9/11 aftermath: The lessons we must learn

Ten years ago, American life changed. On a bright September morning terrorists hijacked four airliners, crashing three of them into New York and Washington landmarks. They did that in the name of a religion: Islam.

Thousands of lives were lost and millions were disrupted. It was a turning point in our view of our vulnerabilities and led us to question many of our assumptions about our country and the world.

At first stunned and grieving, Americans resolved on a course of action. A powerful sense of purpose galvanized Americans. Such evil would never be perpetrated on our soil again.

The causes of this violence would be debated, as would the steps taken to combat it. These debates intensified as the extent of terrorism became clear. However, our reaction in the aftermath has had a horrific human cost on the families of our soldiers and on the many victims of the wars we subsequently conducted.

Though the struggle is far from complete, 10 years later, as we are recovering our senses, we are beginning to be able to see some results: Terrorism remains a threat, but by all accounts has been stunted.

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A different struggle has emerged at home.

“Homeland security” has become a concern. By various measures Americans feel less secure and more fearful. Of course economic tremors and natural disasters have rocked our nation. But the deeper challenge is one we have yet to face.

Over the past 10 years we have become a divided society. We are fearful of difference and confused about the freedom we cherish. Persons of different cultures, languages and religions appear threatening. Muslims in particular have been vilified. From the nation that rallied together in the days after Sept. 11, we have become suspicious and mistrusting of one another.

It should not be necessary to refute the charges against Islam, but hate literature and demagogic accusation have become something of an American industry. The world’s second-largest religion, touching every continent and nation, has overwhelmingly repudiated the events of Sept. 11 and terrorism generally.

Yet Muslims continue to be singled out for fear and prejudice.

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Consider the recent controversy in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, nominated Sohail Mohammed, who is Muslim, to the superior court in Passaic County.

Immediately some blogs accused Christie of smuggling Sharia, mistakenly labeled as Islamic law, into New Jersey’s courts. Mohammed was confirmed, and Christie rejected the charges as baseless prejudice.

But controversies over proposed mosques in New York and Tennessee suggest that such suspicion is widespread. Notably, the approval of a new mosque in Henrico County after an initial rejection is a heartening development that hopefully will be duplicated elsewhere.

Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have offered measures banning Sharia, the religious guidelines that influence Muslims in their faith much as the Ten Commandments guide Christians. Many of these misguided efforts do a disservice to our country, our Constitution and harm our engagement with the Arab and Muslim world.

Indeed, radical organizations are working hard to convince young Muslims that the West and America is at war with Islam, that they will never be truly accepted in the U.S. and that America is hypocritical about its freedoms.

Fortunately there is hope for understanding replacing prejudice. Polls consistently conclude that American Muslims are optimistic about their future, affirm basic American values, and are intent on demonstrating their loyalty. Among the most educated and successful of all American groups, Muslims have shown a commitment to cooperate with people of other faiths.

As a result understanding between different faiths has grown across the United States and internationally.

The most far-reaching has been “A Common Word,” launched in Jordan and endorsed by hundreds of Muslims, Christians and Jews. “A Common Word” defines ground the three faiths all endorse: love of God and love of neighbor.

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By tapping the best in our faiths, we can inspire cooperation and set an example for all Americans.

Events in the Middle East underscore the importance of America as an example and as a friend. It is not clear how the revolutions in the Arab world are going to turn out. But we do know that they are a sign of deep change that has toppled more governments in the region than either al-Qaida or America could.

These revolutions will have a more massive social impact on the people of the Middle East and on the interests of the United States than extremism. The “Arab Spring” is beginning to teach us that 10 years after 9/11, we are entering an age of limitations.

We Americans must learn that we can no longer act unilaterally. But when we act as partner and friend, we build respect and encourage a more secure world.

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The interfaith initiatives that abound in Central Virginia and across the country teach lessons that Americans must follow and that must shape our global role.

First, our freedom is threatened when we fail to exercise it responsibly. We are free, within reasonable limits, to choose our manner of belief and life. Different people make different choices based on different beliefs.

Historically, America has welcomed difference, and we must affirm our plurality of beliefs again. Our freedom is admired around the world. We must be worthy of the admiration of others.

We do so, second, not by retreating into political and social like-mindedness, but by cultivating the ability to work together for the benefit of all. As we learn to work with one another, we set a life-giving example of addressing our challenges together.

We would do well to recall the insights of Horace Kallen, a prominent 20th-century academic. A philosopher and a Jew, Kallen saw America as an unfinished project. He coined the phrase “cultural pluralism” and also referred to America as a “symphony of difference.”

Kallen merits being recalled because he believed America could embrace diversity and forge a shared national pride. It is possible to balance loyalty to common values while respecting the different ways in which faith advances hope. This is the most crucial lesson we must learn.

William L. Sachs is with the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation, and M. Imad Damaj is with the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs.