On this austere 20th year recognition of the tragedies of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the eyes of the world are correctly focused on the ground zero of the tragedy in Manhattan and also the Pentagon, where so many lost their lives because of 19 hijackers motivated by an interpretation of my faith of Islam that justified their violence.
But, in Virginia, we should also set our eyes closer to home where ideologues have sadly used the anniversary of this tragedy to try to hijack the history of the 9/11 attacks and rewrite the details of the day that we teach our young ones. With “woke”, the contemporary word used to describe ideas that are now considered “politically correct,” the Virginia Department of Education has been engaged in woke-washing the tragedy of the attacks. And in a move that shocked local parents, at a school board meeting on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, Fairfax County School Board member Abrar Omeish voted “No” on a school board resolution honoring the victims of 9/11 and the first responders who saved lives. In an offensive alternative resolution, she pushed the woke-washing of 9/11, callously arguing the board had to instead focus on “state-sponsored traumas from discrimination, xenophobia and ostracization” allegedly felt by Muslims.
In the start to this disturbing series of events, the Virginia Department of Education posted a webinar August 27 in which a local educator, Amaarah DeCuir, a professorial lecturer at American University, trained teachers to not call the 9/11 hijackers “terrorists,” but instead call them “extremists” without any discussion of Islamic extremism. She also guided them to avoid any conversation about “American exceptionalism,” instructing them instead to focus on “anti-Muslim racism.”
Parents in Virginia shared the video with an organization I helped start earlier this year, Parents Defending Education, expressing deep concern about the revision of historical facts in the lesson guidelines and the insensitivity of the speaker and the state agency to the trauma and facts of the 9/11 attacks. On September 1, after we rang alarm bells about the inappropriateness of the 9/11 webinar, the Virginia Department of Education removed the webinar from its official YouTube channel. But, this week, the agency still has advertising online sharing DeCuir’s PowerPoint presentation as part of its “EdEquity VA” webinar series. In voting “No” against the resolution honoring the 9/11 victims, school board member Omeish advised Fairfax County Public Schools to use DeCuir’s alarming recommendations.
What’s more, this story tracks back to Richmond. Earlier this year Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that DeCuir is a member of the state’s Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices Advisory Committee. Also, the state education agency’s communications officials posted the video, titled, “Culturally Responsive and Inclusive 9/11 Commemoration,” on the agency’s official YouTube channel, and it featured the Virginia Department of Education “EdEquity VA” logo and name on its first slide, with each slide in the presentation carrying the agency’s official logo. In addition, DeCuir thanked Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni, a Pakistan-American Muslim, aligned with her thinking, for his support. She said she presented him with her recommendations before presenting the remarks to the public.
The Virginia Department of Education didn’t respond to questions, including whether it paid DeCuir to deliver the remarks. DeCuir referred media requests for comments to her online writings. Omeish published a Facebook post, defending her position for a “holistic understanding” of 9/11, saying, “I commend researchers like Dr. Amaarah DeCuir, former FCPS teacher….” Many local parents responded, angry and hurt, one writing: “Shameful!”
In her video, DeCuir provided instructions to teachers teaching about the 9/11 attacks and said, “We’re not going to reproduce a false assumption of Muslim responsibility for 9/11. We’re just going to begin right there and name that there is no responsibility and therefore we’re not going to use this space to try and untangle this.”
That is exactly the opposite of what so many reform-minded Muslims believe. As a cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement, which acknowledges the reality of Islamic extremism and works daily to defeat it, we know that we have to name a problem to defeat it. We accept that responsibility, as all people of conscience should do whenever there is a problem within their communities.
Sadly, she continued, “We’re also not going to reproduce what’s understood as American exceptionalism — this understanding that America is a land at the top of a beautiful mountain and that all other countries, nations, and people are less than America.”
Indeed, America is a “land at the top of a beautiful mountain” and that is why so many Muslims – like my parents -- left their homelands to call America home. As a Muslim woman, I enjoy more freedoms in America than I could in any Muslim nation in the world.
What DeCuir instructed teachers to do was pivot to a victimhood narrative for our young Muslims, and that is the last thing that any youth need. She said, “It’s going to be important as we begin to plan our 9/11 lessons in a way that does not seek to reproduce anti-Muslim racism.”
Of course, we must all defeat racism, but this is a narrative adopted by too many American Muslim groups, including the locally-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has echoed the talking points of DeCuir and Omeish over the past 20 years in a game of denial and deflection.
But what they fail to recognize is something that my son received as an assignment in elementary school years ago, as part of human development: the value of owning up. Having rights and responsibilities also mean learning to own up, and there is a reality of extremism within our Muslim community that we witness from the rise of the Taliban today to the flight of young men from northern Virginia to fight for ISIS and other extremist groups over the years.
This is a very personal battle for me. In October 2001, as U.S. bombs dropped in Afghanistan, I walked into the home of the man who is now a chief propagandist for the Taliban, a man by the name of Sohail Shaheen. At that time, he was the newly-deposed deputy ambassador to Pakistan – and his two wives, for following the interpretation of Islam of the Taliban and Islamists who espouse political Islam, he believed he could marry four wives.
On Jan. 23, 2002, my friend and Wall Street Journal colleague Danny Pearl left a home I had rented in Karachi, Pakistan, for an interview from which he never returned, because of an extremism that we had allowed to metastasize in our world. Every moment that men and women have challenged our battle for Muslim reform, I see Danny’s face before me, like a light. He was goodness and humanity incarnate, and the fact that the men who kidnapped and murdered Danny did so in the name of my religion gave me the clarity and will to challenge them in every manifestation their thinking expressed itself.
For the past 20 years, the Taliban’s Sohail Shaheen and his fellow Taliban leaders have been enjoying a good life in Doha, Qatar, to now rise from the ashes of defeat in 2001 to seize power in Kabul with the cameras of Al-Jazeera live-streaming their disturbing coup.
It is a distressing turn of history, but on the anniversary of 9/11, I am reminded of not only the journey that has been my life, but the courageous journey of so many Muslim reformers – and our friends – as we navigate violent response from character assassination to actually slayings of the body, in our bold and critical battle to challenge – and defeat – the ideology of Islamism, or political Islam.
Just imagine that 20 years ago, we faced a reality in which women were barred from driving in Saudi Arabia, female genital mutilation was happening throughout the world without challenge, it was unimaginable for women to lead prayer of men and women, the understanding of Islamism was remote and the concept of Muslim reform was hardly even articulated.
And today this is what we have: a new reality in which women and girls have enjoyed the wind in their hair in Afghanistan for two decades, women can drive in Saudi Arabia, women have led men and women in prayer from my hometown of Morgantown, W.V., to Barcelona, Spain, and a clear and specific understanding of the Islamist machine that must be challenged from America to Afghanistan.
The best teachable moment from the tragedy of 9/11 is not denial and deflection but rather that we must all do whatever we can to own up and eliminate extremism within our communities. For a safer Virginia. For a safer America. For a safer world.
Asra Q. Nomani is a cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement and the Pearl Project, which is advocating for justice for Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, murdered in Pakistan by Muslim extremists. She is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.