Photo of ‘World Trade Centre’ by Anuradha Henakaarachchi at the Colombo Art Biennale 2009, taken by the author.
I was sitting in my garden, gazing at the stars listening to my Walkman, which was the only thing to do back then as you ticked off the minutes until the regulated power cuts that cursed Sri Lanka at the time wore away, every night, when I heard the absurd news. Planes hitting the twin towers and then causing them to fall down? And they say a Muslim did it, some guy in a turban and thobe with a long beard sitting in a cave in Afghanistan. I could barely place Afghanistan on a map.
Weeks became months and as more news of Bin Laden flooded the world I sunk further into my mid-teen bubble of O/Levels and school; music and movies and street cricket. This was a bubble I had always been in, but unbeknownst to me its surface had already been breached.
The breach became a gaping hole one day after an Interact Club meeting, I was walking ahead and behind me a girl, in a borrowed Fox News accent, jokingly referred to the boys she was with as ‘Funnamentahlist Muzlehms’. I had heard the term on the TV back then, but it had never struck me with so much force as it did then, overhearing it in a random conversation on a street in Maradana.
Because here was a new category of Muslim, given birth to in America and now brought to the streets of Sri Lanka. Revealed to me in its rawest form, with the original accent still coloring it; the newborn Fundamentalist Muslim. Though no one back then, and no one still, has succeeded in successfully defining what his moniker means, his invasion into my bubble began to force me to confront certain… realities.
He refused to acknowledge my own Muslimness for one. My Muslimness was a rather dormant part of my identity then, more or less a cultural marker that differentiated me from non-Muslim friends. It involved certain rituals like going to the mosque on Friday and hurriedly going through the motions of daily prayers when the inclination struck me. But this new ‘Fundamentalist Muslim’ was having none of that.
As the years passed, his voice became louder and louder. He was staring down my drab, boring Muslimness; ignoring him wouldn’t make him go away. He wanted my Muslimness to man up. “There are lines being drawn up”, he seemed to say. “Which side will you choose?” I was either with him or against him. Familiar words, back then, to those that eventually supported Bush’s War on Terror.
But I am no terrorist, I don’t believe the killing of innocent civilians is a part of Islam. So if you’re looking for an apology from me on the anniversary of 9/11, you can stop looking now. I don’t relate to the people who did the crime just because we ostensibly share the same religion. Just as much as people who believe in ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ don’t relate to the war crimes in their name that have shed the blood of hundreds of thousands before 9/11 and since.
On the other hand, there were the voices forcing me to become a ‘moderate Muslim’. A Muslim that unconditionally gives himself up to materialism, maybe has a drink on occasion, a Muslim that does not question extant global power structures, a Muslim that does not stand up for justice, compassion and equality; in short, a Muslim that is Muslim only In name.
But I am not a so-called ‘moderate Muslim’ either. I resent being on someone’s alien scale of what it means to be Muslim. Categorized as being somewhere in between a Muslim that drinks and smokes and a Muslim that kills innocent civilians. I reject the label ‘moderate Muslim’ just as much as I reject the label ‘Fundamentalist Muslim’ not only because they’re both meaningless essentializations, but because they place my faith within a worldview that presupposes its evidential guilt.
My identity as a Muslim, struggling with my refusal to be boxed into labels invented by Islamophobes and neo-khawarij alike, has evolved over the years in a continuing process. After more than a decade of soul searching, my Muslimness now definitely dominates my worldview. But 13 years on I still haven’t worked out what ‘kind’ of Muslim I am or must seek to be; I strongly suspect that I need not be any kind of Muslim other than simply a Muslim, inasmuch as it only means a slave that submits to God’s will and leads a life seeking only His pleasure.
9/11 wasn’t the trigger for a religious awakening. But it was one more event in my life, perhaps the first, which woke me up to realities that I was previously comfortable ignoring. It not only helped introduce the world to me it forced me to confront things like heritage and history, beliefs and ideology. It was so big that it refused to be ignored.
And I’ve learned a thing or two since then. I have learned that to look at the world in terms of generalizations such as ‘America’ and ‘Islam’ is to buy into the propaganda that perpetuates the violence of our times. The obscurantism via generalizations that the media and extremist propaganda alike feeds us conceals the real workings at play; the corrupt politics; the propped up oppressive regimes; the warmongering; the ruthless corporations; the proxy wars; and most importantly, the long arm of history.
Looking along the accusative finger pointing after 9/11, I began to also see the numerous fingers pointing back. Now I realize that this is a discourse between extremists on either side, and we’re all stuck in the middle. The mostly deluded, self-absorbed majority, the silent victims.