I hadn’t planned to write about 9/11. In fact, I’d planned to avoid commenting on the day entirely, instead choosing to reflect quietly as I have each day since 2001. It’s not that I oppose public reflection, no, this year it’s quite the converse: I’m by chance at a conference in NYC this weekend and all around me are tragedy pilgrims, posturing on the television, even fascists here from Germany (I sat behind one on a plane Friday) here to espouse hatred toward Muslims.

Truthfully, I find the day difficult to write about. I was 19, had just entered a new university in (upstate) New York as a transfer student, and knew no one. I was suffering from what remains the worst heartbreak I’ve ever experienced and that, compounded by my loneliness and general late-teen angst, made the day even more difficult and frankly, hard to take in. I went through the motions, donated blood, made tea for classmates who awaited news of loved ones, but my depression at the time was so deep and my lack of personal connection to the tragedy–in contrast with those around me–made tears seem like an impossibility. And so I did what I could to take care of others instead.

My first semester at Binghamton was incredibly difficult, for all of the above reasons and more. But, like undoubtedly so many others, the horrific acts perpetrated on September 11, 2001 sparked a desire for understanding and a thirst for knowledge that–for lack of a better term and without any melodramatic connotations–saved me from myself. Two days later, I returned to my courses (among them one on women’s rights in the Arab world, taught by an Egyptian professor) with a renewed desire to learn. Between that course and my own realization that my lack of knowledge on Islam and the Arab world was…well, vast…I was struck by the notion of pursuing that line of study, eventually majoring in sociology, with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa. It was through that pursuit that I met one of my favorite professors, who advised me to go to his native country, Morocco, which I then did–first for a short-term study of Arabic and later for two years.

I wish that I could tell you that I understand why a group of terrorists felt as though targeting more than 3,000 innocent civilians was justified. Many simply blame Islam, but both my studies and my experience belie that theory and in fact, such rhetoric has only served to separate us further apart (both globally and within the context of the United States). Others blame the actions of the United States in the region, but nor is it that simple (as Reza Aslan so succintly writes: “Only a fool would think that the hijackers believed their actions would bring peace to Palestine or result in the removal of American troops from Muslim lands.”) No, in truth I don’t feel as though I will ever understand, just as I will never understand the resulting Muslim-bashing cottage industry.

Instead, I learned, as Roger Ebert wrote just days later, that the events of September 11 were “not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world.” I learned that most of the time, we are far more alike than we are different. And sadly, I also learned, as Sultan Al Qassemi so aptly wrote today that “the result over several years was the real winners of 9/11 were none other than the extremists who had inspired, encouraged and supported the action.”

Though in contrast with what one might hear in speeches today at Ground Zero, and in the rhetoric of conservative politicians, I believe Al Qassemi is correct. The subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the 800+ revenge attacks on Muslim-Americans, and what seems like an ever-deepening cultural divide in the United States are all evidence of that. At the same time, the unconscionable treatment of first responders, as well as the near-obsession with Shari’a law and the national reaction to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” all demonstrate to me a populace more preoccupied with rhetoric and politics than with bridging these very real divides.

The fact is, whether one’s views on Islam are favorable or not, we must not continue to allow terrorism—both past and threatening–to impede our ability to live together on this earth as humans. There is no anti-Islam rhetoric that will further that cause.