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September 24, 2001

Thousands come together by candlelight

By Eric Rangus


The key word in the title of the hastily conceived but well-planned and executed forum “Understanding: From Tolerance to Respect,” held Sept. 19 in Glenn Auditorium, is the first one: Understanding.

In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York and Washington, the Emory community joined together to grieve. The point of this particular forum was to explore what possible causes could lie behind the most destructive terrorist act in world history.

President Bill Chace stressed the need for the Emory community—as well as the entire nation—to recover.

“This reminds us all that life belongs to the living,” Chace said in his opening remarks. “Grief must have a terminus. Terrorism works when it works to disrupt, to depress, to confuse and to demoralize. This is not the direction that we at Emory must go. The direction we must go toward is health, not morbidity.”

Understanding what happened, Chace said, is what a university community is supposed to do.

To help the roughly 500 people in attendance do just that, panelists Abdullah An-Na’im, Candler Professor of Law; Beverly Schaffer, professor of economics and director of the Violence Studies Program; Devin Stewart, associate professor and chair of Middle Eastern studies; and Carrie Wickham, assistant professor of political science, first gave brief statements, then answered more than an hour’s worth of questions.

A total of 16 campus organizations shared in sponsorship of the event.

“We have an obligation to understand the mindset of the people who committed these acts of terror,” Wickham said. Much of her research examines the origins of political opposition in authoritarian settings and focuses on the rise of Islamic activism in several states of the Middle East.

She also mentioned the presence of a lot of anti-American feelings in the Middle East and said this sentiment is not derived from a rejection of American “values,” but instead from what she called an abandonment of those values in U.S. Middle Eastern policy.

“I wish I could say we are a peace-loving people all the time, but it is not that simple,” said An-Na’im, a native of Sudan and a Muslim. He pointed out that not all followers of Islam are alike and, therefore, cannot be lumped together. The large majority are peaceful.

“Don’t assume what I am going to say or do by the way I dress,” An-Na’im said. “Listen to what I say, and watch what I do.”

“Conflict is permanent—what we must end is the violence,” he continued. “We must find ways of negotiating or mediating our differences.”

One of the most though-provoking questions of the evening was one of the simplest: “What happens next?”

Stewart said the best course of action would be some sort of international trial to bring the terrorists to justice, but he doubted that would happen. He admitted that some sort of military action is almost inevitable, but with it could come unintended consequences.

“If we do engage in missile strikes in the Middle East, it will not bode well for the future,” he said.

“If [attacks take place], there will be a radicalization of Muslim opinion,” Wickham said.

An-Na’im added that talk of law enforcement at this point may sound far-fetched, but it would be a good long-term strategy. “Investing in the rule of law is the best plan for the security of the United States,” he said.

While talk of vengeance is certainly widespread, there was very little of that attitude at the forum, which tilted toward discussion of—for better or worse—peaceful resolution of the current situation.

One of Stewart’s final comments was one of the most instructive of the evening. He talked of tools that students—most anyone, actually—can use to understand the current conflict and hopefully prevent future ones.

Get a map, he said. Find out where Afghanistan is and why it’s important.

Study history, he added, to get an idea about why this is happening and how the U.S. has responded in similar situations. Learn logic. Be critical—do not accept things at their face value. One example Stewart gave was of the terrorist attack being one on freedom and the inevitable conclusion—by some—that people in the Middle East must be against freedom.

“People in the Middle East are not allergic to freedom, democracy and modernity,” Stewart said. “But we need to promote these things in the Middle East and not use them as an empty slogan.”


Back to Emory Report September 24, 2001