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9/11: Twenty Years Later, An Interreligious Discussion

“I can’t predict the future; I just would like all of us to act as if it’s not going to be a good future and to do our best to ensure that it gets better.” —Benjamin Sax, ICJS Jewish Scholar

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, ICJS hosted an online interreligious panel discussion to reflect on how 9/11 and its aftermath impacted the religious and interreligious landscape, both locally and globally. ICJS scholars Heather Miller Rubens, Matt Taylor, Ben Sax, and Zeyneb Sayilgan discussed the impact of that day on their scholarly and personal lives. There were a wide range of audience questions discussed, ranging from the religious implications of the 9/11 attacks to predictions on the plight of incoming Afghan refugees into the U.S.

“There has probably been no single, greater contributor to religious bias and bigotry in the 21st century than 9/11 and its aftermath,” said Matt Taylor, ICJS Protestant scholar. The world we inhabited 20 years ago is not the world we inhabit now, and yet we as a society still struggle with the aftermath of that day.

As the panel noted, most people did not have cellphones on 9/11/01, whereas now online Zoom conversations and drone warfare are common. While interfaith alliances and interreligious dialogue have also made great strides, there is still widespread fear, Islamophobia, and xenophobia that prevent greater interreligious solidarity and understanding, in the U.S. and internationally.

Muslim Scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan spoke on the personal impact of 9/11 on her life and work. “As a Muslim, I’m always aware of the role that fear plays,” said Sayilgan. “[I] fear for my own safety because Islamophobia is real here in the United States and in Europe […].” She described her regular encounters at airport security checkpoints where she is pulled aside for extra screening because she wears the hijab.

Yet, she also noted how the American Muslim community has built incredible resiliency throughout all these years. “But people need to confront their own negative perceptions,” she said. “It takes relationship-building to change these negative stereotypes about Muslims. How do we break out of that cycle? How do we allow for more advanced learning experiences?”

ICJS has itself made great strides in the last 20 years, creating just such spaces for advanced learning experiences. Still, an interreligious society requires constant effort.

“Having friendships, having deep genuine friendships across interreligious lines, friendships where you can have deeply honest conversations, for instance, where you can laugh together. I think that’s what keeps us in it for the long haul,” added Taylor.

“The work is never completed, and what we call tikkun, repair, requires my work. I can plant a tree but I’m never going to enjoy its fruits,” said Benjamin Sax, ICJS Jewish Scholar. “My work in this world is to have a world full of those kinds of trees. I don’t know how they will play out, and I also won’t live to actually enjoy the fruits of those labors, because they weren’t for me. And that makes me feel like it’s definitely worth the work.”