I pictured the Pentagon and me standing near it. I formed this mental image before I even began making my way through Islam, and it grew clearer the further I got. I knew that the building’s gaping hole from 9/11 had been patched up and a memorial to the victims had been built. I thought I needed to see these things with my own eyes and that somehow the proximity would help me work through lingering issues. Time and experience had given me a new perspective on certain terms that I once found troubling. In the aftermath of 9/11, I heard people say that the word “Islam” itself means “to submit,” implying that the faith is designed to make servants of us all—perhaps with Muslims as our overlords. Now I understood differently. I saw that the submission in question wasn’t vis-à-vis another person, but something entirely private: a shift in perspective. Islam would have me remember that we are pieces of a vast creation, not the creation itself.

I hoped for a similar realization about the word “jihad.” It translated roughly as “holy war,” but I had heard two interpretations. The first, the “greater jihad,” is an inner struggle. I understood this as the effort each of us must put forth to make peace with the human condition—the “one-two punch” of life: granted and revoked. Exertion of this kind tends to grow one’s capacity to contribute to the greater good. But I’d also heard jihad used to refer to “violence waged on behalf of Islam.” Perhaps this was the “lesser” of the two jihads, but it certainly garnered more media attention; in the news, Muslim terrorists are often called “Jihadists.” I wanted this second version to be a misinterpretation, the result of twisted logic used to justify a selfish agenda.

While digging around for information on the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial, I happened upon an article about the multi-faith chapel that had been constructed when the building was repaired. Apparently, the Pentagon has accommodated a variety of religious services for many years, but never before had a space been specially designated for the purpose. Now the location had been chosen by the nose of an airplane commandeered in the name of religion; the chapel itself was presumably a peaceful pocket within a giant monument to war. The juxtapositions were striking. I knew immediately that I needed to attempt to visit the chapel. Perhaps being there would help me make sense of it. But what were the chances I would be allowed in? Unlike most other places of worship, this one is not open to the public. It’s for Pentagon employees, military personnel, and those granted special authorization.

Several weeks after Ramadan, I sent my first email message to the Pentagon. I had no special contacts. On the Department of Defense website, I found the email address to the Communications Department. I sent my note to “whom it may concern.” Briefly, I explained my situation: I had been a D.C.-based employee for the federal government on September 11, 2001; I was now a writer exploring religion; I hoped to be given permission to visit the Pentagon Chapel. For more than a month, my request bounced around. Public Relations forwarded it to the Office of the Chaplain. Each new contact scooted me along. When my plea came back to the original Communications Department, I had to admit that my chances did not look good. I started again at the beginning, realizing my appeal may never reach a person who could give me the official green light.

So I made my travel plans anyway: Dallas to Austin to D.C. At the very least I’d see that the Pentagon building had been sealed back up and I’d walk around the memorial that looked from pictures like an outdoor sculpture garden. That had been the plan before I knew of the chapel. I told myself it would be okay if my request was denied, that whatever happened was meant to be. The story is that which occurs, after all. You can do your best to sway an outcome, but forces greater than oneself are at play; individual and collective karmas bump and swirl. The future unfolds with a message that might not be easy or fair. I was learning from religion itself: faith is greeting even the most unwelcome events with a level of acceptance.

10 thoughts on “Jihad

  1. Hi Corrina

    Now that you seem to be coming to very emotional point in your journey, and specifically the time you spent exploring Islam, I have a question about perception. Did any of the Muslims you met, lay or clerical, mention anything about the effect of radical fundamentalist Islam? I’d really and honestly like to know what goes through the mind of a Muslim in mainstream U.S. culture when he or she sees stories about blowing up an ancient shrine or beating and murdering women and young girls in the name of their faith. Do they feel what we, as mainstream Christians, feel when we see the fanatics from Westboro Baptist or the Fundamental Church of Latter Day saints on TV? If they do, why don’t we hear more about it? is it the media’s fault, or our own? or is there really silence from the mainstream Muslim community?

    • Hi Tim, So good to hear from you! From those I spoke with on this journey, I’d say your analogy of comparing how mainstream Christians feel about Westboro or other hateful interpretations is very similar to how mainstream Muslims feel about “fundamentalists” within their faith. I put that in quotes because groups like the Taliban or this group now in Africa stealing girls or jihadists…these people are operating so outside the realm of anything that Islam teaches. I feel these horrible atrocities say so much more about power grabs and economics and groups expressing anger over international policies that go back perhaps generations. It’s so big. Every once in awhile I’ll see a Muslim on TV saying “this is not Islam” but it’s a tiny voice in a huge bucket of other stories, many horrific. I’d say it’s all of our faults because we focus so intently on the negative details (I mean, how on earth does Westboro get so much attention?! It’s one family!) that we fail to see the bigger picture. I also like to say it’s all of our faults because if we all take some responsibility, we have the power to help change it.

      • Hi Corrina

        I think what you say is spot on. I guess the old journalistic axiom still applies: “Good news is no news”. Because we really don’t hear much about mainstream opposition of radical Islam. I agree it’s more about power and control than faith. The worst thing about fanaticism is that its’ believers paint themselves and others into a corner. If you spend decades or centuries preaching destruction of other religions and of whole populations as a basic element of your faith, it’s almost impossible to accept any kind of reconciliation with those you oppose. In fact, anyone who favors a more merciful and moderate approach is just as bad as your enemy. I’m not sure what it says about human nature that fanatics, down through the centuries and of whatever faith or cause, have never had much trouble recruiting followers. And those who seek power have found them easy prey.

        I like your idea of having the power to change things. I think there is much we can do as individuals, governments, and institutions, to counteract fanaticism. A big step would be to make it inconvenient economically for those states that tolerate or sponsor human rights abuses. Nothing hurts like a pain in the wallet!

        And fanaticism isn’t one-sided. There’s a large Islamic cultural and education center and mosque near my house. Its surrounded by a tall iron fence—and the sharp ends at the top point out for a reason. The symmetry is sadly ironic—Christians are being persecuted and forced out of their homes in territories controlled by ISIS, and I think a lot of Muslims in the U.S. gather for worship with an oft-unspoken undercurrent of fear as well.

        • Nicely put, Tim. Fanaticism in any faith seems to me like the easy way because it says “I’m right and good, others are wrong and bad.” It’s so black and white. It’s much more difficult to recognize the many shades and to search for a common core and find a way to love the variations.

  2. 9/11, what a hard subject. Have you been to the memorial in New York? My sons’ uncle was a policeman stationed at Battery Park. When the first building was hit they were called and headed (on foot-not that far) to the towers. As they got near, the first one came down and this huge wall of darkness/dust/flying debris rapidly rolled toward them. Desperately looking for cover, they jumped into an old VW van parked on the street. It just happened to be unlocked. Our relative was on the bottom, with maybe 8-9 officers piled on top of him. Everything went black. They couldn’t see anything or hardly breath for a long time. He thought he had died. It was hell, and he was praying to get out. After a while, it began to lighten and they realized they were alive. Everything was completely covered. Well, you’ve seen the pictures. They carried on, helping people to get out of the city; trying to keep panic from taking over; trying to help in any way they could, but not knowing what would come next. It was an experience that had immense fallout for many more families than those who were killed in the towers.

    At that time, I worked at Southwest Airlines, in the Executive Office. That morning we had an early meeting and were there at 7 am setting up the boardroom for it. The TV was on for some unknown reason–we generally never had it on. So we saw what was happening right away. The boardroom became a 24 hour command center as employees went into action to get our planes out of the air. It brings tears to my eyes just recalling how desperate the situation was, knowing that we had innocent passengers, pilots, employees whose lives were at stake. Planes were landed at the most unique places–anywhere near. Then to get folks back home. Well, you know all that. Working those three days at an airport where you are used to hearing planes taking off and landing constantly, the silence was most eerie. Then, on Friday, everyone who worked in the corporate offices at Love Field went out to the fence along the runway (the office building is on the opposite side of the runways from the terminal). We lined up all along the fence to pray for and cheer on that first flight that took off. Nothing in my life has moved me more, or given me more of a sense of the courage of the human spirit, and a sense of reliance on God that God would help us lift ourselves back up into the air.

    One reason I am a Christian is because of that day. Any adversity can be overcome in the power of faith in a God who loves us, and can lift us out of evil, the ash heap, and all other humanly devastating circumstances.

    • Wow, Ginger, what an extraordinary account you’ve written. Thank you. I can feel your emotion. I have to admit, looking back on it, this story of my quest to learn about religion was mostly likely ignited by the events of 9/11. Living in DC at the time, and working for Congress, made for a tense and strange experience. The air space over the city was closed to commercial flights, but helicopters were constantly flying. Then there was the anthrax scare that came on the heels of 9/11 and we had to work from home for 2 weeks with the chop chop chop of helicopters overhead. It was surreal and sad and it changed me.

  3. Whenever Americans go to war, we demonize the enemy. It’s very difficult for me to ever suggest to anyone that not all Moslems are “jihadists.” I would very much appreciate your sitting down one day to write your thoughts on this, in view of your experience, Corinna. Perhaps you know of Moslems who have addressed this.

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