Thomas Banchoff is director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He also serves as vice president for global engagement at Georgetown University and as professor in the Department of Government and the Walsh School of Foreign Service.
For me the shock and devastation of the morning of September 11 also raised a confusing personal challenge. How was I to answer the persistent questions of my daughters, then six and seven, when confronted like the rest of us with unimaginable and inescapable images? “What happened?” “Why did they do that to us?” And most difficult: “Do we have to be afraid?”
Two decades later, the answers to those basic questions remain elusive.
At the level of world politics, the attacks of September 11 continue to reverberate. The persistence of anti-Muslim prejudice, the failed U.S. war in Afghanistan, and the rise of the homeland security state are among the most enduring consequences. Al-Qaeda’s terrorist fanatics pierced the perceived shield of American invulnerability, unleashed a ferocious counter-mobilization, and sullied the public image of Islam, a religion of peace.
Al-Qaeda’s terrorist fanatics pierced the perceived shield of American invulnerability, unleashed a ferocious counter-mobilization, and sullied the public image of Islam, a religion of peace.
The coincidence of the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 with the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has rightly focused attention on the possibility of new terrorist threats. But it should not distract us from one of the most important and underappreciated developments of the past two decades: the strong public condemnation of religious violence by the vast majority of Muslim leaders and their efforts, in cooperation with counterparts in other religious traditions, to advance interfaith understanding in practice. The letter addressed by Muslim leaders to Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” was one critical effort among many.
The Berkley Center was founded in 2006 as global momentum for deeper interfaith cooperation was building. Over the intervening 15 years, our research, teaching, and outreach efforts have engaged diverse partners to build knowledge and advance dialogue and collaboration around critical issues at the intersection of religion, peace, and world affairs.
While we can take heart in the public mobilization of religious leaders for peace and dialogue—one of the long-term consequences of September 11—there is much work to be done.
The deepening of interfaith dialogue and cooperation since 9/11 has not, of course, prevented ongoing faith-related violence. While the United States has been spared further direct attacks, religious conflict has continued to unfold around the globe. Examples include a resurgence of anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic, the persecution of Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria, and the threat the Taliban pose to their own population and to Afghan women in particular. While we can take heart in the public mobilization of religious leaders for peace and dialogue—one of the long-term consequences of September 11—there is much work to be done.
“Do we have to be afraid?” Yes, geopolitical tensions are on the rise, our politics are polarized, and we face global threats ranging from pandemics to catastrophic climate change. But religion is not, as it seemed to so many two decades ago, the heart of the problem; it is, for more and more of us, part of the solution.