A decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans still have a lot to learn about their own nation’s foreign policy and the Islamic religion, according to a panel discussion hosted Thursday by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.

“It was an ordinary day in which ordinary people like you and I were killed,” said Yasmin Saikia, the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in peace studies and professor of history at ASU. “But today, again ordinary people like you and I are sitting around this table and trying to make sense of that catastrophe. And there are ordinary people like you and I in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan who are being killed. So we have to recognize that ordinary people on ordinary days can do extraordinary things and open a new chapter of history.”

The event was not a commemoration like many of the other events hosted around the Valley, said Linell Cady, the panel leader and the director for the center. Instead, it was a way to look at the changes in American religion, politics and foreign policy from an academic perspective.

“The major impact seemed to be that we realized that religion could be a very powerful negative force,” said Carolyn Warner, a professor and the Head of Faculty of ASU’s Political Science department. “We forgot that the various ways that religion can be a peaceful force.”

American public understanding changed after Sept. 11, 2001, because of the terrorist attacks, said Abdullahi Gallab, assistant professor of African and African-American studies and religious studies at ASU.

“After Sept. 11th, our understanding of religion came of age,” Gallab said. “Religion was found in bed with terrorism. Whatever tranquil notions we may have had were rudely replaced by political and often violent (connotations).”

Understanding and education of Islam has increased in the last decade, mainly as a reaction to the fear and ignorance of the Sept. 11 attacks, Cady said.

“There is a profound sense of ignorance about Islam, as if it were all one thing,” Cady said. “People have a limited understanding of religion overall, but especially Islam.”

Since the attacks, there has been a changing academic world, said Carolyn Warner

Warner wrote an article about the changes in Muslim groups in Europe during the 1990s. When she went to publish her research in an academic journal, the publishers rejected it. 

“They said, ‘There is too much information about Islam, send it to a Middle Eastern politics journal,’ even though I was actually talking about the role of Islam in facilitating the peaceful organization of Muslins in Western Europe,” Warner said.

Two years later, the article was published by the journal.

“What changed?” Warner asked. “9/11. The article didn’t change.”

What does need to change is the American understanding of other religions, Saikia said. As a world community, we need to learn to live peacefully with each other.

This has been done for centuries in India, where the two largest religions of that country, Hindu and Islam, have coexisted, Saikia said. 

“We have been getting rhetoric of hope,” Saikia said. “And we do need hope. We need hope in hopeless times, but we also need reason. Can we reasonably move ahead?”

Rather than hope, she suggested that people need to see each other for who they are and recognize Muslims are regular people too.

People should recognize that Muslims, Christians and Hindus are not going to disappear, Saikia said. Rather than creating violence, people should accept their fellow human beings and start the discussion from there.

“If I (speaking for the Muslim community) can see you as a friend and not as a master who has come to destroy my world, perhaps we can begin a conversation,” Saikia said.

However, to do this, there has to be more effort at an institutional level to create understanding, Saikia said.

Similar to that understanding is the way Gen. David Petraeus led his troops in Iraq, said Sheldon Simon, professor of Political Science at ASU.

Rather than use the same insurgency warfare tactics used in the Vietnam War or the strong “shock and awe” heavy bombing of the Afghan war, Petraeus used a different tactic.

“Petraeus convinced his superiors that conventional warfare in Iraq was counterproductive,” Simon said. “He argued a new type of counterinsurgency with a different set of goals of military configuration.

“Petraeus’ strategy was to seize a region from the adversary, hold and defend the population, help to rebuild the local economy, train local security forces, and transfer responsibility to them,” Simon said.

The military had to become accustomed to and educated in local culture, language and religion, he said.

“The army’s main purpose (under Petraeus’ policy) isn’t to kill the adversary, but to protect the population,” Simon said. “This meant that soldiers would have to become policemen, social workers, aid providers and mediators in local conflicts.”

Throughout the last decade, many things in American life have changed, Cady said. Politics, understanding of religion and American foreign policy have changed drastically.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict was a product of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cady said. The planning started in 2002 and the center opened the next year.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-5645 or sspring@evtrib.com

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