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RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Flying into Cairo on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, we heard something terrible was happening in New York and in Washington, D.C., the city we had departed approximately 15 hours earlier.
A photographer and I had come to gather material for a profile of the great Egyptian city. But as we watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on our hotel-room TVs — and learned who was behind the attacks — we wondered if and when we would be able to leave the hotel, much less the country. How would a couple of nervous Americans fare on the “Arab street” in that moment?
The next morning, we decided to find out.
No sooner did we emerge from a taxi in a Cairo neighborhood than we were surrounded by a crowd of Egyptian Muslims — not to be taunted or threatened, but to be comforted. They led us by the arm to a nearby coffee shop and surrounded our table, offering the passionate expressions of friendship and condolence for which Arabs are famous.
They didn’t want to believe Muslims had participated in the airborne attacks on thousands of innocents. They begged us to convey their grief and deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and to all Americans when we went home.
“We would never do this,” one man urgently repeated, tears in his eyes, as he gripped my hand. And he meant it.
But Osama bin Laden would do it.
A veteran terrorist determined to exact revenge for his many grievances against America and the West, bin Laden was quite willing to plan the attacks, carry them out through his al-Qaida terror network — and proudly claim responsibility for them. And it was only the beginning, he promised. Many more assaults would come and many more innocent people would die until the terrorists’ aims were accomplished.
So began the attacks and counterattacks, the violence and retaliation, the skirmishes and full-scale wars that continue to this day across multiple borders. But Osama bin Laden is dead, shot down in a U.S. operation after a nearly decade-long manhunt that began in the days following 9/11. Few war-weary people — not just in the West but also in the Muslim-majority nations most affected by his bloody ideology — will mourn him.
Will he become a martyr? An enduring symbol of radical Islamic defiance of the decadent West? An inspiration to new waves of terrorist true believers? Perhaps. Even if al-Qaida has suffered a mortal blow, others will take up its radical cause. The United States and other nations will take the actions they see as necessary to defend themselves and their interests. The cycle of attack and counterattack might continue.
However, the “Arab Spring” now under way in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa suggests an alternative future. Millions of young adults are bravely — and nonviolently — pushing for change and freedom, even in the face of violent repression in some countries. Their aspirations, openly expressed on the streets and through the potent tools of social media, suggest that history might (emphasis on “might”) have rendered the bin Ladens of the world irrelevant.
These peaceful revolutions will be hijacked by extremists or crushed by dictators in some places, but in others they will take root.
In another generation, young Muslims might even reject radical Islamism altogether. Naïve? Who would have believed that the Soviet empire would collapse in the space of a few years? The pace of change in our era is unprecedented in human history.
Whatever happens in the political realm in the days to come, however, an unseen kingdom is silently spreading across the region: the Kingdom of God. It is a Kingdom of justice and mercy, and its power comes from divine love, not weapons of war. It is beholden to no earthly nation; it transcends all cultures.
Muslims, like all other people, hunger for God. Millions of Muslims are seeking Him. More and more are finding Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. Persecution of Christians and churches in the Muslim world has increased, along with the exodus of many traditional Christians targeted by extremists.
Yet reports of Muslims deciding to follow Christ, regardless of the consequences, continue to emerge from across the world. They continue to tell of dreams and visions of Jesus, of their desire for a close relationship with a God of mercy, of indescribable joy when they meet Him.
As we walked the streets of Cairo that sad day after 9/11, a Muslim man approached us near Al-Azhar University, the intellectual center of Sunni Islam for more than a millennium. Every night for years, he said, when he closed his eyes to sleep, he had seen a bright cross. “What does this mean?” he asked. We told him of the Lord who extends mercy and salvation to all who seek Him.
Don’t be afraid to tell the person who may ask you. The love of Christ is a far more powerful force than hatred, fear, war or vengeance.
Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.