Ten years ago this weekend, a terror attack changed the world and changed America forever. It left Americans frightened and dismayed, and filled American hearts with bewilderment and enduring rage.
We stand here today as representatives of America’s great religious traditions. What has been our role in healing our nation?
I suggest that we have had, and still have, four major tasks.
Our first task is to help America remember the victims and to offer their families comfort and healing. Sometimes, let’s admit, 9/11 has become a slogan or a cause rather than a human tragedy. But we in the religious world are not distracted; we focus on the lives snuffed out and on those who suffered most. We pray for the bereaved and extend a loving hand to the injured and traumatized. We know that news may move on, but for those affected, the loss and the pain remain.
Our second task is to educate about the meaning of 9/11. And education means that religious communities must confront the extremists in their midst; if we cower in the face of fanatic minorities, we are lost. This is true for Muslims, and it is true for us all. And education also means that when we look at 9/11, we must absolutely refuse to justify, excuse, or explain away what happened.
The attacks of 9/11 were acts of unmitigated evil, carried out by men who polluted religion by coupling it with violence. As religious leaders, we know something about this; after all, the connection between religion and violence is set out in the story of Cain and Abel at the very beginning of the Biblical story of humankind.
And we know, better than anyone, that there is no such thing as murdering your way to salvation; we know that ruthless acts, calculated to produce shock and outrage, are an affront to God and to everything we hold dear; we know that whatever explanations might now be offered, those responsible for this evil are those who chose to kill in God’s name.
And because it is hard to comprehend evil on such a scale, when we talk about 9/11, we try to talk about flesh-and-blood people-like two-year old Christine Hanson, sitting on her father’s lap on United Airlines Flight 175 on her way to Disneyland. We remind Americans that taking Christine’s life was blasphemous and repugnant; and we remind them too of the profound reverence that we all must have for human life and the integrity of creation.
Our third task is to resist with all of our might the view that the extremist fringe that carried out and supported this violent act is the voice of Islam in America or in the world.
To give you a sense of how difficult this is, permit me to say a few words about what is happening here in America.
I believe that America has done a better job than most of the world, including Christian Europe, of embracing its Muslim citizens and welcoming its Muslim immigrants. What makes the United States unique is our religiosity and our pluralism. Americans respect religion and believe in God, and they eventually learn to respect religions different from their own. Add to that the great principle of church-state separation and we can be confident that for Muslim Americans, like all other Americans, full religious freedom will eventually be assured.
Nonetheless, there is cause for concern.
The events of 9/11 and other events since, such as the Park51 controversy, opened a door that some have been quick to rush through. Ten years after 9/11, negative views of Muslim Americans continue to rise. Ten years after 9/11, it has somehow become respectable to verbally attack Muslims and Islam in America. Vital distinctions are being blurred by people who should know better. I am referring to distinctions between the radical, fanatic version of Islam, held by a tiny minority of Moslems, and centrist Islam; I am referring to distinctions between the moderate majority and the extremists on the margins.
There are very real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements, when the sins of the few are applied to the group as a whole.
I have watched in astonishment as prominent politicians, including candidates for President of the United States, have found it politically opportune to peddle divisive anti-Muslim bigotry.
And if all of this were not enough, we have been witness to a paranoid fantasy about Sharia law taking over America by stealth. In the last year, more than two dozen states have proposed legislation outlawing the use of Shariah law in state courts. Louisiana, Tennessee and Oklahoma have already approved such measures, which I do not hesitate to call anti-Muslim.
When I hear such things, I can barely contain myself. What if a state were to put forward a bill that referenced Jewish law or Canon law in a similar way? Jews and Catholics would be outraged, and rightly so. To say that these laws are unnecessary is an understatement of monumental proportions. Have these lawmakers not heard of the First Amendment, which already prohibits courts from adopting any kind of religious code as law of the land?
These laws serve only to do two things: single out Muslims as second-class citizens and undermine the Constitution of the United States.
Many Muslim Americans that I know are feeling beleaguered right now, and I would be surprised if they were not.
But now the good news: this is a great and wonderful country. And with President Obama and President Bush before him leading the way, most Americans still see this country as a secure sanctuary that safeguards our right to be different and to follow our own religious path.
Yes, troubling things are happening now, due in part to the economic climate. As we know, economic uncertainty is often a fertile ground for hatred.
But we will not accept excuses. And the fact is that good people are fighting back. The people in this room are fighting back. And most Americans, with the right leadership and inspiration, will be proud to stand with the forces of inclusion and to oppose the forces of intolerance in this land.
And that brings me to our fourth and final task: to offer hope, and faith.
This is a difficult time for America. Politics is inherently divisive, and never more so than now. When everyone is shouting; when every voice on talk radio or cable news is trying to be the loudest and the most shocking; when it seems that our problems are too great to solve and our hatred too deep to cure, it is the task of religion to offer healing and a sense of the common good.
And when our Muslim neighbors are under attack, the best way to do that is not with theology, but with personal friendships, and with concrete, grassroots, hands-on projects that bring us together. And that is exactly what we have been doing, and we will give you the details in a minute.
And our message today is: timing is everything. The time for coalitions of decency to come together to fight for our Muslim neighbors and for religious understanding is now, when it is needed most.
This is our challenge: When the fires of intolerance are spreading, will we raise our voices in protest? Will we stand with Muslim Americans when emotions are raw and the danger is greatest? We will, I believe. It won’t be easy, it will take work, but we will do so. Because that is the moral course.
So I end with the hope – that is our common hope – that Muslims, Jews, and Christians will not permit fanaticism to grow or prejudice to harden; that as the sacred day of 9/11 approaches, we will honor the memory of those who died by teaching our children to honor life; and that here, in America, as seekers of God and children of Abraham, we will refuse to grant a victory to those who work to divide us; that here in America, we will reclaim our common heritage and find a common path.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.