An Inappropriately Political Vigil

I went to the Harvard 9/11 Vigil on the tenth anniversary of the attacks expecting a respectful remembrance of the thousands lost on that terrible day. Unfortunately, I found in its place a political agenda using a national tragedy to promote itself.

Almost from the very beginning of the candlelight vigil I could tell it was not going to be what I expected. Pardon my pointing out the obvious, but I thought the anniversary of the murder of thousands of innocents was a time to remember those victims. The organizers of the vigil apparently felt differently, devoting (in my rough estimation) more time to chastising America for Islamophobia and its other 9/11-related sins than to paying respect to the victims. Perhaps I was alone, but I felt increasingly offended as the ceremony went on and the politicization only continued.

Was there a spate of anti-Muslim and anti-Middle Eastern hate crimes following 9/11? Yes, but it was not substantial enough to suggest that anything happened other than that a few crazies found an excuse to act on their bigotry. Also, as one of the speakers admitted, in many cases in which a few prejudiced Americans directed violence towards our Muslim fellow Americans, other members of their communities rose up to reject the violence and the bigotry.

Even just one incidence of anti-Muslim bigotry would have been one too many, but the reality is that America remains an extremely welcoming place for Muslims, even after 9/11. Anti-Muslim prejudice exists, but it has not by any stretch of the imagination infected the nation. America still unrestrictedly allows minarets (unlike Switzerland) and burqas (unlike France).  In 2009, according to data compiled by 14,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, anti-Semitic hate crimes outnumbered anti-Muslim hate crimes eight to one. Time Magazine reported last year that “[p]olls have shown that most Muslims feel safer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else in the Western world.”

When speakers were not harping on about the exaggerated anti-Muslim backlash they fired off other complaints about America that were entirely too political for a vigil. The absence of any mention of the soldiers who have died since 2001 was striking. One vaguely denounced Americans for wanting to be understood after 9/11 when they should have been “trying to understand” the people who attacked us. I immediately wished someone could retort that evil cannot be understood, only dealt with. Then I remembered nobody should feel the need to retort at a ceremony to remember victims of a terrorist attack.

To drive home the point that this vigil was primarily about promoting the narrative of rampant Islamophobia after 9/11, the sole religious reading of the night was from the Koran. I would have had no problems with a reading from the Koran in conjunction with readings from other holy texts, but it seemed strange that the Koran reading stood alone. Muslims certainly died on 9/11, but they were not the majority. That, of course, does not diminish the tragedy of their deaths, but why was a Bible reading not included to honor the many more Christian victims, or a Torah reading for the Jews? The answer is that the Koran reading was meant as a political statement. The organizers seemed to hijack a somber anniversary to advance their own personal agendas by sending a message to what they consider a shamefully Islamophobic America that Harvard was reaffirming that Muslims are still a valued part of our nation.

Even if I might take issue with the assumption that America is permeated with Islamophobia, the message is spot on. Muslims are still just as American as any other group and deserve the utmost respect and inclusion.

However, a 9/11 candlelight vigil was not the place for that message. I’m sure the organizers feel they’ve done something very admirable, but it was highly inappropriate to make the vigil more about the unacceptable but limited post-9/11 anti-Muslim prejudice than about the nearly 3000 Americans who died at the hands of evil men ten years ago. If the organizers felt such a strong need to expand the theme beyond remembrance of those lost, they would have done better to speak of America’s resilience in the face of terrorists bent on the destruction of our way of life; of the way the vast majority of Americans, of all nationalities and religions, united in compassion and resolve in response to 9/11. They might, instead of manipulating the occasion to negatively focus on the tiny fraction of bigoted Americans, focused on the freedom and respect for equal rights that are the truly pervasive characteristics in America, and part of the reason we were targeted. That would have been a vigil appropriate for the occasion.

Wyatt N. Troia ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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