9/11 and Turning from Alienation to Understanding

By: Judd Birdsall

September 8, 2021

Religion, Peace, and World Affairs: Reflections on the Legacy of September 11

I vividly remember the phone call that woke me up around 9:15 on September 11, 2001. I had just started my freshman year of college. I groggily answered my dorm room phone and heard my dad say, “Judd, I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t on those flights.” Having slept through the first 30 minutes of an unfolding national tragedy, I perplexedly asked, “What flights?”

At the time my parents lived in Massachusetts and my dad served as the leader of an organization headquartered in Southern California. He routinely flew from Boston to Los Angeles. My dad explained to me that two hijacked planes had taken off from Boston’s Logan Airport and crashed into the World Trade Center.

As my drowsy brain processed the shocking news, I blurted out, “It must have been the Taliban.” At the time I was vaguely aware of the situation in Afghanistan and knew the regime there harbored terrorists. But like most Americans, I knew precious little about Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or indeed about Islam and its diverse political manifestations. 

For the remainder of September 11 and for weeks afterward, I was glued to the news. Seeing footage of Osama bin Laden and of his fellow militants wearing salwar kameez and turbans, sporting long beards, and carrying Kalashnikovs as they traipsed across the otherworldly landscape of Afghanistan, I was struck by the sheer otherness of their lifestyle and worldview. It felt to me as if 9/11 had been an attack by aliens from another planet.

Seeing footage of Osama bin Laden and of his fellow militants wearing salwar kameez and turbans, sporting long beards, and carrying Kalashnikovs as they traipsed across the otherworldly landscape of Afghanistan, I was struck by the sheer otherness of their lifestyle and worldview.

Many Afghans viewed the ensuing 20-year U.S. war effort in similar terms. In a sobering piece in the Washington Post, former combat interpreter Baktash Ahadi lamented the many times he saw U.S. personnel undermine their mission by manifesting ignorance of Afghan culture and violating local norms. “From the point of view of many Afghans,” Ahadi observes, “Americans might as well have been extraterrestrials.”

For my entire professional career, the war in Afghanistan has been a case study in what can go wrong when we fail to develop a nuanced understanding of the complex ways religious beliefs, rituals, values, and affiliations shape the imaginations and identities of individuals and entire societies. A desire to foster that sort of understanding animated my work at the U.S. State Department, my Ph.D. research, and my current work with the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion & Diplomacy—a project now based at the Berkley Center.

When some of my colleagues and I founded the State Department’s Religion & Global Affairs Forum in spring 2009, our very first event was a talk on engaging conservative religious actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many fellow diplomats shared our interest in cultivating greater self-reflective religious literacy and engagement. But others did not. 

The war in Afghanistan has been a case study in what can go wrong when we fail to develop a nuanced understanding of the complex ways religious beliefs, rituals, values, and affiliations shape the imaginations and identities of individuals and entire societies.

I recall a meeting at State with a brave Afghan national who was supporting the U.S. mission and risking his life by engaging rural, deeply religious communities in Afghanistan. One of the State Department lawyers listening to his presentation pulled out a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution and scoldingly waved it in the Afghan’s face, telling him that his use of local mosques as meeting venues for his educational outreach was unconstitutional. (Note: It wasn’t. The program was entirely in line with the Obama administration’s legal guidance on U.S. government-funded efforts to engage religious communities abroad.) 

That sort of hectoring, unreflective, culturally incongruent attitude has real-life consequences. It exacerbates rather than mitigates mutual alienation. As Ahadi writes, we cannot win proverbial hearts and minds “without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds. We thus wound up acting in ways that would ultimately alienate everyday Afghans.”

In an increasingly interconnected world, the need for the Berkley Center’s work of transforming mutual alienation into mutual understanding has never been greater.

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