Beyond Sept. 11, which road will we take?

September 1, 2002

PERDITION (per dish en) a state of final spiritual ruin; hell; utter destruction

SANA’A, YEMEN – I have an Arab friend who looks very much like a stereotypical western mobster. A gentle spirit, he also reminds me of a boy named Michael, son of Mike Sr., a gangster in the recent Tom Hanks film, The Road to Perdition.

“A year after 9/11,” I asked him in a Toronto coffee bar recently, “why do some Arabs still have a hard time admitting Arab-Muslims were involved?”

Most of the hijackers were Saudis. Osama bin Laden claims to be Muslim. So why, for example, in Yemen, where I’ve lived most of this year, does the mainstream press report, straight-faced, that Jews were behind the attacks, that 4,000 Jews played hookey from work, knowing what would hit that day?

Closer to home, why don’t Arab and Muslim groups in Canada distance themselves more from extremists linked to 9/11?

“It’s too big a question,” says my friend, who’s been in Canada for two years and who, if he ever returns home, will be hunted because he’s left the Muslim faith.

It seems the answer, in part, can be found in the ethos of Arab culture. It accentuates honour. Period. In Yemen, you can get what you need “en sha allah.” That’s a catchy, face-saving phrase, translated “God willing.” I’ve discovered it means definitely yes, definitely no, or anything in between.

Anthropologists confirm that self-respect, in fact, is the largest need of Arabs as a peoplegroup. Which is why Arab dictators, often families with concentrated power, tend to run their countries like the mob: without accountability, but with plenty of rivalries and revolutions.

Consider this string of political slayings: King Feisal II of Iraq, murdered with his family and prime minister in 1958, corpses defiled in the streets; King Abdullah of Jordan, killed in 1951; Saudi Arabian King Feisal, shot dead in 1975 by a young relation, Qassem in Iraq, shot by two brothers, one later killed; Ibrahim Hamdi of former North Yemen, murdered with his brother in 1977, their assassin later blown up by an envoy’s rigged briefcase; Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, shot dead publicly; generals Oufkir and Mehdi Ben Barka, political challengers in Morocco who met strange deaths; and innumerable Arab officers hurried from specially convened tribunals to the firing squad.

Of course, our culture has its own problems. I heard of the attacks on America while in a Hamilton mall last Sept. 11. It was on a row of monster TV screens that I watched the Twin Towers crumble. Could another setting be more indicative of a self-absorbed society?

We easily feel threatened with the “terror” of Islam. But do we see that Arab-Muslims are also very afraid of us? They resent the economic and military dominance of the West, particularly the New Rome of America. They’re bitter over its foreign policy, especially perceived blind-support of Israel. They fear more infiltration of our pop culture. Globalization and the spread of the English language are harmless to us, but they too are insidious threats to Islamic values.

Add frustration fueled by poverty, on top of the corruption and repression, and one gets the picture that, while most Arab-Muslims may never think of flying a jet into a skyscraper, many may feel satisfaction or at least a cool ambivalence to such acts.

Which brings us to the boy, Michael, in The Road to Perdition. In a poignant scene, he realizes the terrible truth, that there is blood on his father’s hands. Caught up in his Lone Ranger picture-paperback, tears flow down his innocent face. He faces the inevitable. Is my father a hero or a villain? Is he a good man or a bad man? The tears continue. It’s too big a question.

The good news is that Michael finds peace by giving honour where it should be given. And eventually, as the story goes, he’s given new choices and a new family. In a way, his journey is not unlike the one of my Arab friend.

“We’re all God’s kids. We’re all His sons and daughters. And He has a plan for each of us,” he told my wife and me in that coffee bar, while, incredibly, sharing his desire to someday return and help redeem his homeland.

In the end, those are the thoughts we need to shatter our stereotypes. Satisfactory acknowledgement or not, they’re what will lead us to recovery.

Simply pushing the replay button on the terrible crimes of yesterday, I’m afraid, leads to another road.

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September 1, 2002 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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