Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A Muslim woman attends a sermon at the New York Islamic Center in Manhattan on Sept. 14, 2001, declared a national day of prayer for all faiths.

After 9/11, this chaplain sows seeds of religious understanding

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Urgent calls began to pour in just one day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As a U.S. Army chaplain, I had spoken to military staff groups occasionally since 1989 about the roots of religiously motivated violence. Now it was a hot topic, as many in the West ignorantly equated the fiery attacks with mainstream Islam. 

All three of the world’s major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – trace their origin to Abraham in their sacred texts. “All three religions have seen violent breakaway factions,” I told my audiences. They do not represent the mainline teachings of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. The common origin and shared purpose of these three great religions should be a source of unity and respect among all adherents.

Why We Wrote This

After the 9/11 attacks, our essayist, a chaplain, answered calls to explain the roots of religious violence with a message of unity, respect, and love.

A moving example of the power of mutual respect came after one such briefing when four smiling imams approached and insisted on shaking my hand.

The imams’ actions underlined the anguish of the Muslim community at being so misunderstood and vilified by the actions of a few extremists. The moment spoke of the power of love, whose source is divine, to knit us together.

Urgent calls began to pour in just one day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Would I come and brief this or that group in the U.S. Army and Air Force Operations Centers at the Pentagon? Over the next few months, I also spoke to most of the intelligence community in Washington, D.C.

As a U.S. Army chaplain, I had spoken to military staff groups occasionally since 1989 about the roots of religiously motivated violence. Now it was a hot topic.

All three of the world’s major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – trace their origin to Abraham in their sacred texts. All three also contain examples of “divine command morality.” Briefly, this aberrant teaching requires believers not to question instructions from designated prophets. The mainstream of all three faiths considers such blind obedience a distortion, especially if the orders are inhumane. 

Why We Wrote This

After the 9/11 attacks, our essayist, a chaplain, answered calls to explain the roots of religious violence with a message of unity, respect, and love.

“All three religions have seen violent breakaway factions,” I told my audiences. Look at the “Christian” Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, who burned and murdered their own members. Similarly, the Jewish zealots of Masada died by suicide or were killed by fellow Jews in the year 66 rather than surrender to Roman soldiers. And while the Islamic State is the clearest parallel to such extremism in Islam, Al Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, the bombing of the USS Cole, and 9/11 also exemplify this violent misapprehension.

But in 2001, the fiery attacks wrought by the hijackers were, for many in the West, their first encounter with Islam. Many ignorantly equated such extremism with mainstream Islam. All such violent religious factions across the Abrahamic tradition are small, I pointed out. They do not represent the mainline teachings of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. The common origin and shared purpose of these three great religions should be a source of unity and respect among all adherents.

I experienced a moving example of the power of mutual respect after one such briefing in the early 2000s, at Pace University in New York City. 

Four Muslim imams approached me after the talk. They were smiling. “We would like to thank you,” one of them said. “And we’d like to shake your hand.” 

I’d been thanked before, but this was different. I am a woman, and in mainstream traditional Islam, imams do not touch women who are not of their family – much less shake their hands.

I smiled and bowed my head. “I appreciate your thanks,” I said, “but I wouldn’t want you to compromise your beliefs.”

Their response was even more moving: “We insist on shaking your hand!” 

When I extended my hand, each imam in turn took it in both of his and bowed. 

“You are the first imams to have shown me this very kind and rare form of gratitude,” I said. But why had they insisted? They had never heard anyone – not even a fellow Muslim – read from the Quran and speak the Prophet Muhammad’s name with such reverence, they said, especially when I added the requisite phrase, “Peace be upon him.”

The imams’ actions underlined the anguish of the Muslim community at being so misunderstood and vilified by the actions of a few extremists. The moment also spoke of the power of love, whose source is divine, to knit us together.

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