in the main hall of Harper College to pray. It was 2001; a few weeks earlier America had been shaken by the tragic events of 9/11. The atmosphere towards Muslims on campus was bordering on vindictive.
“I noticed people walking by and saying really rude things,” recalled Maham Khan, now a freelance journalist and lecturer at Harper college. At the time of 9/11, Khan was a Harper College freshman and president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) on campus. She had created the student group only a few months before 9/11 as a small, informal group. However, as tragedy struck and the twin towers fell, she found herself having to represent her entire religion on campus.
“For me religion had always been very private. I prayed five times a day, read the Qur’an, and was a dedicated good Muslim girl,” Khan said. However, her post 9/11 experience convinced her that she had it all wrong.
“I had been practicing my faith so privately and not realizing that there’s a big part of our faith that talks about being part of a community.” Khan confessed. “The interfaith aspect of my religion had been completely missing from my life”
Remembering her freshman year, Khan described the Muslim boys in MSA who insisted on praying publicy, despite her concerns that the display may be insensitive. The group eventually came to accordance and displayed their undeterred right to worship.
“One kid in particular – I could see the fire in his eyes – walks up and stands in front of one of the Muslim guys. His feet were at his forehead and I thought for sure he would kick him in the head,” Khan recollected. At that point she called security to prevent the tension from taking an even uglier form.
In the days that followed Khan was asked to clear up some misconceptions about Islam and speak at an Evangelical Christian student group. As she spoke, she watched the boy who was ready to kick her friend take a seat.
It was at this event that the situation turned on its head for Khan. During the Q&A session, one audience member asked, “You have been talking about what your religion says but what has [9/11] done to you, your faith, your belief system?”
“I don’t know why but that question just struck me so deep and so hard that I started to cry,” Khan recalled. “This confession came out: “I feel like I have to apologize again and again and again, but I don’t even know who I’m apologizing for because I never believed such a thing.”
In the days that followed, the prayers continued in the main hall and once again Khan was wary when the hostile boy who tried to cause trouble previously returned to the site of the prayer group. This time he was with three friends, but instead of standing in front of the praying students he was standing a couple of feet away, with his back to them.
Worried, Khan decided to confront him and ask what he was doing. “He said to me, ‘I’m just making sure they can finish their prayers.’ At that point I’m blown away,” Khan said. She brought up his earlier hostility and he didn’t deny his initial intentions, but he mentioned that Khan’s speech had given him a new perspective.
“I’ve been so angry I needed someone to blame, but when you came and spoke to us and I saw you crying, all I saw was your pain. My faith as a Christian says I’m supposed to extend a hand to those who are suffering,” he said, candidly.
Khan’s breath was taken away by what she saw as the beginning of simple, raw, interfaith dialogue.
Recently, Khan spoke at another event about her religion and once again she felt like she had to put up a defensive front. “This gentleman stands up and says, ‘you know you’re a very engaging, charming, energetic young lady and thank you for coming to speak to us, but how can I deny the fact that things are happening in Muslim countries across the world that are horrible and how can you deny that that is the face of Islam?’”
Khan responded with an impeccable reply, “Why is it easier to believe that all the bad stuff you hear about in the rest of the world is the true face of Islam? Why isn’t it easier to believe that the girl that is standing before you, who belongs to a wider landscape of Muslims in this country who function and live in harmony everyday with you, who are a part of society just like you, why aren’t they the true face of Islam.”
The silence that followed spoke louder than words.
This isn’t the first time Maham Khan has spoken about her religion and 9/11. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Harper College hosted a memorial program and invited back Maham Khan to speak about the Muslim-American experience since. Her remarks were posted on WBEZ’s website and titled My Personal Jihad: Defending Islam after 9/11.