STYLE

September 11: Ten Years On, We Are Still Blaming The Wrong People

10/09/2011 18:32 | Updated 22 May 2015

Like everyone else, I remember vividly the moment the first plane hit. I was in the newsroom at the Evening Standard in Kensington, west London. People rose from their seats, watching the screens in shock. We hit the phones and I got through to the White House: a failure of air traffic control, they thought.

And then the second plane hit and everything changed. This was something much, much bigger. As the horror unfolded and deadlines loomed we turned to the grim reckoning: how many floors, how many offices = how many likely dead? In our haste we wildly overestimated. We needn't have: the real figure was shocking enough.

In the weeks that followed there seemed little room for other news. As one of the paper's few black reporters I was dispatched daily to find out how London's "Muslim communities" were faring as anti-Islam sentiments grew. Not well was the answer: women in headscarves were being spat at, mosques graffitied, children shouted at on their way to school. My boyfriend at the time was Muslim: the idea of brown-skinned men being rounded up by the authorities, as was beginning to happen in the US, seemed terrifyingly real.

Ten years on my life has changed in all kinds of ways. It is a shock to remember all those people whose own lives ended in the towers or in the air that day. All those people who won't get the chance to know their children, or be with those they love, or fulfil what remained of their potential.

A documentary earlier this week sought to explore the truth behind one of the most controversial developments in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks: the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. The film told the story of Sharif El-Gamal, the New York property developer behind plans to build a cultural centre and prayer space in Park Place, two blocks from Ground Zero.

El-Gamal is the son of a Polish Catholic mother and an Egyptian Muslim father. He worshipped at a tiny mosque in the basement of a bar four blocks from Ground Zero – the congregation had been evicted from their home of forty years a few doors away when the building was sold. El-Gamal says he made a promise to build them a proper mosque. He spent four years searching for a building. The one he found, a former coat factory, was two blocks from Ground Zero. And that's when the trouble began.

El-Gamal's very personal mission was seized upon by Pamela Geller, a blogger who now heads a group called Stop the Islamization of America. She labelled the project a "victory mosque" to the success of the terrorists and said those behind it were on a "mission from Allah". Some of those who had lost relatives in the towers were whipped into grief-stricken outrage. The media spoke of a "mega mosque" desecrating 9/11 victims' final resting place. The story went global.

Today the project is at a stalemate. El-Gamal remains determined to build his prayer centre in the area where Muslims have been worshipping for a generation. But he is clearly devastated by his international notoriety. "What hurt has my community caused?," he asks, bewildered. "We have done nothing."

This sad episode feels like a symbol of all we have lost since 11 September 2001. Ten years on, the togetherness that those of us around the world witnessed in New York in the immediate aftermath of the attacks looks to have been squandered. American politics has seen a lurch to the right, based not on ideals but on paranoia, misinformation and prejudice. Too many have sought to blame the horrific criminal acts of that day on Muslims in general. Over here, and around the world, the freedoms of ordinary people have been restricted in ways we couldn't have imagined before that day. As in our unending and counterproductive "War on Terror", the wrong people are paying the price.

Charles Wolf, who lost his wife Katherine in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, is not one of those who opposes the mosque. "I do not understand how you can choose to try to blame an entire religion and restrict their freedom," he says. "Because as soon as you say they can't be two blocks, where can they be? Three blocks? Five blocks? Half a mile? A mile? Once you cross that line of drawing a boundary, you can't go there. You can't go there."

More:

Unfiled
Suggest a correction