September 11th a Time for Action as well as Reflection
I graduated from college a year before September 11, 2001. Though I was heavily involved in interfaith activities as an undergraduate student, I dismissed the idea of pursuing it as a career because while fostering greater interaction, understanding and respect among people of diverse faiths and beliefs seemed needed, it didn’t seem urgent. And then the terrorist attacks of September 11th occurred, forcing me to reevaluate my assessment.
It was as much people’s reactions in the tragedy’s aftermath as the terrorist attacks themselves that led me to conclude that we can no longer afford to live in the comfort of our ignorance and assumptions about each other. By then, I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, located only forty miles from one of the largest and most vibrant Muslim communities in the United States, and I remember witnessing in the media and at the community level two contrasting reactions in the days and months following September 11th.
I saw the initial shock of what happened give way to anger, outrage, and suspicion, much of it targeted towards Muslims and Islam or – more accurately – towards individuals assumed to be Muslim: people with brown skin or who fit stereotypes of “looking” or “dressing” Middle Eastern. According to a study by Ball State University, FBI data suggests a 1,600-percent surge in anti-Islamic hate crimes in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks as well as a similar increase in hate crimes against people who may have been perceived as Muslim, Arabs and of Middle Eastern origin. Thus, not only were many innocent Muslim Americans targeted, but Sikh Americans, Hindu Americans, and others received hateful slurs, stares, and worse in the days and months following the terrorist attacks.
Yet, another reaction made a far more powerful impression on me. For the first time I could remember, I saw a broad interest among the general public in learning about Islam and other religions outside of Christianity and Judaism. In the days following September 11th, clergy, public officials, and community members of diverse beliefs and cultures came together in communities across the country, united as Americans, with a newfound desire to build inter-religious relations and respect at the community level.
Ten years later though, this desire has not translated into greater levels of understanding and respect among people of diverse faiths and beliefs in this country. Research, such as a 2010 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public Life, shows that Americans still are by and large woefully ignorant about major world religions, even their own.
Strong interfaith relations at the community level, where people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures are valued, included and protected, is an essential ingredient to having a healthy, vibrant city. And we can only achieve this through education about different religions and through sustained, meaningful interactions with our community members of diverse faiths and beliefs.
Unlike many other U.S. cities, Omaha has a number of organizations, from Project Interfaith to Creighton University’s Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Culture to the Center for Faith Studies at Countryside Community Church, who regularly offer a variety of programs open to the public designed to do just this. But having these programs available is not enough. They are only effective if individual community members participate and make sincere attempts to try to understand one another.
The tenth anniversary of September 11th is a time for us as Americans to remember and mourn for the victims of this tragedy and for their family and friends. But we also should challenge ourselves to take actions that will make good on the desire for greater interreligious relations and respect at the community level so prevalent in the days after September 11th.