9/11 panel at ASU

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Last Thursday, I attended a panel at ASU’s Tempe campus that was put on by the Center for the Study of Religion & Conflict (CSRC). It was called ‘The Difference A Decade Makes: Religion, Politics & Public Life.’

The expertise of the panelists ranged from History to Islamic Studies to National Security, but the focus for all was how the events of 9/11 affected the American psyche, and how that in turn affected foreign policy and intercultural relations here at home.

I’m glad that forums like this are available on campus; it’s one of the major benefits that a college education affords, in my opinion. [On record: I am a former undergraduate fellow for CSRC, and will receive an academic certificate from the center when I graduate this December.] After the break, a few things the panelists had to say, as well as an observation or two from myself. Also, this will be my last 9/11 post, because I prefer not to dwell on tragedy.

The panel was put on by the Center for Study of Religion and Conflict, and the target audience was academic, so obviously talking points focused on “big picture” issues, violence, and methods for change moving forward.

Dr. Carolyn Warner, head of ASU’s Political Science department, said that there is a difference between how politicians view the world, how the general public views the world, and how “empirical evidence” describes the world to be. According to her, the tragic events of 9/11 put those disagreeing worldviews on display:

“It’s convenient for policy-makers to think of the world in a certain frame,”

…one that leads to self-interested wars that don’t draw guidance from the will of the public or facts on the ground (or so goes her argument).

Dr. Abdullahi Gallab, a religious studies and Islamic studies professor, began discussing 9/11 with a question:

“Is religion the problem?”

He concluded that it was people’s conduct within a religion, as well as how religious leaders portrayed other beliefs to their own followers, that is instead to blame for any negative American-Islamic sentiments. He called leaders on all sides who offer only a sound-byte, self-serving version of other faiths practicianers of “fast religion,” a pun on easy-yet-greasy “fast food.”

To tie this point into our seminar today, such people are leaders in the sense that they inspire people to follow them toward some change in society. However, they are not leaders in the sense of empathy, kindness, or “service in leadership” as we’ve just discussed.

Prof. Yasmin Saikia, Peace Studies chair at CSRC, suggested that in times of crisis, nations can learn from the example of other nations. For example, she offered the tense-yet-workable relations between Hindus and Muslims in her native India as a lesson for reconciliation in American society.

Finally, Prof. Sheldon Simon of political science and security studies department mostly talked about specifics in America’s war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. He tied our tactics historically to failed efforts in the Vietnam War, and also to Donald Rumsfeld’s reinterpretation of the Powell Doctrine.

For sure, this panel was a more academic and less sentimental take on 9/11 than the posts offered here. I found it helpful on some levels, and not helpful on others. It’s true that at some point we need to move on and look at these traumatic events from an objective point of view, but honestly, I don’t know if Academia is the one to do it. They have their talking points too, just like politicians or journalists. Politicians are obsessed with “who dunnit” and how to get back at them; journalists are obsessed with images of 9/11, and how to keep re-presenting them to their audience; and academics seem obsessed with abstractions like “protectionism” and “nationalist narratives” that, while sometimes useful and true, are hard to put into practice.

Maybe the problem is that these groups of people aren’t talking together to figure out what 9/11 means to the world, or how the world should move forward. At least journalists have started to ask the people directly how they feel, via social media. That’s a good start. Given a tragedy this big, maybe individuals need to step up and be their own leaders before institutions can move on.


[For another, more newsy take on the event, check out this article about it in today’s State Press.