Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hope in the Wake of September 11, 2001

by Ted Lewis

Over the past dozen years I have heard a number of positive stories about peacemaking efforts involving Muslim participants. Each time I thought to myself, "It would be nice to have this story written down so it could inspire others." I have done this sort of writing many times for victim/offender dialogue processes, and one thing is very clear: without the telling of positive stories, the restorative justice movement would not have its current growth and worldwide momentum.

I am very glad now to launch this new blog forum as a place for positive stories about Islamic-related resolution processes to be logged and stored. My hope is that they will spread widely and provide not only information about where and how peacemaking dialogue is happening, but also provide inspiration for others to promote similar efforts. Over time, I will include the writings of guest authors on this blog.

My first experience with Islam and restorative dialogue happened 12 years ago on the day of 9/11 in 2001. Just hours after of the Twin Towers crashed down, two death-threat telephone calls came to the Islamic Cultural Center and mosque in Eugene, OR. One of the statements made to the Center's director was, "You Muslims should all be erased." The offender, a single, middle-aged man who acted alone, was traced and arrested that very day. As program manager of the Restorative Justice Program for Eugene's Community Mediation Services, I received a call the next day regarding a possible case for alternative resolution.

Tamman Adi, Palestinian by background, directed the Islamic Cultural Center. When I met with him and his wife Patricia, I quickly learned how hard it was to be a Muslim in the United States at that time. As they shared openly about all the challenges and fears surrounding their identity and protection in those days after 9/11, it was clear to me that they needed a lot of community support. Tamman often stated that the media was the least supportive, as news commentators consistently joined together "Muslim" with "Terrorist" in the same sentence. Fortunately, local community support came from many places in Eugene, and this made it easier for the Adi's to choose an alternative way for resolving this case. In fact, they were very glad to not have to go through a court process. The last thing they wanted was to appear as vindictive Muslims in a setting that is typically contestual rather than cooperative.

At this time, a new neighborhood accountability board was set up through the Restorative Justice Program. In partnership with the District Attorney's office, the case was routed through this community-based program. Both offender and victim parties had several preparatory meetings with me and two other facilitators to ensure a constructive joint dialogue. Within one month of September 11, the first of two joint meetings took place. A circle formation was used with about 15 people present; an additional 10 people were in the room to observe the process, including the prosecutor.

Understandably, Tamman was nervous about this meeting. He later shared how he could not make eye contact with Chris, the offender. At that time he spoke about his cultural experience of being threatened by others in the Middle East, and how this creates an invisible wall that does not allow for eye contact. In this first meeting, both parties had the chance to talk about what happened. Tamman asked more than once, "Why did you do this to us?" As a scientist, he needed to hear something that made sense to him. But after two hours of dialogue, which included community members saying things to both Chris and the Adis, there was a general sense that deep resolution had not been reached. Something was blocking a satisfying outcome.

At last, Patricia Adi helped the group to not remain stuck. She affirmed some good things that had been said during the meeting, and she expressed some hope that the process could lead to a good end if the group had patience. It was agreed to take a break for two weeks and then reconvene. This would also give Chris some time to demonstrate his sincerity to make changes.

One thing was clear. Harmful words had led to a hard situation, and only healing words could reverse what was set in motion. At a time when the entire nation was first shocked and then grief-stricken over 9/11, many had a hunger for anything that could shine a ray of hope in the darkness. In Eugene, those who attended this first restorative dialogue meeting were holding out for hope, but there was no guarantee of how things would turn out. There is always a degree of risk when people seek a deeper resolution on a relational level.

(End of Part One of a two-part story. Stay tuned for the next blog entry.)

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