The Boy in Fifth Period

How a classmate’s comment on September 11, 2001 set off my career. 

In September 2001, I was a sophomore in high school. It wasn’t until almost noon that I learned what had happened. A classmate ran in, shouting to turn on the radio because someone had bombed the Pentagon. When our teacher switched on the news, we learned that it wasn’t a bomb. It was a plane. And two more planes had hit the World Trade Center.

In those first few hours, we didn’t know who was responsible: it might have been an act of domestic terrorism like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. But in fifth period, a classmate half-shouted, “We are going to kill those God damn Muslims.”

I remember wondering why he had said that, why a white kid in suburban North Carolina would immediately blame a whole religion when we didn’t yet know who was responsible. I wanted to tell him he was wrong, but I was silent. It turns out he was only too right: We were indeed going to kill a lot of Muslims.

My classmate’s angry outburst stayed with me when I went to college. I decided to study media, conflict resolution, and Arabic. The tide of the first few years of the new Millennium pulled strongly toward the Middle East, and I wanted to learn more about the region that dominated headlines. When family friends asked about my classes and I said I was learning Arabic, the response was always the same, “You’ll definitely get a job.” I wanted to explain that I hadn’t chosen Arabic because of the employment options: as a country, we did not understand the region we were determined to transform, and maybe learning Arabic would allow me to help change that. But they were right — there were abundant opportunities.

The year I graduated from college, Obama was elected, bringing hope that the US approach to the Middle East might start to reflect engagement rather than punishment. The resources kept flowing, and I benefited from them: the US government was still eager to send Americans to study Arabic, so I received a Boren Fellowship for Egypt in 2012 and a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grant for Jordan in 2015. I benefited from America’s involvement in the Middle East by being admitted in 2011 to a political science PhD program to study the region, based in part on the department’s expectation that other universities would hire faculty to teach about the region, because students (and their parents) would still be interested in those classes. Even seven years later when I completed my doctorate, the department was mostly right about that.

My classmate’s outburst still in my head, I began studying Islam, though I focused less on the religion itself than the way it was strategically manipulated after September 11. I examined how US security partners in the region benefitted from the global counterterror agenda by portraying their own rule as promoting so-called “moderate Islam.” In practice, this generally meant reinforcing obedience to authority and tarring any interpretation of Islam that fell outside the government-approved line as constituting “extremism.” In general, the US welcomed these efforts and did not ask many questions about what was taught in schools and mosques. We were insufficiently attuned to how associating religious tolerance with the US was delegitimizing the concept.

When conducting interviews in Jordan and Oman and Morocco, the most frequent opening statement I heard from interviewees was some version of, “Islam does not promote terrorism.” In 2019, while working on my postdoc in Saudi Arabia, the discourse coming out of the US were still so Islamophobic that my interlocutors felt they had to make sure I did not think that Islam caused violence. And because public knowledge about Islam in the US has remained stuck in the same misperceptions for the past 20 years, they were not incorrect in their assumptions.

I am still benefiting from US involvement in the Middle East in my current job at a think tank, where I am paid to study and think and write about the region every day. Yet despite the generation of Americans that have studied Arabic and terrorism and Islam and the history of the Middle East, our engagement has consistently made the region more unstable. Our militarized approach to the region has created more “terrorists,” or rather, more people harmed by our violence, some of whom are determined to seek revenge. That doesn’t mean that we need to be more alarmed about the threat of terrorism, but instead that we must completely rethink our approach. Where we have succeeded is in swelling our military budgets, enriching military contractors, and arms manufacturers as well as those who continue to insist that the US must embrace further aggression.

For me and for others around my age who learned Arabic, lived in the region, and are now paid to “know things” about the Middle East, our opportunities were all predicated on the violence our country was wreaking on other people.

For me and for others around my age who learned Arabic, lived in the region, and are now paid to “know things” about the Middle East, our opportunities were all predicated on the violence our country was wreaking on other people. The attention the Middle East has garnered for the past twenty years did not result from US development projects or economic partnerships; it reflected the US military’s myopic focus on terrorism. Terrorism was seen as originating from the region’s dominant religion, rather than resulting from our country’s support for abusive governments, massive weapons sales, and now the blowback from our twenty years of vengeance. No amount of studying the region can overcome the reality that US militarism will continue to make people in the Middle East as well as Americans less safe.

For the past two decades of study, we have been looking in the wrong direction. Instead, we should have focused on ourselves, on how our policies had created and exacerbated the problems we now seek to solve. Introspection and adoption of a new approach would have led us to a very different outcome than what we face now, which feels eerily similar to 2001.

Hopefully it is not too late. The US has trained a whole cadre of specialists in the region who could help to rethink American foreign policy towards the Middle East, a policy predicated on diplomacy rather than destruction, and on compromise rather than coercion. We could teach American school children about all religions, including Islam, to combat misinformation and Islamophobia. We could demand that Muslim voices be elevated to systematically challenge Islamophobic tropes in media. We could end our policy of propping up dictatorial governments and stop flooding the region with the tools of war.

Yet as we approach the 20th anniversary of September 11, I fear that if the US were to be attacked again, we would respond just as we did then. I can only hope that this time, I will not be silent.

Annelle Sheline, PhD is a Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.” 

“The Long Tunnel” is a series of articles reflecting on the impact of September 11 and how it has shaped the world we live in today. You can read more in the series here