By Father Tom Baima

As we approach the anniversary of the terrorist attack on America on Sept. 11, 2001 and as Muslim Americans celebrate the month of Ramadan, there is a need for Christians to pause and evaluate what 9/11 means to our national identity.

We believe that times of national tragedy call out both the best and worst in people. America’s greatest successes as a nation have come when we have listened to the best voices and ignored the worst. Events like 9/11 can be confusing because of the number of contradictory voices we hear. In situations such as this, it is important that we return to our best voices, especially as we come to commemorate anniversaries each year.{{more}}

What was 9/11? An act of terrorism? Certainly. But what is terrorism? Terrorism is a form of political speech. Fundamentally, it is about ideas of hatred. It is a manipulative voice in a larger discourse. Consequently, the success or failure of terrorism is really measured by the number of people who come to believe its message.

As women and men engaged in interreligious dialogue, we have experience in a different kind of speech. In a certain sense, our kind of speech is what the terrorists fear the most, for it is non-manipulative speech. Dialogue is speech oriented toward reconciliation through mutual understanding and respect. It is also direct speech, unmediated by the press or news editors, rooted in a first-person encounter that militates against simplistic abstractions and stereotypes.

As a result of our experience, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, we have come to see one particular fact as needing response. It is that the attacks of 9/11 were made in the name of the God of Abraham. There have been a number of responses to this fact in public discourse, on the Internet and in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, some of these responses have suggested that the attacks of 9/11 actually define and reveal the essence of what Muslims believe about the God of Abraham.

Our experience of dialogue has shown us otherwise. As a recent Gallup study revealed, while there are some Muslims who do preach hate for the West and support terrorist attacks, the majority, many of whom we know personally, deplore the 9/11 attack on America and denounce terrorism. They see this violence in the name of God as a blasphemy which perverts basic Islamic teaching about justice and compassion.

Yet it is also our experience that reasonable Muslim voices cannot find a hearing in the public square because fear and alienation has created a bias against all Muslims in American society. This bias is reflected in the mainstream media, and prevents reasonable voices from being heard. Indeed, the better voices of reason and truth sometimes appear to be overwhelmed by the voices of ignorance and fear.

Because there are many different voices raised each year as we approach this anniversary, as Catholic Christians, we must ask ourselves, “Where do we find our better voices?” As we seek to listen to the voice of the Church, we turn to the Second Vatican Council and its declaration Nostra Aetate (“in our time”) which sets forth the magisterium’s teaching on the relationship between Christians and Muslims.

The Fathers recognize that the relationship between Muslims and Christians has been a difficult one. While speaking about the hostilities which marked the relations between Christendom and Dar-al-Islam throughout the centuries, the Fathers teach a principle which directly applies to us in the difficult days since 9/11: “Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

Our reasons for accepting this teaching lie in the very nature of Christianity and in its most radical and unique claim, that God is love. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.

So our first response to inspanidual Muslims, even in the wake of 9/11, can only be to begin with our common human dignity. Anything less is a denial of who we claim to be as followers of Christ. The yearly anniversary of Sept. 11 offers us a chance to repeat [that] act of repentance. This kind of prayer will lead to a purification of memories, so that we might approach the yearly anniversary free from prejudice.

Father Baima is a priest of the Chicago Archdiocese and a member of the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers.