September 11, 2001 is a date Americans will never forget, changing us forever. But what Americans often don’t remember is how that date also changed the rest of the world, especially the Middle East.
Seventeen years ago, I was 10-years-old, growing up in Baghdad under the regime of Saddam Hussein. I remember watching the buildings collapse, having no idea that the smoke and debris would transform my life, too.
My younger self could never have imagined that one day I would become a refugee and end up in the same country where those buildings came crashing down — essentially because that horrific attack happened.
9/11 redefined America, but it utterly destroyed the lives of many.
Along that tortuous journey I lost my own brother to the same terrorists that attacked the States, survived being kidnapped, watched as my world and everything I knew disintegrated around me.
But out of all that horror came hope. I fled Iraq, and after many countries and adventures wound up living only a few hundred yards from the 9/11 Memorial. I’ve gone through the looking glass, and have come out the other side.
My odyssey has inspired me to start a nonprofit organization with the mission of preventing extremism before it takes root. I feel a personal responsibility to stop all this suffering and destruction in its tracks.
So far I have been blessed with success. Campus programs inspire thousands across the US; our translation program is making enlightenment texts available to millions who otherwise would never have access.
As our counter-terrorism programs expand to grassroots advocacy, research workshops, conferences and outreach, I have to ask myself: As a nation are we doing any better in the “War Against Terror” since 9/11?
My answer is, sadly, no. Al Qaeda looks moderate today compared to other extremists organizations, all of whom continue to wreak havoc throughout the world, delivering in their wake seemingly endless suffering.
Something is failing here, and I can’t help but conclude that we are talking more than actually doing. Every night we see talking heads and “experts” on TV, but are we better at understanding this threat and how to fight it?
What frightens me the most is the pattern I see here in the States, where civil discourse is becoming impossible, and where polarization and partisanship are making it impossible to talk to one another and solve problems.
Ironically, Americans are plummeting into our own extremism, simply defined as “holding extreme political or religious views, fanaticism.” Trust me, I know where this leads. We can’t let ourselves become those we fight.
Not only is constructive debate suffering, but our ability to work together for common goals, such as the fight against terror. We are losing focus, distracted by our own nonsense, and forgetting what makes us truly American.
Seventeen years later, the same forces that created 9/11 are busy plotting to do it again. I have dedicated my life to help stop them, because I have personally endured the results of extremist ideology and violence.
So as we contemplate this solemn day, remembering those who suffered here in the States — and the tens of millions impacted throughout the world — let’s also remember our duty to protect and defend.
Part of that duty is to uphold what makes us great: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Joy for me, an Iraqi boy with the life goal of keeping buildings from falling down, is to help make that American ideal ring true.
Let’s never forget, but also take action. Join me as we prevent extremism before it has a chance to even take root. Only together can we help make the world a safer and better place. Isn’t that worth fighting for?