America’s colleges and universities, like most of the rest of the country, will soon be commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that preternaturally sunny day in early September a decade ago when 19 al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists commandeered four U.S. commercial air-liners and crashed them deliberately, killing nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington, and a field in southwestern Pennsylvania that was believed to lie along an intended flight path for hijackers who targeted the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
Unlike the commemorations in most of the rest of America, however, the academic commemorations for the most part won’t focus on, say, the 403 New York firefighters, paramedics, and police officers who died in rescue efforts at the World Trade Center towers hit by hijacked planes. Nor upon the numerous acts of courage and selflessness that marked that day, not least those of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, whose rallying cry “Let’s roll!” led by 32-year-old passenger Todd Beamer accompanied an effort to fight back against the terrorists. Nor upon the approximately 3,000 children who lost parents in the massacre, including dozens of babies born after their fathers perished. Least of all will there be much emphasis on what America did or should have done by way of reprisal for a brazen act of war that killed more people in the collapse of the World Trade towers alone (2,753) than perished in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (2,402).
Instead, the campus commemorations, many of which will be spaced out for days and even weeks this fall, will focus on, well, understanding it all, in the ponderous, ambiguity-laden, complexity-generating way that seems to be the hallmark of college professors faced with grim events about which they would rather not think in terms of morality: “Historical and political representations,” whatever those are (Harvard), “How do we determine truth and reality?” (more Harvard), and “Imaging Atrocity: The Function of Pictures in Literary Narratives about 9/11” (St. John’s University in New York).
And the topic that seems to demand the most understanding, at least in terms of the obsessive amounts of time and resources that college professors and administrators will be devoting to it, is Islam. There will be so many campus lectures, panel discussions, teach-ins, and photo exhibits devoted to the Muslim faith, Muslim communities in America, and the real or imagined violent acts against Muslims in the wake of 9/11 (there has actually been only one revenge-slaying since that date—of a man who turned out not to be a Muslim—and the perpetrator was convicted and executed) that if you had just rocketed in from Venus, you might think that Muslims had been the chief victims, not the sole perpetrators, of the massacre that day—as well as an estimated 67 alleged terrorism incidents or attempts in the United States during the decade that followed.
For example, the University of Denver started its 9/11 commemoration activities early, in January, with lectures and noncredit courses in a series titled “9/11: Ten Years After.” The offerings in the series were titled as follows: “Retrospective Reflections on the Crisis of Religion and Politics in the Muslim World,” “Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Media,” “Lessons of Peace and Tolerance,” “The Future of Islam: Beyond Fear and Fundamentalism,” “Islam and Muslims in the News: U.S. Media Coverage Ten Years After 9/11,” and “Leadership for Peace and Tolerance: Gandhi, King, Mandela, and the Dalai Lama.” Fine, but where were the firefighters? Where was Flight 93? Where was the sense that 9/11 was an atrocity of such monstrous proportions that retribution—not to mention military action that could deter similar attacks in the future—was fully in order? Yet the University of Denver’s apparent blinders-on focus on Muslims and “tolerance” to the exclusion of issues of national security and militant Islamic jihadism proved to be a template for the way many campuses are handling their 9/11 commemorations this fall.
At Harvard, a good portion of the anniversary programming is emanating from Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which will host a “Campus-Wide Panel Discussion” on September 8. The three panelists will consist of: Jocelyne Cesari, director of Harvard’s Islam in the West program, one of whose aims is to “promote greater understanding of Islam and Muslims in the West”; Duncan Kennedy, godfather of the Critical Legal Studies movement, which holds that the American legal system is a carefully constructed edifice designed to keep wealthy white males in power and minorities in subordinate positions; and Charlie Clements, a human-rights activist on the Harvard faculty who worked as a physician during the 1980s in territories controlled by anti-U.S. guerrillas in El Salvador. Other offerings at the center include an “art, identity, and September 11” set of lessons for high school teachers created by “artists who identify as Muslims,” a PowerPoint presentation (“how do we determine truth and reality?”) that aims to help students see “the impact various contexts have on depicting the events of 9/11,” and a webinar titled “State of Muslims in America” designed to “explore the issues of Islamophobia with a focus on the progress and challenges that have developed in the ten years since Sept. 11th, 2001.”
New York University will also focus on “Islam in America” in its commemoration, with a September 13 panel discussion centering around Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom. St. John’s University will host a lecture by Amir Hussain, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Hussain also specializes in Islamic communities in North America. His 2006 book, Oil and Water: Two Faiths: One God, asserts that Muslims who commit acts of terrorism are “caught up in cycles of violence” and lends a sympathetic ear to the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ complaints about alleged “profiling” of Muslims by U.S. government agencies. The International Programs Office at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, plans to go all-Islamic in its commemoration of the massacre, with a series of lectures over the fall semester titled “A Decade After 9/11: Muhammad in History, Politics, and Memory.” The scheduled lectures themselves bear such titles as “New Views of Muhammad and Early Islam,” “Muhammad the Warrior; Muhammad the Peace-Maker,” “Islam and the Strength of Visual Images,” and “Of Prophetic Ascents and Descents: Muhammad’s Journeys Through European Cultural Space.”
Duke University plans to hold a day-long conference on September 15 on the “global and religious effects of 9/11,” at which news writers for Al Jazeera, the Religion News Service, and CNN will join Duke faculty members to discuss such topics as Islamic studies and the Muslim vote. The title of the conference (which will not be open to the public) is “Muslims in America: The Next 10 Years.” Among several 9/11-related photo exhibitions that will be on display at Duke throughout the fall are “Iraq / Perspectives,” photographer Benjamin Lowy’s war pictures taken through the windows of Humvees, and Todd Drake’s “Esse Quam Videri” [to be rather than to seem], a set of self-portraits of North Carolina Muslims that Drake helped his subjects craft “in response to the stereotyping of Muslims and in recognition that it is human nature to fear what we do not know.” (Muslim self-portrait projects seem to be 9/11 favorites on campuses; NYU is also hosting one.) The subject matter of Drake’s pictures—photogenic Muslims often clad in ethnic dress—almost mirrors that of the photos of New York City Muslims taken by Robert Gerhardt for an exhibition that will accompany the St. John’s University commemoration. Gerhardt titles his photo collection “Muslim/American, American/Muslim: Portrait of a Brooklyn Masjid,” and writes on his website that the pictures are a response to “serious cultural misunderstanding, discrimination, and acts of violence due to their perceived relation to” the 9/11 attackers.
Furthermore, it’s clear that a number of universities assume that when the media drench the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in saturation coverage—as they almost certainly will—one of their chief interests will be Muslims, too. So they are stuffing their lists of faculty members available to talk to reporters with experts on Islam. Marquette University is offering sociology and social justice professor Louise Cainkar, author of Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11, and theology professor Irfan Omar, author of Islam and Other Religions: Pathways to Dialogue. American University in Washington weighs in with two Islamic experts on its faculty, Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani ambassador to Britain, and Randa Serhan, director of American’s Arab Studies Program, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Palestinian community in New York and New Jersey. The University of Houston touts a raft of faculty experts: English professor Hosam Aboul-Ela, a specialist in Islamic literature; sociologist Helen Rose Ebaugh, a specialist in moderate Islam; sociologist Gary Dworkin, a specialist in “racial and ethnic stereotypes”; and theologian Erkan Kurt, a specialist in Islamic metaphysics. So does the University of -California-Davis, proffering law school dean Kevin Johnson, who argues that the war against terrorism has “adversely affected the civil rights of Arab and Muslim noncitizens”; Scott Cutler Shershow, a professor of English whose professional interests have recently wandered over to torture (he is coauthor of “The Guantánamo ‘Black Hole’: The Law of War and the Sovereign Exception”); and, should Shershow be otherwise occupied, Almerindo E. Ojeda, who has also wandered far from his academic specialty, linguistics, to become founding director of the UC-Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas and principal investigator for the Guantánamo Testimonials Project, in which detainees complain about rights violations.
To be sure, few of the campus commemorations of 9/11 will be entirely devoted to what is at best a maudlin obsession with the indignities supposedly visited on misunderstood U.S. Muslims by their non-Muslim neighbors and at worst a propaganda effort aimed at whitewashing terrorists and their sympathizers by demonizing the United States. There will be ceremonies devoted to a proper purpose of such an anniversary: remembering and honoring the dead. Villanova University, for example, posts on its website a stark list of names of the 15 alumni who perished on that dreadful day. At Yale this September 11 there will be a ringing of bells on the campus and throughout the city of New Haven at 1 p.m. The university will actually focus for a few minutes on what happened on 9/11 and not on professorial lessons about “peace,” “human rights,” and “tolerance.”
Otherwise, though, expect the 9/11 commemorations on campuses mostly to wallow in such open-ended questions as: “Did 9/11 Change Anything? Everything?” (the title of a symposium in a three-day conference to be jointly sponsored by Duke, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University); and “10 Years After 9/11: Who Are We Now?” (the title of a faculty-student forum at Villanova on September 7 sponsored by the university’s Center for Peace and Justice Education, whose kumbaya-esque curriculum includes courses on “Eco Feminism,” “Caring for the Earth,” and “Politics of Whiteness”). At St. John’s, faculty and students will be able to ponder “Making Meaning of 9/11: Local Impacts, Global Implications.” Expect also to witness academics treating the 9/11 anniversary as a referendum on Guantánamo, the Iraq war, racial profiling, immigration policy, the war on terrorism, and the presidency of George W. Bush. Garth Jowett, a communications professor at the University of Houston and one of the university’s designated 9/11 experts, views the massacre largely in terms of its value as a propaganda tool for an Orwellian Bush administration. “The term ‘9/11’ became synonymous with ‘patriotism’ for several years, and those who questioned the accepted scenario, or suggested that we needed to understand the motives behind the attack, were dealt with severely,” Jowett wrote on the Houston website. Ah, understanding 9/11.
Intellectual posturing, ideological stake-claiming, and Islamic-outreach pandering are perhaps to be expected when an academic community, politically progressive and bent double with white-privilege guilt, takes on an event as potent as 9/11. More striking is the tone of unresolved grieving that marks so many of the planned campus commemorations. Yes, mourning is appropriate. We must not forget those 2,977 dead. Moments of silence, the ringing of bells, the lowering of flags to half-staff, and religious services will take place on many campuses, and quite appropriately. Yet it is late in the day, a decade down the road for, say, the makeshift “secular shrine,” complete with Princess Diana-style mementos, that students will be encouraged to set up at NYU. Or the 9/11 quilt that will be part of the St. John’s commemoration—even though the motives behind its making are understandable. The memorials of 9/11 are about to become the next Vietnam Wall, and for similar reasons. The massacre of September 11, 2001, a direct attack against American sovereignty and American citizens, has not yet been fully avenged (although the killing of Osama bin Laden was a good start), and we cannot be comforted. That nearly the only response of academia to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 will be to grieve over it hopelessly and to talk about it endlessly in an effort to “understand” it is more revealing than the pretentiousness of the discourse.
Still, the commemorations on some campuses do seem to focus, in small ways and large, on what 9/11 was and what ought to be done about it. An exhibition at NYU of photographs taken by Joel Meyorowitz at Ground Zero within days of the attack promises to be moving and thrilling. The 9/11 commemoration at the Borough of Manhattan Community College will largely center around the rebuilding of Fiterman Hall, a BMCC administration building severely damaged when the 47-story 7 World Trade Center collapsed in the afternoon of that day. At Manhattan College in the Bronx, which lost 20 alumni, part of the focus of the “We Remember” events will also be on the rebuilding of city infrastructure after the devastation. Manhattan College alumnus Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York at the time and remembered for his tireless on-the-scene leadership, will be a featured speaker. Temple University in Philadelphia will honor military veterans. And Pepperdine University will place 2,977 American flags on the lawn of its Malibu, California, campus. A relay of readers will call out the name of every single one of the dead. One of them was Pepperdine alumnus Thomas E. Burnett Jr., who perished on Flight 93. Pepperdine is calling its remembrance ceremony “Honoring the Heroes of 9/11.” Heroes. You won’t hear that word used often on many college campuses on September 11, 2011.
Charlotte Allen, a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website, last wrote for The Weekly Standard on academic studies of media bias.