In the wake of the September attacks, many religious leaders tried to use their position to help heal the world and to advocate for peace and social justice. This reading highlights a few of those responses.
Prince El-Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan has dedicated much of his life to finding a way for religious groups to work together for the social good. He explains, "Throughout history, religious differences have divided men and women from their neighbors and have served as justification for some of humankind's bloodiest conflicts. In the modern world, it has become clear that people of all religions must bridge these differences and work together to ensure our survival and realize the vision of peace that all faiths share."1
Shortly after the September attacks Prince El-Hassan Bin Talal wrote about the need for interfaith understanding with new urgency:
Muslims, Christians and Jews have a common shared history. The politics of the Middle East must not be allowed to destroy the natural capacity that people of faith have to live together and to work together. We must hold fast to the moral values contained in our common heritage despite the conflicting rights and comparable injustices still separating us. Bloodshed is no answer.
The tragic events of September 11th serve to remind us that the world today is increasingly interconnected. And as borders come to lose their meaning, no nation can afford to isolate itself. We are moving toward a single world with a single agenda, and that agenda must be set with a view to fostering reconciliation and understanding. 1
Within hours of the terrorist attacks, hate crimes against Muslims began to be reported. Many individual religious leaders as well as religious institutions began to use their authority to reach out to the Muslim community in the United States. One of the strongest responses came from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, which represents over 1.5 million Reform Jews in over 900 congregations. On September 13, just two days after the attacks, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the organization, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of North America, released the following statement:
Together with all Americans, we are still in shock, reeling from the devastation of Tuesday's terrorist attacks.
At times such as these - and we pray that there will no more such times - it is especially important that we behave with deliberation, lest trauma distort our actions. Specifically, we need to bear in mind that this conflict is between the United States and those who would see our way of life destroyed. It is not between some Americans and others. We must not allow this attack on America to divide Americans.
We are concerned, in particular, with reports that some in our nation have directed their understandable anger at Tuesday's carnage at individual Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. We are outraged at reports of attacks on Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and their mosques and businesses and condemn all such acts of lawlessness. Such attacks, such scapegoating, are deeply un-American. They also violate what is perhaps a preeminent lesson of Jewish history: the danger of group hatred, of imputing to a group the actions of a few individuals.
We know that like all Americans, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans overwhelming share our revulsion at the terrorist attacks, and our commitment to American values. We know that they, too, have family and friends injured or killed in the attacks, and our condolences go out to them, as to all who are grieving.
On Tuesday, evil was evident, but humanity will prevail. Since Tuesday, we have witnessed a remarkable outpouring of human kindness, as Americans instinctively insist that evil's victory would be limited and that we would not permit inhumanity to prevail. We believe, deeply and stubbornly, that goodness and kindness are more powerful than cruelty. We therefore call on all Americans in their interpersonal dealings, and especially in dealing with those rendered particularly vulnerable by these events, to be fully American - to act with kindness and with courtesy, to seek to express, as Lincoln put it, "the better angels of our nature."3
Even before recent events, many religious communities regularly participated in interfaith and human rights initiatives at the local, national, and international level. On January 24, 2002, the Vatican, the governing body of the Catholic Church, organized a Day of Prayer for Peace in the World. The summons to prayer and pilgrimage read:
Ever since the fearful events of last September, His Holiness Pope John Paul II has condemned terrorism and has, with his universally recognized moral authority, urged everyone to choose peace, justice and forgiveness. He has interpreted the wishes of many in summoning Catholics to a Day of Fasting and Prayer for the sake of peace - undertaken with great seriousness on 14 December last, during Advent - and in inviting the Representatives of the world religions to make a pilgrimage of prayer to the City of Assisi. 'I wish to announce that I intend to invite Representatives of the religions of the world to come to Assisi on 24 January 2002 to pray for the end of conflict and the promotion of true peace, and to come together, especially Christians and Muslims, to declare before the world that religion must never become a cause of conflict, hatred and violence.' 4
In response to recent events, many religious leaders are looking to the past for inspiration. One such inspiration is pastor, poet, critic, and educator Howard Thurman. Thurman was a mentor to many of the leaders of the civil rights movement including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson, as well as more recent activists such as Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. After a visit to the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, Thurman helped to create the first racially integrated, intercultural and interfaith church in the United States. He used his position as a religious leader to help build bridges between communities and break down fear, ignorance, and intolerance. In "A Prayer for a Friendly World" Thurman articulated a vision for moving from war and bitterness to a friendly world under a friendly sky.
Our minds are troubled because the anxieties of our hearts are deep and searching. We are stifled by the odor of death which envelops our earth, where in so many places brother fights against brother. The panic of fear, the torture of insecurity, the ache of hunger, all have fed and rekindled ancient hatreds and long-forgotten memories of old struggles, when the world was young and Thy children were but dimly aware of Thy presence in their midst ...There is no one of us without guilt. ... we have harbored in our hearts and minds much that makes for bitterness, hatred, and revenge.
.... Search our spirits and grant to our minds the guidance and wisdom that will teach us the way to take, without which there can be no peace and confidence anywhere.... Grant unto us the courage to follow the illumination of this hour to the end that we shall not lead death to any man's door; but rather may we strengthen the hands of all in high places, and in common tasks seek to build a friendly world ... under a friendly sky.5
Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka wrote an essay for a book entitled The End of Tolerance? In it he shares an African proverb that goes, "when two elephants fight, it is the grass beneath their feet that suffers." Soyinka suggests that in our climate of religious conflict, it is time to pay attention to the practices and rituals of traditions that have been ignored while the focus of the world's attention is on those who claim for themselves sole and absolute authority in interpreting "truth."
2 "A Muslim Call for Sanity" by Prince El-Hassan Bin Talal.
4 Day of Prayer
5 "A Prayer for a Friendly World," from Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman. Beacon Press, 1981 pp. 187188