Today Is September 11: Fear, Religion’s Dangers, And Hope

I look at my calendar, realize my next Hevria post will appear on September 11, and wonder what to do. Usually, I’m not a zeitgeist/prevailing mood kind of person. I’m barely aware of celebrities and don’t share the common excitement or sadness when their lives and deaths spark widespread exploration. I’m not particularly into politics. Though I have nothing against TV, very little of it interests me. I’m much more into the nuances of personality and consciousness that transcend the day, whatever day it might be, than in any trending topic.

And yet… September 11, 2001 spoke to me, and continues to speak. I have vivid memories of it. For some reason, on that date I woke up hours earlier than usual and showed up at a college dining hall where I sometimes ate at maybe 7 a.m., ready for breakfast. I never went there for breakfast. A friend of mine noticed me and said: “Wow, you’re never here at this hour. It’s making me nervous.”

Most of my memories blend and collide into vagueness about time and specificity, but I know my friend made this comment on the morning of September 11, 2001. I have no doubt, because then I went home and spoke to another friend on the phone… and she told me that a plane had just smashed into one of the Twin Towers. I said: “Sounds like terrorism,” and she said: “That’s what they’re saying.” And I thought of my first friend, and how nervous my early breakfast made her. Did I sense some kind of vibration, some sign of what would come very soon, which pushed me out of bed and into the world much earlier than usual? I’m open to that sort of thing, much as my rational side finds it hokey.

Then, in a very uncharacteristic move, I decided to turn on my television and see what was happening. I virtually never watch television in the morning, but I did just that on September 11, 2001. Even I felt swept up in questions. Even I wanted to see for myself what everyone was talking about. For once, I felt part of the world, caught up in a fast-spreading, widely-discussed event.

Until that day, my fears about death largely centered on natural causes: illnesses and bodily malfunction. I wasn’t particularly afraid of walking outside at night, flying, or spending time in unruly crowds, despite the obvious risks. I always prayed before flying, but I knew that, statistically, I was safer in the plane than I was crossing the street near my home. September 11 brought home possibilities for death and injury that I didn’t think much about. Someone could attack my plane, my subway car, my café, or my beloved fireworks gathering.

I already knew this, of course, but September 11 threw it into my soul, every time I turned on the television or spoke with anyone at all. Everyone was filled up with this violence, this unexpected death of vibrant, healthy human beings who expected many more decades of life. Films, poetry, and other art projects came out of it. Death and fear were part of the overarching national conversation.

I was even more scared of dying than usual. The horrific possibilities assaulting my brain proliferated. Always terrified of an unexpected heart attack or cancer diagnosis, my imagination expanded, adding crazed lunatics with bombs to its usual repertoire of ambulances racing to my home, trying to save me after a cardiac event, and me fainting in shock after a cancer diagnosis. (God forbid to it all! Or, as my Hasidic friends would say, chas v’shalom!)

I avoided Boston’s fireworks the following summer, despite the utter joy I feel when watching that display of color and light. Most people went about their lives, saying that holding back would let “them,” the terrorists, win. But I’ve always said that I am unwilling to die for any cause — or, for that matter, risk injury. I am not that person who would jump back into life and warm everyone’s heart if (Chas v’shalom an infinite number of times!) I lost a body part in a bombing. I’d be the one writhing in horror in a psychiatric hospital, my life over.

Even spending time at cafés felt risky, but I did it. I flew and rode the subway, too, thinking public transportation might actually be more safe than before, considering the stepped-up security. I figured I had to enjoy myself, and take some chances. But fear enveloped me, even more than before. I felt suspicious of strangers, while previously I had always loved chatting up new people. Why was that guy playing with a lighter? What might lurk in that big briefcase? I held my breath at the unknown social world I had previously relished exploring.

I have always abhorred death, and I feel that human beings should never have to sacrifice their lives for any cause whatsoever, so I would not say that September 11 brought any benefits. That’s profoundly unfair to everyone who was killed and maimed. A person — even one complex soul — dies, but it’s all for the good since the violent event boosted certain sensitivities and discussions for the population at large? That sort of reasoning has always chilled me.

Yet, I do think that this horrific event carried some unexpected gifts for many of us who were lucky enough to escape direct involvement. Suddenly, all kinds of people were discussing the Middle East and craving knowledge about Islam. Mosques in my area — and I’m guessing throughout the country — began offering classes and open houses to non-Muslims, to show that September 11 was perpetrated by outliers, not Islam as a whole.

Before, I barely ever thought about Islam, but all this discussion about it caused me to feel fascinated, and I know I’m far from alone. My mental world was broadened: I began to include Islam, and the cultures of many majority-Muslim countries, in my mental stockpile of societies and worldviews. I even developed more of an interest in Middle Eastern food after seeing so much coverage of that area, discovering great Middle Eastern restaurants, and dishes I’d never tried before.

Interfaith groups and discussions sprouted, including my own book club, Daughters of Abraham, which brings Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women together, to learn about each other’s religions. September 11 was the direct impetus for this club, which has many chapters throughout Massachusetts and in various other places throughout the U.S. The founders wanted to combat growing anti-Muslim sentiment with a group that fostered understanding and open-mindedness. Through that group, I enjoyed a fabulous trip to Turkey, led by two young Turkish women who are modern, warm, kind, extremely intelligent… and hijab-wearing Muslims. My fear has grown since September 11, but so have my understanding, social contacts, and range of friends.

Soon after news of the attacks broke, anger raged against all Muslims… and even against Middle Eastern and South Asian people who weren’t Muslim, because they somehow seemed akin to Muslims in many Americans’ minds. I found this tragic and small-minded, and reached out to the very groups that so many were shunning. A small, atypical group of angry zealots should never be allowed to define an entire spiritual faith.

Another, very different reaction — one that came from a place of caring and desire for openness — also rang false to me. I deeply supported the noble intention to avoid bigotry, but not the skewing of reality. Many I knew here in liberal Cambridge, MA were saying that September 11 and other attacks perpetrated by people citing roots in Islam or so-called Islamic terrorist organizations in fact had no connection whatsoever with Islam. They made the point that nobody mentioned the Christian heritage from which the majority of U.S. mass murderers have hailed, saying it wasn’t noteworthy because Christianity is not seen as an alien faith.

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It’s an intriguing point, and I see it to some degree. But most of the killers they named were Christian in heritage but not in passion, and did not mention Christianity in any way when they were planning the attacks, or afterwards. The September 11 attackers on New York and D.C. had strong ties to the organization al-Qaeda, whose leaders identify as enthusiastic Muslims fighting against anti-Muslim policy and values. Some other attackers with well-known Muslim roots, like the Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon, claimed no ties to larger organizations, but revealed deep political resentment rooted clearly in their interpretation of Islam.

The key word here is “interpretation” — very human, very fallible interpretation. All religions depend on interpretation; it’s what makes them breathing, human-driven forces. The vast range of interpretive possibility is what makes religion both glorious and dangerous: all religions, at least those with holy texts that human minds can dig into, and view with their own quirky lenses. I would love to think that humans are sufficiently mature and nuanced as thinkers to identify the most dangerous outgrowths of various faiths without hating or shunning all practitioners of those faiths.

Our current world has fostered a tying of some atypical interpretations of Islam and expression of violent tendencies: a discontent with world geopolitical, economic, and social forces that comes out in deeply destructive ways, among small, unusual subcultures with Muslim roots. To deny that aspect, to say that it’s prejudiced and small-minded to make the connection between a certain strand of violence and Islam, is to let political correctness flatten and warp our true sense of the world. It’s similarly crazy to deny that Christianity has spawned a virulent strain of fundamentalism that threatens freedoms throughout the U.S., and that certain extreme wings of Judaism have inspired their own forms of violence and hatred.

I am not remotely suggesting that the violent radicals represent “real” Islam. Many Muslim friends I deeply admire tell me that none of this behavior has any roots in the Islam they espouse, love, and use as a springboard for deeply ethical, caring, and generous behavior. But, as I see it, no religion is pure, unadulterated spirituality and goodness. Religion is an interaction between high ideals and human nature. Whether these ideals spring from the human mind or from some higher, wiser truth is one of the deepest questions out there, and I for one do not know the answer, though I sure hope there’s some kind of wisdom and goodness beyond the world we can easily sense.

Words in holy books are often opaque and expansive, open to many explanations and readings: a fundamental reason why so many branches exist of many major religions. Encouragement of violence is there, in any major religion I’ve ever explored, if you want to read certain passages or stories that way. Those who do make those interpretations, and use them as impetus for action, typically see themselves as devout members of their faiths. Who am I — who is anyone — to negate someone else’s self-definition? Their readings may be wrong on the highest level of true ethics, but who defines true ethics in our very human, error-prone world, where members of all religions can be exclusive, mean-spirited, and haughty in the name of their beloved faiths, even if they’re not physically violent?

It’s wrong and deeply skewed to suggest that Islam is the only religion producing, encouraging, or mirroring rage, savagery, and deep harm. Very obviously, it’s not.

Take someone like Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 perpetrated a mass murder against Palestinian Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in the city of Hebron, in the West Bank. He, too, had a movement behind him — one based on anger at geopolitical forces — and those who lauded him as a hero and a martyr to a worthy cause tended to identify as devout Jews. Goldstein was a physician who refused to treat non-Jewish patients, believing that Jewish law forbade him to heal non-Jews. Crazy? I sure think so. But it was all rooted in Judaism: the quirky take of a self-identified religious Jew whose notions inspired many others. Many, many Jews, including mainstream Orthodox leaders, decried his opinions, saying they had nothing to do with Judaism. Sound familiar?

And, of course, people have committed violence in the name of Christianity for centuries, from the Crusades on up to recent events at U.S. abortion clinics — like Robert Lewis Dear, behind killings in November, 2015 at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, who thought he was doing God’s work and praised a Christian-identified group called the Army of God: anti-abortion, Christian-identified terrorists who have perpetrated many acts of violence. Whether or not abortion strikes you as ethical or worthy of legality, killing people at an abortion clinic seems absolutely wrong… to me. But, clearly, not to those who identify with particular brands of Christianity, despite all those who say that actual Christianity, whatever that might mean, would condemn this behavior.

Our world is a terrifying place. There are so many ways to get hurt, to die, to suffer. Many if not most are beyond our control, and many of those are wielded by our fellow humans. One common way to lessen the fear and try to find a zone of comfort is to spend time with a religious group, communing with their lifestyle, values, community, and ways of offering friendship.

I find this possibility beautiful and filled with hope. I also see the hazards. You resonate with a line of thought and feeling within a religion or philosophy that feels like truth, and you’ve found some likeminded souls? That’s glorious. It might save you from deep pain, confusion, and alienation as you move forward in your life. You feel that others beyond this little home are somehow not as attuned to truth, or justice, or ideal standards of behavior? That’s OK; you’re very entitled to your convictions. The danger arises when group identity and feelings of conviction create a desire to take others over, or portray outsiders as obstacles to shed as you move towards your vision of rightness and fruition.

That’s what happened on September 11, 2001, and it affected even me, despite my sense of being completely outside social trends. The perpetrators somehow thought that making their statement in the power centers of the U.S. would move our planet closer to their vision of a moral, decent place with underpinnings their spiritual worldview upheld. They were wrong. I very rarely brand a worldview as absolutely wrong — who am I to say? — but I have no hesitation doing so here.

Let’s all enjoy whatever convictions and hopes we might have found, with whatever communities we might love. And let’s do it in a spirit of open-heartedness. We don’t have to accept others’ ideas, but we do need to embrace their spirits, needs, and joys as part of our world — even if not the part where we spend time. We need to respect the outsiders, too. If everyone did this — absolutely everyone — we’d have very little violence: the world would operate with an ethic of basic respect for everyone who dwells within it.

I could go back to obsessing about death through natural causes, secure in the knowledge that I’ll be safe as long as my health holds out. Well, not quite: there’s always accidents — mishaps with cars, planes, trees, lightning, and so much more. Chas v’shalom! God forbid! I am probably hopeless when it comes to feeling peace. But you… you might relish a world like this, find it safe enough to shed anxiety and enjoy happy, fearless days. Whatever change might come could only be good: an improvement over the lunacy that rules us now.


***Image Credit: “Sculpture NON VIOLENCE, Knotted Gun” by Martin Frey, March 4, 2013, on