Thursday, September 8, 2011

9/11 Through the Eyes of an Expert on Islam in the West

On September 11, 2001, millions of New Yorkers witnessed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center firsthand, including award-winning author and journalist Abigail R. Esman. In this excerpt from her book Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West, Esman relates her experience in New York and Amsterdam in the days following the attacks.

Over the next days, I wandered the streets of the Upper East Side alone, dazed, as everybody else was dazed, unsure, as everybody was unsure. I took photographs: a sign at Barnes & Noble on Lexington and Eighty-Seventh Street declaring “Closed, due to act of war”; the first few of what would soon be several thousand colored sheets of paper, marked with photographs of the “missing,” now known dead; impromptu shrines on the doorsteps of brownstones and apartment buildings, and waves of flowers at the doorway of Engine 22, our local firehouse on Eighty-fifth Street and Third Avenue. Smoke and stench and death rose up and over New York City in the wind.

On September 18, exactly one week after the attacks, I returned to Amsterdam (. . . .) And as I walked this city, a city whose very gentleness now felt practically obscene (. . .), where the sun slid into the gardens and over the balconies, where the smell of the smoke and the sorrow and the dead did not roll along the streets and into our lungs, I struggled to feel what I felt as I still walked the earth of New York City and held the hands of strangers with whom I would be forever extraordinarily, if inexplicably, bound. And I realized then just how far away from a new United States I was. No American flags waved along the street. No one else wore ribbons for the dead. I was alone in my fury, my bewilderment, my anger, alone in my sorrow, in my indignation, in my defiance. Leaving had robbed me of the chance to share all that filled this moment.

I was alone in Holland, too, or nearly so, in my fear: a scant thirty-three percent of the Dutch said they feel less safe now than they did before September 11. I counted myself among them. With the passing of every plane—and there are many over Amsterdam, and they fly low—my blood chilled, my pulse quickened, my heart pounded. I followed the sound until it was safely beyond hearing. I waited for the sirens. None came.

In Amsterdam, I found a world where one could express sympathy and horror, say a prayer, light a candle; a world where one could read the papers and watch the news and feel one's throat tighten at the images, and then still return the paper to the table, turn the station, leave the candle burning, and walk out into the sunlight to play. We could not do that in New York City.

In New York, in Manhattan, it was everywhere: in dust, in the wind, in stores that did not reopen, in the piles of newspapers outside a neighbor's apartment that announced that he was not home and most likely was not coming home again. It was in the eyes and questioning voices of those who asked if you were okay—and everybody asked: the drugstore cashiers, the postal clerks, the doormen of nearby buildings with whom for years you had shared only silent nods as you passed. “Are you all right? Is everyone you know?” One did not see a woman wearing black without wondering if it was fashion, shul, or a funeral that had dressed her. In Amsterdam, there was only wariness, a kind of gentle, if often ubiquitously polite sympathy, and silence. Or mostly. In the first few days of my return, I wore a ribbon on my lapel, just as others had done in New York, only in place of the red, white, and blue, which I thought would be too obvious, I wore white—a symbol, someone had told me, of universal peace. As I walked along the Van Woustraat by my home one afternoon, a man in a white djellaba approached me in the street. Within seconds he had planted himself directly in front of me, blocking my movement, staring straight into my eyes. He stood there just a few seconds—perhaps a half minute, no longer—and then went on his way. When I got home, I took the ribbon off and laid it on my desk. I never wore it publicly again.

Abigail R. Esman has been called "one of the best writers we have when it comes to jihadism in Europe." Based in New York and the Netherlands, Esman is a regular columnist for and has written extensively about Islam in the West for various international publications, including the New Republic,, Foreign Policy, and others. Also an art critic, she is a contributing editor at Art & Auction magazine and the author and coauthor of books on art and contemporary culture.


Additional Resources:

The 9/11 Encyclopedia: Second Edition
Stephen E. Atkins, Editor

This comprehensive collection of A–Z entries and primary source documents presents a thorough examination of all the individuals, groups, and events surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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