It was Wednesday night. I was putzing around in my apartment, reheating some dinner, and flipping through the channels on our recently relocated tv. After flirting with some telenovelas, I ultimately decided on good old PBS. After watching an interesting documentary on reviving the Iraqi Marshes, I saw a promotional piece for a Frontline special entitled “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” That ought to be good I thought to myself. Lucky for me, it was coming on next.
Two hours and a box of tissues later, I staggered to my journal to unload my brain. This was some heavy shit. As the title might indicate, the documentary examined the oh so mild topics of faith, God, evil, doubt, and religion. This isn’t the show you have on while you are cooking dinner or updating your facebook page. It deserves your full attention, and it is well worth your time. You can find the full program online, as well as written transcripts of the interviews. It was filmed in 2002, so there is a difficult but profound rawness to the conversations.
I found the interviews with religious leaders to be particularly captivating. These were men, of various faiths, who had committed their lives to religion. And here were 19 individuals, who were so drunk off of their own religious infatuation, that they felt at peace with the notion of murdering 3,000 people. In our politically correct culture, we have attempted to separate the role of religion from the events of 9/11. “That’s not Islam” we tell ourselves, “so the role of religion is irrelevant.” It is true that the terrorist attacks weren’t Islam, just as the Ku Klux Klan, Crusades and Spanish Inquisition aren’t Christianity. But religion was involved, and we are fooling ourselves to think otherwise. Listen to the words of Monsignore Lorenzo Albacete, a professor of theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York:
“From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion. Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life, it’s my vocation, it’s my existence.. Therefore, I know it.
And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion — because religion can be a passion — the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognized it.
I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don’t hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognized that this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the wonders of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different — these are characteristics of religion. And I knew that that force could take you to do great things. But I knew that there was no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion. (full interview)
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox Rabbi and vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, echoes this frank approach to the dark side of religion.
“…Religion drove those planes into those buildings. That’s upsetting, but that’s what happened. This idea that somehow that’s not Islam, so we shouldn’t worry is not only naïve; it’s stupid. It’s wrong. There’s a very rich tradition which they delved into to justify what they did.
By the way, hating doing it and fighting against it ever happening again is also Islam, just like with the Jewish tradition. The guy who went into the mosque in the city of Hebron and murdered 29 human beings didn’t do that out of the air. He had a deep connection to a tradition, a religious tradition in Judaism that pushed him there. Keeping him from doing it is also a serious religious tradition.
You don’t sterilize these traditions and say “No, no, no, they don’t do anything wrong.” Because what’s really going on when we do that is that we don’t want– If Islam is clean, and that’s not real Islam, then I don’t have to ask where is it real Jewish, and Christians don’t have to ask where is it real Christian. The worst thing we can do is make some kind of compact where none of us admit the blood on our hands. (full interview)
And what about Muslims? Afterall, it was their faith that was slandered that day. Listen to the reaction of Khaled Abou El Fadl, a leading Islamic scholar and professor of law at UCLA.
“I was completely frozen for the first hour or so. It’s as if I refused to believe it. I didn’t know how to believe it. … One day before, I was there [in New York]. In fact, I was in the Borders that was destroyed, and I stayed in a hotel right across the street from the World Trade Center. … That thought went through my head: “We were just there. The second thought was a prayer, a wish, a plea: “Please, God, not Muslims. [Do not let it be] Muslims who have done this, or anyone who is calling themselves a Muslim.” …
Part of me felt that wishful thinking. Just one week before, I had written an article in the L.A. Times, saying I was very afraid that something tragic like this was going to happen, because of my reading of where the thinking in the Islamic reality was. And then to see it happen, I didn’t want to talk about it. I actually walked away from the television set and went into my den, and pretty much didn’t want to talk about it…I didn’t want to see anyone.
Something in my heart just told me that I know it’s going to turn out to be someone who believes himself a Muslim to have done this. I wept for a good hour. It was so much suffering. As a professor who teaches in this field, and as a Muslim who is committed to this religion, for it to all to come to this. It wasn’t just that I was crying about the planes or the fear or the anxiety. … I was crying over what has happened to Muslim civilization. Where are we now? I was crying over the fate of something that I love dearly, and that is Islam.
I was very angry, [but] not at God. I must confess I was very angry at our behavior — meaning my fellow brethren and sisters, Muslims. Well before this, there was the destroying of the Buddha statues; there [was] the oppression of women in Afghanistan; there [was] the decision to have Christians and Jews wear distinctive marks in Afghanistan. It’s ugliness after ugliness after ugliness…I don’t think you can have a sense of dignity about yourself if you can’t clearly confront the fact that this was committed in the name of the faith that you believe in.” (full interview)
Three men of three different faiths, all shaken by the acts of 19 fanatics. I was very impressed by the wisdom of their words, and I was especially moved by the Monsignor’s and Rabbi’s willingness to admit the shared guilt of their own creeds. Rather than pointing the finger and singling out Islam, their reactions implied the nauseating realization of “This could have been me, this could have been my faith.” The people who drove those planes into the buildings happened to be Muslim, but the fervor that drove them had no particular connection to Islam. It is a detachment from reality, an unbelievable arrogance in the righteousness of a cause, that has exhibited itself in all religions and many ideologies. Such ugliness has no place in religion, but unfortunately it is there, and we had best deal with it.
Watch the video. Read the interviews. And most importantly, think critically about matters of faith. I only wish the hijackers had found the courage to do the same.