Saturday, September 18, 2010

Heavy Thoughts and Reflections On American-Islamic Antagonisms/Relations

The 9th anniversary of 9/11 passed us a week ago. From waging two wars in Afghanistan in Iran to today, world events have played out before our eyes to where we are today.

I've also passed a milestone. It was 15 years ago this Saturday was the last time I saw dad alive. I was a 15-year-old who just started his sophomore year of high school in Northern BFE, Michigan. Dad was a contract specialist who worked for the US Dept. of Defense in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His job was the planning and execution of economic development projects, such as construction and infrastructure upgrades, etc.

Prior to seeing him last, I had spent the summer of 1995 with him in the Kingdom. He got me a summer hire job working at the Motor Pool. Dad was something of a socialite as he intermingled among several social circles. Of course, working for OPM-SANG (Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabia National Guard), meant you work in a community of 400-500 people. You're bound to rub elbows with everyone at some point.

In the two months that I lived with him, we did everything together. My summer ended with me having a nice wad of cash to take home, since I couldn't spend my 40-hour minimum wage paychecks there. I came back to the states the same way I left, flying it alone across the Atlantic with a stop at London's Heathrow Airport. Living in the Kingdom gave me a greater academic lesson in two months than I could've had in an entire school year.

Like Dad, I was always fascinated with history and world events. His grasp of such a broad range of subjects was astounding; he could've taught history. He seemed to have an appreciation for Islam and Muslim culture. If he were here today, he'd be quite the voice of reason among many a conflicts that brew in the Middle East.

Dad came back a week after I did, and as usual, when Dad was home (a total of about 3-4 weeks in a whole year), the house was wound tightly. Mom had been battling diabetes for about six years, so even though having Dad home was great, it placed additional stress on her as both her and Dad had to take care of family business that accrues in six months in two weeks. My two oldest sisters were home because school hadn't started back up at Lake State or Northwood yet. Dad also has to make his rounds across the state as his mother and sister's family lived in the Metro Detroit area, so he had to leave the house for a few days to make the 3 1/2 hour trip to Clinton Township or Dearborn.

I remember the September day if not the date vividly in my mind of when we left to take Dad to the airport in Alpena (for whatever reason compels me, I should point out this is the same airport Die Hard 2 was filmed). Dad and I talked about among other things, me playing football and my upcoming biology project. That was that, and Dad boarded the plane headed to Detroit.

I played football that fall and we won the North Star League title that year. I stayed in touch with Dad by letter writing. My last letter to him was probably late October/early November. I asked for money to buy my high school class ring.

One Monday in November we saw on the news a bombing had taken place in Riyadh. I never suspected anything, since you can't really recognize a building once it's been half-demolished by a car bomb. We kind of all expected Dad to call us in a few days and give us the inside story. The next Tuesday I was in my third hour English class. I got a call to go to the principal's office, and the secretary told me I had to leave; my grandmother was waiting outside.

I got into the car, and my youngest sister told me that the bombing in Saudi Arabia, well Dad was killed in it. I barely remember what happened next, except trying to keep a straight face. We had to leave school because Mom was in a hospital an hour away in Cheboygan, fighting off more infections from her bouts with diabetes (a recurring theme before and after Dad's death).
We had to be there because there were two representatives from the Army waiting to deliver the bad news, and we couldn't let them do it without us being there.

We got to Cheboygan Hospital two hours later and we were greeted by the hospital staff who all knew before Mom was told. I don't remember anything that was said when we entered her room. I just remember her falling apart before my eyes.

There isn't much I remember about that November 14th day afterward. I think I sat in the cafeteria at one point, my face staring straight at a wall that either had nothing or some kitsch art. There was a staffer who asked me if I was okay; apparently I looked like I was in some kind of catatonic state. I must've nodded or something because they left.

My Dad had been murdered by Islamic fundamentalists opposed to the House of Saud that has ruled the Kingdom since 1931. Three groups, "Tigers of the Gulf," "Islamist Movement for Change," and "Fighting Advocates of God," claimed responsibility, and the Saudi government allegedly caught the perpetrators and executed them in "Chop Chop" Square. The attacks were later attributed to Al Qaeda, a yet-unknown terror network that would become a household name by September 12, 2001.

I remember asking Dad that summer about terrorism and if it could happen here. He didn't sugarcoat anything; he said the possibility of it happening here is quite real. But Americans and Westerners who had fallen victims to Islamic fundamentalists had usually been victimized by Shi'ite Muslims; the Kingdom is a predominantly Sunni state.

He was also well-versed on the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Israelis. Oddly enough, given his conservative worldview, he tended to side more with Arabs. I imagine he supported the establishment of the Israeli state, but when he spoke of Arabs and Islam, he spoke of a proud race of people and proud traditions. They were friends to him.

I today cannot share his admiration. When he first died, I tried to be PC. I put on the politically correct face. You can't blame all Arabs for his killing and the killing of four other Americans, not to mention the dozens of people hurt in the blast, I would think.

It didn't take long for that to unravel. I did evolve. My ever expanding knowledge of the Middle East took my crosshairs off "Arabs" and placed it on the real culprit: religion.

Shortly after Dad's death, I became a born again Christian. I was full-on Evangelical. At one point, I had accepted the view of some revisionists who denied Evolution (Dad raised us as Lutherans; he believed in it and didn't think you would go to hell for doing so). I'd go to a non-denominational church that preached Creationist/Young Earth theory ("Intelligent Design" had yet to enter our lexicon).

When I came to Eastern Michigan years later, I drifted further and further away from religion. A gay roommate opened my eyes to an "enlightened Christianity." I still saw homosexuality as a sin, but a sin on the level of getting a tattoo, being overweight, or smoking. It was not to be a crime. It did not keep you from entering into Heaven. In the Christian gospels, one is to be absolved of their sins by asking God for forgiveness, no matter how many times the sin is recommitted. I told my roommate that being gay doesn't send you to hell and that I concurred with him about the insanity of such backlashes against gay rights - since I was also a libertarian-leaning conservative in my early 20s.

Eventually, I dropped the religiousness altogether, months before September 11. My Creationist apostasy followed, strangely, months later as I just gradually accepted things such as the Earth existing for millions and billions of years. I just didn't think of evolution that much, to be honest.

But September 11 happened on a Tuesday morning. I slept through the attacks as I didn't usually wake up until around 10-11 am. My sister called me and told me to turn on the TV because the World Trade Centers had been "knocked down" (wha?) and both the Pentagon and State Department had been attacked.

3,000 Americans died that day. No one I knew had been hurt or killed. But the pain was there. It was real, as though November 13, 1995 was happening all over again. I was then almost six years removed from that day.

We knew who committed the attacks. I didn't know the name "al Qaeda," but I knew one name, Osama bin Laden. I had known the name for over five years. He had launched several attacks after the November 13 bombings, like in Jeddah in June 1996. They bombed embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. They attacked the USS Cole in the Persian Gulf in 2000.

I've always felt it inappropriate to be so open about this. For instance, when September 11 occurred, I told only one professor of the shared grief. I didn't want to seem like someone who was craving sympathy in the wake of someone else's tragedy.

I also don't feel it's appropriate to say that I know how the victims' families feel. I don't. Although we shared a similar tragedy, no two events are ever exactly the same.

I gave up on religion just in time to see it in its most destructive form. I realize I'm ending this post with kind of a thud. But I have a truckload of thoughts that I need to get off my chest. I've got more to come.

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