Editorial September 2002 In the Aftermath By Hilary Williamson
As September 11 draws near again, thoughts naturally turn to the traumatic events of 2001 and, of course, many publishers have released books on the subject. There are those that document heroic experiences like Last Man Down by Richard Picciotto & Daniel Paisner. We have documentary style accounts of how it all happened and what led up to the date we can never forget, such as The Cell by John Miller, Michael Stone & Chris Mitchell; and analyses, like Benjamin Netanyahu's on Fighting Terrorism.
I don't know about you, but these sorts of books, while important and necessary, are not enough for me. I have also felt a need to try to understand the cultures in which the kind of fanaticism that exploded on 9/11 could ferment. Alison Wearing's Honeymoon in Purdah : An Iranian Journey, as well as my own travel experiences in Muslim countries, made clear to me that many (though certainly not all) Islamic people echo the Iranian's sentiment expressed to Ms. Wearing, 'We are strangers, but we try to be kind.' How does that kind of one-on-one decency and goodwill metamorphose into the virulent hatred of fanatics?
Similar attitudes certainly prevail in other divided countries, like Ireland and Spain, in which a minority feels various grievances, religious and economic. Perhaps it has something to do with people losing the ability to empathize with individuals in groups other than their own, but only to see some amorphous 'them' responsible for all their ills. They may not actually approve of murder in the name of their own belief system, but they tolerate it and are quick to find excuses for it. Jon Ronson's Them : Adventures with Extremists is an enlightening window into the convictions of different extreme groups.
How do these kind of divisions grow to fracture a society? In her memoir, The Tiger Ladies, as well as giving the reader a nostalgic trip in time into a charming way of life, Sudha Koul describes the sowing of the seeds of conflict (by outsiders) between Hindu and Muslim neighbors in Kashmir that led to the increasing levels of violence there. And Anahita Firouz's fictional In the Walled Gardens unfolds Iran's revolution for us from two different class perspectives, painting a picture (reminiscent of the French revolution) of rebellious groups as much at odds with each other as with the regime, leaving a vacuum which the fundamentalists filled.
But the book that spoke most clearly to me about the great divide between the West and the extreme factions of Islam is Tamim Ansary's Afghan American story, West of Kabul, East of New York. This is someone who has lived in both worlds and lost a brother to the embrace of 'an orthodox interpretation of Islam'. He leads the reader through his own journey in search of understanding. His insights on 'unintended consequences' (such as the emergence of the Taliban from damaged childhoods in refugee camps) are insightful and, unfortunately, still very relevant to Middle East events today.
I hope that in the aftermath of last year's tragedy, there will be enough time to develop a greater empathy between well meaning folk of East and West, who are still such strangers to each other. But I fear that we may only be enjoying a brief lull before another storm.
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