How can anyone residing in the United States, or for that matter living in any other part of the world, forget the horror of September 11, 2001, when commercial airliners, piloted by terrorists posing as religious followers of Islam, intentionally crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and into an open field in rural Pennsylvania while trying to fly to Washington on a mission to destroy the White House? Each of us remembers with impeccable detail where we were when it happened. As Americans, our psyche as a nation was attacked. We began to feel, maybe for the first time, that as a country we were no longer immune to acts of religiously or politically fueled terrorism and violence that often raised their ugly heads in other parts of the world. September 11, 2001 was the day when America lost its innocence. The date has been forever etched in our history and as a nation we will be forever scarred by it. And as a nation, we will never forget.
If on occasion we are able to block out the horror of September 11, those who travel by air are brought back to the reality of it whenever we go through the intensive and intrusive airport security screening now required at every airport in this country, and for that matter throughout the world.
Immediately following 9/11, questions and uninformed, insufficient answers were too often offered in hate-filled newspaper articles and on radio and television stations. Too often, the conversations were by their very nature laced with Islamophobia. The content too often demonstrated our collective ignorance as a people and nation about Islam, the Holy Qur’an, imams, mosques, and what really was the definition of Jihad?
As a counterweight, and spurred primarily by religious leaders in the three Abrahamic faiths, interfaith dialogues and summits began to appear first in America and then throughout the world. As a result, Islam, which had pretty much been a foreign word in America’s religious vocabulary, was now on the lips of everyone.
But in truth, ignorance about Islam continues to drive our reactive behavior toward one of the three great Abrahamic faiths. It is hard to believe, but in a recent poll conducted by the Pew Foundation, 40 percent of Americans still believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, because of his name. There continue to be concerns expressed in this country by American Muslims about their place in American culture and society. Where do they belong, and can they ever really belong, without being under a microscope all the time? My friend Eboo Patel, founder of the Inter Faith Youth Core in Chicago, has said, "I am more afraid now than I was after 9/11."
And yet, within this capsule of ignorance and fear of the “other,” I believe that as a nation there is another reason why we as Americans have had such a hard time dealing with the horrors of September 11. As a nation, we have never had the opportunity to grieve over the horrible loss of life, the indelible visual experience of all that was attached to that fateful September morning ten years ago.
Ten years ago as a nation we were embraced quite frankly by almost every nation in the global community, offering help, prayers, and whatever support was needed at this time of national crisis. And yet, our immediate response as a nation was to seek retribution and frontier justice. Wanted “dead or alive” was a regrettable pronouncement offered by some. And the taunt to those who were religious terrorists was “bring ’em on.” As the nation gathered in prayer at Washington National cathedral, President Bush unfortunately misspoke and used the word “crusade” in his speech to the nation-a word that was frightening, and historically painful and confrontational to millions in the Muslim world.
Because of the reflexive need to immediately “strike back” at the perpetrators and planners of the 9/11 attacks, we never really had the opportunity to grieve as a nation. When we do not grieve over a great loss, we tend to have overly emotional, often unhelpful knee-jerk responses. Anger and aggression can be the first response to significant loss in one’s family, or in the larger human family. And without time to grieve, think and process, responses can be illogical and result in bad decisions.
For much of the last decade, we have not found the time to grieve over the horrors of September 11, 2001. Yet the hard work of interfaith conversation and interaction emanating from religious scholars, denominational leaders, and theologians of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have led the way to places where people of faith have had wonderful opportunities. Through the discipline of prayer, the blessings of shared compassion, and the core teachings of their religious traditions, they have had a significant impact on moving not only America, but many other nations, from retribution to reconciliation, from theological illiteracy to literacy, from xenophobia to respect, tolerance, and acceptance of the “other.”
9/11 scarred the psyche of America, but also the public image of Islam. And yet the Jesus of Christianity reminds his followers that at the very center of their belief system is the word reconciliation—embraced by unconditional love and the quest for a peace that passes all understanding.
And it is no accident that Islam has as its radius the word salam (peace). The teachings of both Jesus and Muhammad have much in common regarding care for the “other.” Peace and divine love is at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. And it is that quest that now leads us to continue the healing process that must move forward between the brothers and sisters of Abraham. For it is the promise of the one God that true holiness can be found within the unity of our diversity.
It is now time, ten years later, to embrace the moment and make whole that which has been broken by the ignorance, fear, and illiteracy that too often define our understandings of religion. Much of that work has been undertaken in Washington D.C. through the creative efforts of the Rumi Forum, Washington National Cathedral’s Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, Georgetown University, and the Brookings Institution through the U.S. Islamic World Forum.
Many efforts have begun in other parts of the world to engage in work that promises to positively impact the present opportunity—to seek the path of wholeness and reconciliation rather than division and violence. This is a journey begun by both Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad that now defines a new decade, a decade not solely focused on the 9/11 tragedy, but one that must become part of the global community. It is a journey made sacred by all those who lost their lives in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington and by the efforts of interfaith leaders throughout the world.
It is a new time, a new decade, where life promises to overcome the sting of death, where hate is trumped by the power of God’s love, and where people of faith have the courage to speak out against those who use religion for their own selfish desires for control and power, rather than as a means through which all can experience the reconciling love of God.
As a country, and as people of faith, we cannot make this journey alone. We will need partners and colleagues of other faith traditions that believe that this is the moment when we stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and proclaim that no one has the right to take another person’s life in the name of God.