I am writing this on September 11, nine years after the tragic attacks on American civilian targets by religious fanatics belonging to the Al-Qaida movement of Osama bin Laden. I’m in Istanbul, the ancient former capital of the Ottoman Empire. I woke up this morning to the first call for prayer coming from a nearby mosque. It is still dark outside, and i’m filled with thoughts I’m struggling to sort out.
I arrived here the other day, via Dubai, completely oblivious that I was traveling on the eve of the ninth anniversary of 9/11. The world has not quite recovered from the events unleashed by Bin Laden’s deadly adventurism. Two wars have followed since then, and almost ten years later, the issues and causes on which they were launched remain unresolved. One provocation in one part of the world has been echoed by another, threatening an escalation of violence whose complexity has far outstripped our capacity for comprehension.
But the scars from this conflict have piled up in many unexpected ways, forming a thick and ugly outer skin that we can only describe as the protocols of paranoia and insecurity. We cannot travel anymore without being profiled at any point as potential terrorists. We are expected to silently bear the body frisking, the removal of belts and shoes, the repeated approaches to the electronic security portals when alarm signals are set off, the X-raying of bags and luggages, and, as if these were not enough, the intrusive questioning of you are, who packed your bags, where you are headed, etc. Through all this, you are expected to remain silent. Any comment you make while undergoing these rituals of degradation may be used against you. Superficial as they may be, these are my own personal penance for 9/11. And I suppose I’m not alone in feeling this way.
That is why I can only sigh in desperation whenever somebody thinks of another novel way of remembering 9/11. Not too long ago, a group of Muslim businessmen proposed to build a huge mosque near ground zero where the World Trade Center once stood. The motive may be wellmeaning but it doesn’t take a genius to imagine how other people might interpret this – a brazen provocation, a metaphorical conquest, analogous to the demolition of existing shrines and temples of worship in Latin America and their replacement by the cathedrals of the conquering colonial power.
But nothing perhaps beats the barbarism of burning a holy book — whether this be the Bible or the Qur’an — that a Christian pastor has proposed to do on the anniversary of 9/11. If he were acting alone, rather than as head of a small religious congregation, Reverend Terry Jones might easily be dismissed as a dangerous crackpot who deserves to be locked up. But the man leads a flock, professing a faith that is founded on hate. He is freely addressing himself to people who have not emotionally recovered from 9/ 11, who continue to nurture a smoldering resentment in their hearts. It is this resentment that Rev. Jones seeks to tap.
I understand that Jones has agreed to shelve this vicious idea for now. Which only means he has not entirely given it up. Indeed, there is no way the world can insulate itself from ideas like these except by the quiet work of dialogue and self-introspection. All religions have beliefs that lend themselves to narcissism and hate. The recognition of this and the need to neutralize this by dialogues enriched by hermeneutic readings of holy books will go a long way towards bringing out the universal message of love that is at the core of the major religions.
Fortunately for the world, for every religious fanatic who tries to denigrate other religions in order to extol and spread his own, there are thousands of others who quietly labor at the more difficult task of dialogue and solidarity across faiths. Let me mention just one here — Sebastiano d’Ambra.
For the last thirty years, working in the outskirts of strife-torn Mindanao, the
Italian missionary, Fr. Sebastiano, has worked tirelessly to bring together Muslim and Christian leaders in a sustained dialogue on a variety of social issues The fruit of this is the Silsilah Dialogue Movement, perhaps one of the most active and enduring interfaith programs that one can find anywhere.
Fr. Sebastiano wrote me a frantic note yesterday, in which he shares his thoughts about 9/11 and Terry Jones’s mad proposal to stage the burning of the Qur’an. “September 11 2001 is a black day in the history of humanity. Events of conflict and signs of dialogue after that day have been part of recent history in a very astonishing manner. We can say that this is a most dangerous time, but also the most challenging time to build dialogue and peace.”
The news about Rev. Terry Jones is very serious, and we must not minimize its significance, Fr. Sebastiano writes. “One of the expressions that I often I hear in Zamboanga among Muslim friends is that a Muslim has to be a ‘living Qur’an.’ I like this concept. It is a kind of slogan that I often share with fellow Christians saying, ‘You have to be a living Bible.’ Yes, if all of us, Muslims and Christians, become a living Qur’an or a living Bible, we can change society.”
I’m among Muslim friends in Istanbul, who think like Fr. Sebastiano, as I write this. In the next columns, I hope to share my reflections of the momentous changes that are currently taking place in Turkey as it navigates the crossroads of modernity.