9/11 at 10: From Religious Diversity to a Common Commitment

The National Security and Human Rights Campaign at the Open Society Foundations supports organizations that are working to protect civil liberties in post-9/11 America and to promote national security policies that respect human rights. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, contributing Campaign grantees offer reflections on their work in this series 9/11 at 10.

The following  dialogue was moderated on September 11, 2011 by Rev. Richard Killmer, Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  Participants included Dr. Ingrid Mattson, former President, Islamic Society of North America, Rev. Richard Cizik, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Rabbis for Human Rights – North America.

Rev. Richard Killmer: We have here a Muslim, two Christians, and a Jew who decided to form an organization together. It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), there is reality in that sentence. Our three faith traditions were represented among the 150 people present at a 2006 conference in Princeton, New Jersey, that led to NRCAT’s formation and the beginning of our collective work to voice the moral objections of America’s diverse religious communities to the torture of terrorism suspects held in U.S. custody.

In August 2010, our faith groups came together again when a pastor in Florida threatened to burn the Qur’an and while protests were taking place in communities across the country to block the construction of mosques and Islamic centers. At a major press conference in September 2010, over 40 national religious leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. to affirm our dedication to the American value of religious freedom and our opposition to those seeking to divide the nation through fear and prejudice. Out of the success of that gathering we built a campaign called Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims; Upholding American Values.

Rachel, NRCAT is very fortunate to have you on its Board of Directors. Who are NRCAT’s members?

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster: The religious organizations that have joined NRCAT are united in their moral opposition to torture, which is rooted in the belief that every human being has been given dignity and worth by God. In the five years since our first meeting in Princeton, more than 300 religious organizations and 60,000 individual supporters have joined NRCAT. We have members from the Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox Christian, mainline Protestant, Quaker, Sikh, and Unitarian Universalist communities.

In an era when we are told by our elected leadership that the “gloves need to come off” in order to keep America safe, remaining committed to our values is difficult but all the more necessary.

Rev. Killmer: Richard Cizik, tell us about Shoulder to Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims; Upholding American Values.

Rev. Richard Cizik:  In August 2010 the need for a religious community response to the alarming rise in anti-Muslim sentiment gripping the nation was palpable. We responded by forming Shoulder-to-Shoulder, which now has a membership of 27 national organizations. Its strategic value became apparent, if it wasn’t obvious before, when Rep. Peter King, the Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, decided in March, 2011 to hold hearings on what he described as the radicalization of the American Muslim community. Who else is better positioned to advocate against the marginalization and typecasting of a religious community than another religious organization? In the Shoulder to Shoulder campaign, we have more than 100 local religious organizations across the country working to end anti-Muslim bigotry.

Rev. Killmer: Interfaith collaboration is the backbone of both NRCAT and Shoulder-to-Shoulder. But each religious organization that participates in these efforts brings its own unique set of beliefs, working styles, strengths, and challenges. Can each of you tell me about the experiences of your faith group as it has participated in these multi-faith efforts?

Rev. Cizik:  It is fair to say that the challenges are great within the Evangelical world. We have the highest percentage within any faith community that supports the use of torture by our government and the highest percentage of those who reject Islam as having a legitimate place within our “shared American values.” I worked to found Evangelicals for Human Rights in 2006 to oppose torture, and helped it morph in 2010 into the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which opposes both torture and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Does Evangelicalism’s dominant theology and practice cultivate discrimination and injustice?  There are many who think so. But we who call ourselves the “new evangelicals” reject the weaknesses of the so-called “Religious Right.” Instead, we aim to foster love not hate, a broad agenda of concerns rather than a narrow one, and a faith witness that is not subservient to ideology.

Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Muslim Americans are among the most advantaged Muslim communities on earth. Some advantages are material, but the real advantages come from the political and religious freedom afforded to all Americans. With this freedom comes the responsibility to evaluate the way our community understands and lives Islam.

American Muslims also tend to have the “can-do” attitude that predominates in American society. The result is that American Muslims tend to act on their convictions to implement the justice teachings of Islam. From small neighborhood soup kitchens to large national organizations, religiously-inspired activism is typical of American Muslims.

Rabbi Kahn-Troster: It is important to understand how deeply entwined American values and Jewish values are for the lived experience of most American Jews. Coming to and being a part of the land of freedom – the land of the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address – is part of the American Jewish narrative, both for religious and secular Jews. But the story of this freedom is more complex. It is only since World War II that Jews have become a privileged minority; and the Jewish voice has an impact on the national discourse because of that status.

It is important that the Jewish community use its voice to further the cause of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. Social justice as an integral part of Jewish life has been on the rise for the past 10 years. Deuteronomy’s urgent calls tzedek, tzedek tirdof, or justice, justice shall you pursue has resonated with younger American Jews as they search to find universal meanings and common cause in the wisdom of our faith. It is critical that this desire is linked not just to issues around which consensus comes easily (such as the imperative of ending hunger) but also the deeper moral questions our country faces.

Rev. Killmer: The response of different individuals from different faith communities to the interfaith work of Shoulder-to-Shoulder can range from hostility to staunch support. Faith communities are not monolithic entities; there is variation within and among these communities, and in some cases opinions are actively evolving. How has your faith community responded to rise in anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S.?

Rev. Cizik: We see a shift in the thinking of Evangelicals, most immediately among the young, the so-called “Millennials,” on certain issues such as the environment and poverty. But on the issue of discrimination toward Muslims in particular, the Public Religion Research Institute polling indicates that there is little difference between the young and their elders. This is troubling, and a cause for concern among those of us in the Evangelical faith who oppose bigotry against any religious, ethnic, or oppressed minority.

Rabbi Kahn-Troster: Solidarity with Muslim Americans has proven to be a more of a “big tent” issue for the Jewish community than the fight against torture. Many Jews understand that it was not so long ago that they were singled out for suspicion. Jews from across the religious spectrum are concerned that movements to pass laws that ban Sharia or so-called “foreign law” bills could have serious implications on the practice of Judaism as well. We’re seeing an interest in fighting anti-Muslim bigotry from people who do not necessarily identify themselves as supporters of my organization, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America.

Dr. Mattson:  American Muslims are profoundly grateful to our friends of faith who have stood up against anti-Muslim bigotry. Christian and Jewish leaders who put support for their American Muslim neighbors at the top of their agenda demonstrate their commitment to religious and political freedom, to democracy and pluralism, and to deep compassion. While Muslim Americans reap immediate benefits from this support and friendship, I believe that we are also learning more about what it means to be a religious person in America through the example of our interfaith friends.

Rev. Killmer: I thank all three of you for your participation in this dialogue and am grateful to you for your valuable and important work with NRCAT and Shoulder to Shoulder.

The strength of the interfaith movement is that it builds “common ground” to address the many ills that plague our land. Religion holds tremendous power in this country, and too often the religious voice is seen as divisive and as divided. However, when people of faith see their leaders standing together for the common good, it inspires them to replicate those relationships in their own communities.

As we all know well, it is hard to predict exactly what opportunities and challenges the future will hold for NRCAT and Shoulder to Shoulder. Torture and anti-Muslim bigotry raise extremely troubling moral concerns and will unquestionably continue to be an important part of the work of the two organizations and its members. As long as their members continue to work together in a spirit of interfaith collaboration, I am confident that these organizations will continue to be a powerful voice on these and other critical issues of our time.

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While it is strategically and morally productive for people of faith to advocate for religious solidarity, I'd like to throw some thought into the mix without giving the appearance of raining on a scheduled parade. In the last tens years interfaith alliances have stated the problem eloquently and at sufficient length. Muslim organizations have, indeed, gone at great lengths to affirm that "we are alike." It's been a clever act of diplomacy, passionate with words, confident of their prospects and well-padded by willingness to socially integrate with a needed support system. However, did it achieve what it should have? Did we affect those who have the power to act against the injustices that still seem to have significant traction?
I wonder if we did more than just fortify a comfort zone for dialogue, while purposely neglecting some of issues necessary to authentically improve the menu that has been repeatedly stirred in the American melting pot? I cannot help believe that many Muslims were more apologetic than honest, hoping to avoid the appearance of being antagonistic than moderate. It's pretty common to disguise indignation with moderation, because it offers an individual self-protection.

First I guess we have to define, what were our intentions? What did we hope to achieve? Did we give enough voice to the 9/11 generation largely ignored? I look at the American Muslim youth and I see a very troubled group, without the wherewithal to synthesize two distinct identities and continue to believe it to be an overwhelming task, particularly since one of those identities has become a combative topic.  The young and inexperienced Muslim mind is older by ten years, but still being crushed from the burden raised by national dualism, prompted by the weight of terrorism investigations and indictments that will ultimately produce endangered consciences that cannot help but ask: Muslim or American and what allegiance does each one demand of me?
Ten years of "meet and greet" have not liberated the compassionate from still feeling inhibited, constrained and impotent in every way that really matters to their sense of fair play. My words are not meant to demonize sincere actions, I just wish that we, collectively, did more to define and confront the injustices that run contrary to what I "assume" to be the goals of the interfaith movement.
I am completely persuaded that far from real justice and freedom, , that such a process, if detached from larger goals, rarely changes anything, but fashions them more strong by rendering them less visible.

After all this time, some of our names are more recognized and we have more friends on Facebook, but have we answered the question for that 9/11 generation that is seldom acknowledged: “How am I to survive spiritually? What does it mean to be Muslim in America when you are stigmatized for walking in your own truth?” 
Few non-Muslim people understand the unique challenges facing young American Muslim youth and the legitimate need they have to feel supported in their identity development as Muslims and as Americans. Most Muslim communities remain clueless as well. Is there an no escape from this circular reasoning in which Muslims are urged to prove their loyalty to the nation, and after presenting themselves as loyal are then accused of concealing their disloyalty? At the same time, the American Muslim community, remains weak and disorganized and, still, have not mastered the kinds of strategies needed to address the issues of its youth as some are being brainwashed into looking at their birth country from outside ideologies.

I am only asking the questions, because I sincerely seek the answers.

Khalilah Sabra
MAS Immigrant Justice Center

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