Lessons learned from Sept. 11

By Dr. James J. Zogby

On Thursday, I waited in line for four hours to be tested for anthrax. On Monday, I had been in the area of the U.S. Senate building where the bacteria had been found. I was, therefore, called and told I should be tested.

It was an interesting experience. Over one thousand of us were in line. There were Senate staff members, Capitol Hill police, lobbyists, news reporters and unlucky deliverymen who happened to be at the wrong office at the wrong time. The line moved slowly, but quietly. It was quite remarkable. Washingtonians are not normally patient people.

To be sure, some worked, others were on their cell phones, but all were in good spirits, cooperative and friendly. Anthrax, though a manageable bacteria, has taken Washington and the nation by storm. Since the first reported case more than two-and-a-half weeks ago, there has been a media frenzy about the disease. And each new occurrence has become the next day’s headline.

But there is no panic, just concern. In many ways, the reaction is part of the transformation that has occurred since the 11th of September. Americans have become more cautious, more reflective, but not hysterical.

I described the mood in this city to an Egyptian friend the other day, noting that it reminded me of Cairo after the earthquakes. I was in Cairo two days after the city had been rocked by a substantial tremor. Everything looked the same, but something was different. After some thought it hit me. The city was quieter. Horns weren’t being honked and drivers moved more carefully through the streets. That is today’s Washington.

Just a few months ago, when Washingtonians heard a siren, they would speed up their cars in an effort to beat the ambulance or firetruck through the next intersection. And if they had to wait, they grumbled. They were, of course, important people with important business and they couldn’t be held up even for an emergency. That is not the case today.

Washingtonians have become more attentive and less aggressive. At the sound of a siren, they stop and wait. And they do so quite often. On one day last week, there were over 100 reported anthrax scares and each one shut down an office building and the street it was on as ambulances rushed to the scene to investigate.

The city and its people have become a bit quieter and more patient. And this transformation can be seen in polling data as well. A recent poll revealed that while 40 percent believed that they might be victims of some terrorist attack, the overwhelming majority noted that they were continuing their normal work and life habits. But in another set of responses, 52 percent indicated that they had become more spiritually inclined and that too is in evidence.

Hate crimes are down to pre-Sept. 11 levels and in a surprising twist, some of those who initially turned against Arab Americans and American Muslims have written or acted in ways to express their remorse for their hatefulness.

As a result, our communities are increasingly being called upon to teach about Arab culture and Islam. More articles have appeared in U.S. newspapers about Islam than ever before and more thoughtful questions are being asked about the Middle East than ever before.

There are problems, to be sure, but changes taking place also need to be understood and attended to. This will not become a clash of civilizations, despite the efforts of fanatics on all sides. There are lessons to be learned from the broad public mood shift resulting from the 11th of September tragedy.

Dangerous ideologues may want to bring the world to the brink of a calamitous war, but most people want none of that. Osama bin Laden is not Islam, Ariel Sharon and Ovadia Yosef are not Judaism, and Pat Robertson and his fundamentalist ilk are not Christianity.

Not only should these uncompromising ideologues be rejected, but their ideologies based on hate and division should also be rejected. East and West, though different in culture and social life, are bound together by a complex web of interrelationships. We do business together, we work and trade together and we have roots planted in each other’s worlds.

Over one million Arabs have immigrated to America and prospered in their new country. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs came to the U.S. as students and returned to serve their home countries. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Americans have worked in the Arab world, while others have served in the region and provided training or defense.

Hateful speech and polarizing politics that try to rip us apart should be rejected because they do damage to our ties and can lead to devastating violence and ruptures that will negatively affect the well-being of millions. There are, of course, real issues of policy that do divide us. I believe, for example, that U.S. policies on some critical Middle East issues are wrong. And I, and many others, are fighting to change these policies.

But to go from differences over policy, no matter how deep and important they may be, to threatening the entire fabric of the U.S.-Arab relationship, is just flat out unacceptable.

Those ideologues, whether in the U.S. or in the Middle East, who, despite coming from different directions, are joined in their desire to sever or damage the U.S.-Arab partnership, are wrong. They take the positions they do because they see the world only through the prism of their ideology. And because they have no real stake in the real needs of real people.

If we learn anything from the 11th of September, it should be that we condemn not only terrorism but those who package and project the ideologies of hate and division that inspire or seek to justify such acts.

Standing in line, waiting for my anthrax test, joined as I was by accident to my fellow line-mates, I engaged some in conversation. They knew little about the Middle East, even less about Islam, but they were curious and eager to learn.

What we need now, I concluded, is not to shut the door but to swing it wide open. We need to develop a far-reaching inter-civilizational dialogue. If we work together, and trade together, we need to understand and respect each other. Instead of being pushed apart, as bin Laden, Sharon, and the U.S. neoconservatives might want, we need to come together to strengthen our ties.

*** By the way, the test results haven’t come back yet, but I’m sure I’m OK. I’m still taking my antibiotics just to be safe.

Dr. James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.