Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11

I think people tend to go overboard these days with the hyphenated-American bit.  So I rarely go out of my way to describe myself as an Arab-American.  I made an exception, though, for reasons I believe are fully justified, in responding to a kind invitation from my friend Erik Owen of Boston College's Boisi Center on Religion and Public Life to join others in offering a comment on the anniversary of 9/11.  The comments are now posted on the Boisi Center website.  For space reasons, my comment had to be truncated, so I am posting the fuller version here.

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I am an Arab-American.  Although I am a Christian, I am close to many Muslims, especially from Syria and Lebanon, my ancestral homelands.  What struck me and so many of my Arab and Muslim friends about the reactions of Americans to the attacks on our country and the murders of our fellow citizens and others on September 11, 2001 was the goodness and decency of the overwhelming majority in refusing to ascribe collective guilt to Arabs and Muslims.  Were there exceptions?  Sure.  Since human nature has not been repealed, it would have been a miracle had there not been some who would blame Arabs and Muslims generally.  But the remarkable—nearly miraculous—thing is that the exceptions were, well, exceptions, not the rule.  In the great sweep of human history, and across the world’s cultures, how often would this have been the case? 

Part of the credit goes to President George W. Bush.  He made clear from the start that the war against Islamist terror was not a war against Islam or Arabs or Muslims in general.  It was a war against “evildoers,” as he rightly labeled Al Qaeda, who had, as he put it, “attempted to highjack a great religion.”  Part of the credit goes to Christian and Jewish leaders who reinforced the President’s message.  They stressed the fact that ascribing collective guilt—as so many Christians, to the shame of our faith, once did to Jews—is not only un-American, it is un-Christian and un-Jewish.

We as a nation, now under a new President who, on this point, at least, agrees with his predecessor, are trying to deal prudently and justly with protecting our nation (and our nationals abroad, and our allies) from further terrorist violence.  Some of the security policy issues are, as President Obama has observed, complicated and difficult.  For example, Obama promised in his campaign to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay—that seemed to him at the time to be the right policy; but in office he has decided it best not to close it.  Evidently, the issue turned out to be more complicated and difficult than he had imagined.  So there is room for disagreement on many matters of policy among reasonable people of goodwill.  We certainly need to avoid discriminatory and other unjust treatment of our Arab and Muslim fellow citizens (and Arabs and Muslims abroad).  At the same time, we need to take seriously the fact that radicals acting in the name of Islam design to kill Americans, Israeli and other Jews, and even those of their fellow Muslims who do not share their extremist ideology.  We must deal with the grave threat they pose in a sober, realistic, and determined manner. 

Since there is so much room for reasonable disagreement in this difficult area of policy making, let us not be too harsh with one another.  Let us at least try to avoid the extreme partisanship that marks our politics in so many domains.  Let those of us on the conservative side recognize that our friends who warn against anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice have a legitimate concern.  And even if we believe that some of the policy preferences favored by our liberal friends (e.g., civilian trials for top terrorists, closing Guantanamo) are misguided, let us not dismiss them as knaves or fools. Let us consider their arguments thoughtfully, and respond with thoughtful counterarguments.  And let those on the liberal side resist the temptation to hurl charges of Islamophobia promiscuously and in partisan and defamatory ways.  Let them recognize that the overwhelming majority of Americans who favor policies they oppose are moved by a sincere desire to protect the innocent—including innocent Muslims—from genuine evildoers; they are not motivated by hatred or bigotry.


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