Tragedy uncovered our common humanity


OPINION-On that day, Tuesday, September the 11th 2001, as usual I left my house early in the morning heading to my work at the Permanent Mission of Indonesia to the United Nations. The sky was clear blue and sunny. From my house in Astoria, I took the R train to the heart of the City in Manhattan. 

Around 20 minutes later the train arrived in Grand Central & 42nd Street. Before I got off the subway station I could see people rushing here and there. All were looking panicked, some even screamed. And I myself did not know what was going on. 

I got out of the subway station. All of the sudden, I could hear the sirens of fire trucks and ambulances. Police cars were rushing, running fast. Crowds on the street were running in chaos. I tried to figure out what was going on. 

I stopped by to the side of a bank building watching the big screen TV on its wall. And I could see one of the WTC was burning. I thought it's a fire. I mean a normal fire. While watching the news I could not believe my eyes that an airplane had hit the second tower. 

At that time I could hear people on street screaming. Many things were being said about what's going on. "New York City is under attack. Terrorists attacked our City", one of the NBC anchor announced. 

I continued walking to the Indonesian Mission to the UN office on 38th street and 1st Avenue. Upon entering the building all the staff were gathered in the first floor, waiting for further instructions. All eyes turned to the TV screen watching CNN news. At that moment I could hear a CNN anchor mentioned an Arabic name Osama bin Laden and another Arabic word "Al-Qaeda".

I did not pay attention to who Osama bin Laden was and what Al-Qaeda was. All the staff were instructed to evacuate the building and to go home. I left the building and walked back to the subway station. But the station was closed. All forms of public transportations were shut down.

I then began to walk from 42nd Street to 59th Street were the Queens Borough bridge is located. This bridge connects the Boroughs of Manhattan and Queens. I intended to walk all the way from Manhattan to my house in Astoria. 

While I was walking along 3rd Avenue, I was able to stop a town car driven by (apparently) a Hispanic guy. He opened the door of his car and asked where am I heading. When I told him that I am heading to Astoria he allowed me to enter his car. He was so kind and friendly. 

The driver was listening to the radio and clearly heard the word "Muslim terrorists" attacked New York City/America. Typically those days my outfit was a suit with necktie. So he did not immediately recognize me as a Muslim. The driver then began to curse Islam and Muslims. Almost every bad word imaginable came out from his mouth.

I refrained from saying any words. I was myself confused about what was just happening. I could not comprehend that such an evil and heinous crime could be committed by some people claiming to be religious, particularly when the action is connected to the religion. I have studied Islam since my childhood. For over twenty years I studied it. And I did not find anywhere in the religion that allows human lives to be destroyed. 

The Qur'an for instance says: "killing one person is just like killing all people and saving one life is equal to saving all lives".

It was only twenty minutes but it felt so long to get to my house in Astoria. When I arrived to my house, my neighbor, a senior citizen of Irish Catholic background, approached me crying and said: "I don't believe it". And he repeated that three times. 

I pretended I did know what he meant. So I asked him: "What you don't believe?". 
He looked at me hesitantly and asked: "You are a Muslim right?" 
"Yes that's right" jawab saya singkat. 
He than looked at me again, still with tears on his eyes: "If the Muslims are like you, I don't believe they did this". 

He still did not mention the tragedy that just happened two hours ago. But I continued saying: "You know, in any community there are people of goodness and kindness, like yourself. But there are some, often a fringe, that happen to be evil. And it is unfortunately possible that some people claim to be Muslims but do evil things"..

In the meantime, the town car driver got out from his car to join our conversation. He still did not recognize me as a Muslim. But he was there standing and listening to our conversation. As we deepened into out talk about what's going on, we talked about those who were in the building, their families, and our City in general. 

The old man could not handle his emotion and he hugged me saying: "I am sorry my friend". 

I did know why he said sorry to me. Is it because he knew that Muslims are going to be targeted by hate and anger? 

Or was he sorry for what was going on? Or did he say sorry to express his sorrow as a part of NYC inhabitants? 

While he hugged me, the Hispanic driver also hugged him apparently to console him and myself. At that moment I could feel the oneness of us. I could sense the common humanity being expressed. It taught me that we are one and we are all in the same boat. On that particular day the boat happened to be a human tragedy. 

Behind all tragedies there is wisdom known or unknown to us. One of the bits of wisdoms from the 9/11 WTC tragedy in New York City is that it uncovered the very essence of our human relations. It's our "common humanity". 

And all faith traditions we believe in and are dearly committed to, regardless of the differences, lead us to that common humanity. And on this very commonality, we manage to build harmonious relationships and partnership on love and compassion. God willing! 

New York City, 17 November 2021
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Author: Imam Shamsi Ali, President of Nusantara Foundation

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