The Colgate Scene
Colgate after Sept. 11
Chaos or community?
by Omid Safi
assistant professor of philosophy and religion
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr published a monumental essay titled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community? In many ways I find the Colgate community in the post-Sept. 11 age standing at the same threshold. It has been an exhausting, intense, painful, heart-wrenching and yet somehow inspiring semester. So many factors from beyond the campus (attacks of Sept. 11, the war against Afghanistan) and some from inside (racial tensions on campus) have shaken this community to its core. I feel that we also have had a choice to make during these difficult times, whether to give in to chaos, or to create community. What follows are the observations of one member of the Colgate community who is an American citizen and a Muslim, a citizen of Hamilton and a husband, a professor of religious studies and a father.
I have usually started my reflections on the events of Sept. 11 and its aftermath by recalling that when you stir something, two things can rise to the surface: the scum, and the cream. The events of Sept. 11 have stirred the soul of this great nation and the Colgate community, and as a result both the scum and the cream have risen to the top.
The "cream" of responses around the nation is obvious and well-documented: the immediate acts of ultimate sacrifice by the firefighters and policemen at the World Trade Center and the selfless acts of generosity from so many. There have also been less enlightened moments of deep-seated prejudice rising to the surface scum-like, in the form of thousands of hate crimes against American citizens of Arab descent or Islamic faith, or those who have simply "looked like" the above.
I was not exactly sure what to count on here in the Colgate/Hamilton community after the tragedy. It is not and has not been easy being Muslim at Colgate/Hamilton. (Yes, I do have visions of Kermit the Frog's "It's not easy being green" dancing through my head as I write these words.) For much of my time here at Colgate, I have been the only Muslim member of the faculty, my family the only Muslim family in Hamilton, and my son Jacob the only Muslim child at Hamilton Central School. Out of a population of around 2,700, there are usually about eight Muslim students on Colgate's campus. It is hard to sustain a sense of a spiritual community when the numbers are so small. In my capacity as the advisor to the all-too-few Muslim students on campus, we had been in dialogue about what the campus reaction would be, and what to do in case any of the students on campus were targets of hate crimes. Perhaps the most powerful moment for the Muslim students on campus was when Chaplain Nan De Vries organized a session where Interim President Jane Pinchin, Rabbi Tayvah and a number of administrators attended the Muslim prayers on the first Friday after Sept. 11. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim students, their silent support spoke more eloquently than any words could have. The message was clear: we will emerge through this chaos as one community. No one shall be left behind.
One of the realizations that I have had post-Sept. 11 has been about the extent to which the Colgate community has become an intimate community for me. This is particularly the case for my relationship with many of the students here. In my first couple of years here, I focused a great deal on what I would have wished (still do) could be different about Colgate/Hamilton: more restaurants, fewer fraternity parties, more social activism, a more diverse student and faculty body. Somewhere in the midst of the griping and the complaining, I have come to form close relationships with many here. The support that colleagues and students have shown my family and the Muslim students has been nothing short of spectacular. Our kind neighbors left their front porch light on for quite a few days, so that we would be more comfortable when the frightening darkness of nighttime would come. One Hamilton neighbor brought us a beautiful basket of flowers. Our rough-and-tumble neighbor Charlie told my wife Holly that if anyone gave her a hard time, she should go get him, and he would "kick their behind." One of the most meaningful aspects of our life post-Sept. 11 has been getting to know many of our friends in the local churches and Jewish communities better. The friendships with kindred souls like Jeff McArn, Nan De Vries, Michael Tayvah and Bruce Macduffie have deepened. It is encouraging to know that the small size of Colgate and Hamilton allows such face-to-face, human-to-human and heart-to-heart encounters.
The response of Colgate and Hamilton has been part of the "cream" that has risen to the top after Sept. 11. I am so proud of the way that we have dealt with this unimaginable tragedy on this campus. The response started from the day of the attacks, when many students gathered in the student center to watch that unbelievable vision of hell on Earth unfold before our eyes. We sat mostly in silence, except for every now and then when we put our arms around each other. The next day, we met early in the morning with the first-year students, then with the students in each of our departments. Early in the afternoon a number of professors addressed the entire campus body. Standing in the shadows of the Chapel, I remember looking across the gathering of the Colgate community and seeing not a faceless crowd, but here a Tushar and there a Nicole, here a Matt and there a Khatera, here a Courtney and there a Nuria. I recall the familiar faces of students and colleagues who were as full of pain and suffering and confusion as I was. I remember the humanity, anger and compassion, and, yes, even pain and fear, in each other's eyes. I was reminded of the beautiful poem "The Rose Garden" by the 13th century Persian poet, Sa'di: "The Children of Adam are members of one body, / made from the same source.
"If one feels pain, / the others can not be indifferent to it.
"If you are unmoved by the suffering of others, / you are not worthy of the name human being."
As a community we felt and were moved by the suffering of others, including our own selves. We are whole human beings, made up of body and mind, soul and spirit, emotion and rational mind. In the course of that day and the weeks that have followed, we have engaged each other at a range of intellectual, emotional, aesthetic and spiritual levels. The shock of Sept. 11 was so great, and felt at so many levels of what makes us human that many of us have appreciated a little bit of healing at each of those levels. Our Sufi friends from the Islamic tradition teach us that "When the heart breaks, it gives birth to the soul." There have been many hearts broken and many souls born on this campus in the past few months. The saintly poet Rumi cries out: "O you who have lost heart in the path of love / flee to me without delay: / I am a fortress invincible."
I have lost heart often in these past months, and have taken shelter in the fortress of the souls of community members here. Together, we continue to come to terms with this crazy, painful world in which we are now the victim, now the aggressor.
So, where do we go from here? What is our mission at Colgate after Sept. 11?
I will not presume to speak on behalf of anyone other than myself. Some have suggested that part of our mission should be instilling tolerance in our students. I beg to differ. I am not interested per se in teaching "tolerance": the root of the term tolerance comes from medieval toxicology and pharmacology, focusing on how much poison a body could "tolerate" before it would succumb to death. I refuse to participate in a system that conceives of its own civilization as the privileged host into which knowledge about the "other" is incorporated as a foreign object or parasite. Our mission should somehow be grander than finding out how much knowledge of all the disenfranchised and margin-alized groups (African-Americans and Jews, Muslims and colonized people) we can tolerate before it kills us! Rather, I see our mission as nothing short of the grand task of full engagement with the complexities of humanity, defined not based on the norms of any one civilization, but globally. Part of this mission consists of undertaking a more critical examination of our position in the world, particularly given our place of privilege and prominence. If we are to have any hope of getting anywhere resembling peace after here, that examination needs to include both the greatest accomplishments of all civilizations, and also a painful scrutiny of ways in which our place of privilege has come at a great cost to others.
Dr. King ended Where Do We Go From Here by stating: "We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation." We, too, still have a choice, here and globally. May we have the courage to heal this fractured world, starting at Colgate.
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