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For bereaved mother, world is a bigger place

Standing on a dust-carpeted New York sidewalk the day after the World Trade Center attacks, waiting for information about her missing son, Elinor Stout resolved that she would strive to make the world a better place.

Stout decided to help bridge the chasm between the Western and Muslim worlds.

Such a goal might seem startling in its sheer ambition. But coming from the mother of a 42-year-old man whose life ended high in the North Tower in an act of methodical, willful horror, it seems even more improbable.

"I thought that this can't happen again in this country," said Stout, a former reporter for WGBH radio. "I thought that whatever I could do as a communications professional, for better understanding between East and West, I would do."

Today, as relatives of the World Trade Center victims mark the second anniversary of the attack, Stout remains committed to transform that resolution into reality. The Watertown woman readily concedes that she had only a sketchy understanding of Muslim culture before Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, however, she has reached out to Muslim academics and activists in the Boston area, spoken at Trinity Church and elsewhere of the need for tolerance, and worked with organizations composed of victims' families.

"I wish that I could rest," Stout said over lunch at a Cambridge restaurant. "It's been a long two years, but my journey is not over."

Victims' families generally appear to have moved from the sheer pain of grieving to finding a constructive outlet for myriad emotions that the tragedy spawned, say grief counselors who have worked with them. Linda Plazonja, executive director of the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund, said the families have faced unusual pressures and scrutiny because of the public nature of what instantly became a national loss.

"I think they have tried to find a comfortable balance between private grieving and what the public expects from them," Plazonja said. "They understand that part of their role is to demonstrate strength and resilience and hope . . . as a model for others who find moving forward very difficult."

Reaching that understanding proved difficult for Stout, who said the first year after the attack was incessantly painful. "I could barely walk, or talk, or put one foot in front of the other," she recalled, tears welling in her eyes as she held a photograph of her son, Tim.

But in that year, Stout contacted the American Islamic Congress, an organization co-founded by Ahmed al-Rahim, a professor of Arabic language and literature at Harvard University. In conversations with al-Rahim, Stout offered advice on how to help the group achieve its goal of giving voice to moderate Muslims, both in the United States and abroad. The congress, al-Rahim said, aims to "foster tolerance within the American Muslim community, to reach out to Americans of all backgrounds after 9/11, and to work against hate speech from the Muslim community and the Muslim world." Stout has offered suggestions on how to court the news media, expand membership, and promote the group's goals through speaking engagements.

The input, al-Rahim said, "has been helpful."

Stout estimated that she spends eight hours a week on the work, which has brought her a new awareness of Islamic culture and US relations with the Muslim world. "On Sept. 12, 2001, I thought, `Why do they hate us so much to do something like this, to kill innocent people?' "

The question led her to study US foreign policy toward the Middle East and to pick the brains of academics such as al-Rahim. One of those scholars, Middle Eastern studies professor Ali Asani at Harvard University, said he was "overwhelmed" when Stout reached out to him after the tragedy.

"I had several conversations with her, to help her understand some of the perspectives that were underlying this issue," Asani said. "Particularly, that Islam is a very diverse tradition, and that even though there are people who claim to do things in the name of Islam, they are not really representative of the entire tradition."

"I saw this conflict not as a clash of civilizations -- there are value systems that extremists on both sides share -- I saw this as a conflict of ignorance of the other," Asani said. "With Elinor, I think her ambition and goal is to remove that ignorance and create a better human-to-human understanding."

"I want to roll my sleeves up and get in the trenches," Stout said.

The loss of her son, a graduate of Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge and the oldest of three children, is a constant emotional companion. Such a situation, she said, is inevitable "when you shape a child, literally, in your womb, and you have that child come back to you in pieces." The family held a funeral in New York state, where Tim had lived with his wife and three young children.

Stout said she still goes to counseling and remains on medication. But she is as committed as ever to fashion something positive out of a calamity that irrevocably changed her life. Today, she intends to watch the Manhattan ceremonies on television until her son's name is read, and then attend a memorial service at Trinity Church in Boston, where she is a member.

And, to anyone who's interested, she will offer her assessment that this nation needs to be more involved in the world in a cooperative sense. "It's too easy for this country to be isolationist," she said. "We have to be much more attentive to what's going on in the rest of the world. We can't go it alone."

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