After 9/11, some lives recast for greater good
How three Americans were spurred to new life purpose in wake of terrorist attacks.
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For Arsalan Iftikhar, Sept. 11 is indelibly marked as "the most important day of my life."Skip to next paragraph
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A second-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis the day the planes hit, the articulate young Muslim American realized immediately what was at stake.
"I knew that getting the message out was of paramount importance, and I drafted a condemnation of terrorism [op-ed] to send to every major newspaper in the country," he says. Several published it, and his role as a public spokesman on Islam was launched.
Upon graduation, the human rights lawyer joined the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Washington D.C., as its national legal director, and interacted with government agencies on hate crime incidents, as well as the USA Patriot Act and other law-enforcement initiatives.
His mission, he says, is to dispel the theory of a clash of civilizations in US and global venues and to play a part in "making a better world for all."
At home, he's seen peaks and valleys in American attitudes toward Islam. The whisper campaign against Sen. Barack Obama as being "some sort of a crypto-Muslim" shows how entrenched some negative attitudes are, he says.
Now a contributing editor for Islamica magazine and a commentator for National Public Radio, Iftikhar is marking the seventh anniversary by launching his own website, "The Muslim Guy," to help take the discourse away from extremists.
"I want people to know we are not only part and parcel of American society but at the forefront of trying to make it a better place," he adds.
Courtney Cowart, service visionary
Cowart, for her part, has become a grass-roots proponent of "service activism."
After hurricane Katrina, Cowart, a scholar of church history, joined other Episcopalians in the first wave of volunteers heading south. She opted to stay on. Drawing on her experience after 9/11 at St. Paul's, she created a 50-person disaster recovery team for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, which has marshaled thousands of volunteers.
Heartened by the tremendous influx of young helpers to the Gulf Coast, Cowart envisions a new generation of service activism.
Yet her experience of the disparity in how the two catastrophes have been dealt with has led her to write a book. "An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina" will be published next month.
New Orleans had many heroes of the storm who did not receive the same level of support or media recognition as those in New York, she says.
For example, "some inner-city youths dove off the I-10 overpass through toxic waters to save people's lives," she says, and other youths who saved elderly people trapped in their homes were mistaken for looters, and their lives threatened, for seeking medicines to help them.
But Cowart is hopeful that just as there was a transformation in class relationships after the New York tragedy, a parallel change is under way along racial lines in the Gulf Coast recovery.
Cowart had hoped to attend the ServiceNation summit to mark this year's anniversary, but her responsibilities in New Orleans made that impossible.
The annual commemoration of 9/11 is essential, she says, "to help reclaim the values that surfaced in its wake: compassion, recognizing there are people in this country that are counting on you to act, rejecting the notion that people brought low are on their own, treating every single person with dignity and respect."