Everyone has a 9/11 story.
Amid all the chaos, noise, headlines, politics and, yes, religious debates, it’s sometimes easy to forget the gravity of what occurred that day. Terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans in unfathomable attacks on this nation’s way of life.
I was the religion editor for The Oklahoman then and pounded out four stories that Tuesday, from covering emotional church prayer vigils to interviewing Oklahoma City bombing victims who, until 9/11, had experienced the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. I also contacted local Muslims I knew and wrote a piece that started like this:
A distraught Muslim woman called the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City on Tuesday morning as terrorist attacks rocked the nation.
“She’s completely terrified,” said Suhaib Webb, imam of the society’s mosque. “She’s a single woman. She’s like, ‘What if someone tries to kill me?’
“She’s worried that society is going to blame her for this killing.”
American Muslim groups rushed Tuesday to condemn the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They cautioned other Americans not to blame followers of Islam until investigators determine who was responsible.
As Oklahoma’s roughly 20,000 Muslims dealt with the shock experienced by most Americans, they grappled with another emotion as well: fear. Fear that people would blame them for the tragedies. Fear that 10 years of work to change Oklahomans’ perspectives of their religion had been shattered.
Nine years later, many American Muslims still live with that fear and concern — including hundreds of relatives of about 60 Muslims who died in the World Trade Center. In recent days, USA Today and Religion News Service both have written compelling stories about still-grieving Muslim relatives. Be sure to check out USA Today’s For families of Muslim 9/11 victims, a new pain and Religion News Service’s Another wound for Muslims who lost family on 9/11.
USA Today does an excellent job of putting real human faces on a number of Muslims. RNS’ story gravitates into more a political debate over the proposed Ground Zero mosque, including references to “rhetoric” by Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. If other news organizations have done relevant coverage on this topic, please feel free to include links in the comments section.
But the best coverage I have seen on this topic came in today’s New York Times, which featured a story headlined Visiting Ground Zero, Asking Allah for Comfort on today’s Page 1:
Nearly every Sept. 11 since Sept. 11, Hadidjatou Karamoko Traore has made sure that her three children were dressed in their best clothes, and taken them from their tidy brick home in the Bronx to the pit where the World Trade Center stood, and where her husband, their father, worked and died.
After the attacks, all that was found of Abdoul-Karim Traore, a cook at the Windows on the World restaurant, were his leather wallet, his identification cards and a few coins.
“I like to go down there and pray and see the place and remember,” said Mrs. Traore, a native of Ivory Coast who came to the United States in 1997. “When I go there, I feel closer to him. And him to me. I pray for him, too.”
When she prays, she calls God Allah. Mrs. Traore, 40, says praying in the pit feels entirely natural, even if some of those standing with her — widows and widowers, parents and children — blame her religion for the destruction of that day.
“That’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not because of Allah that these buildings fell.”
The beauty of this piece is that it focuses on one victim — and one family — and tells their story in an exceptional way. It’s a story filled with precise, relevant details and nuggets like the wife’s “peanut sauce and doughy fritters” that reward the reader paragraph after paragraph — all the way to the end.
Take this section, for example:
Their home, a jumble of New York and Africa, is filled with the laugh track of Disney Channel sitcoms and the smell of peanut stew. A pile of shoes lies by the door — leopard-print Timberland boots, shiny high-top sneakers, slippers, sandals and high heels.
Mrs. Traore keeps hand-drawn Mother’s Day cards taped to her bedroom door and posters of Mecca taped to the living room walls. Those walls could use a fresh coat of paint, and the ragged carpet has seen better days. But the family is busy, and the house is well loved, a refuge from the rough streets of Hunts Point outside.
Does this article settle the question of whether Islam is a peaceful or violent religion? No, but that question presupposes that there is such a thing as one-size-fits-all Islam. There’s not. But read this story, and one gets a better idea of the role of faith — a peaceful Islam faith — in the life of one woman who lost her husband on 9/11. Isn’t providing a window of understanding into the beliefs and practices of a diverse group of people an important function of journalism?
There are a few things I wish the story had done better. For one thing, we learn that the woman’s sons attend a Roman Catholic school where they feel comfortable but have hidden their religion from schoolyard bullies, according to the story. Why does the woman send her children to a Roman Catholic school? That question goes unanswered.
The meaning of one’s faith, alas, is often difficult to express and even more challenging for a news story to convey. To its credit, the Times provides ample space for the story’s main character to talk about Allah in her own words:
Islam, indeed, acts as the ballast of her life. “It puts me in the right direction, and it protects me from doing bad things,” she said.
She does not blame God for her husband’s death. “That was my husband’s destiny,” she said.
If they had stayed in Ivory Coast, she reasons, perhaps he would have fallen fatally ill. “I’m praying to God to make me strong to protect them and raise them,” she said of her children. “I believe God is helping me because my children here are growing and they’re healthy and I’m doing my work.”
“I move closer to prayer, closer to God, and I thank him,” she said. “I keep praying to God to make me strong.”