Building Muslim-Christian Relationships in a World Transformed: Impacts of the Attacks of 9/11

By: Leo Lefebure

September 11, 2019

Reflecting on 9/11 Across Generations

During the 9:00 hour on the morning of September 11, 2001, I taught a freshman class on Faith and Critical Reason at Fordham University’s Rose Hill Campus in the Bronx, New York City. After class ended, I learned about the attacks in a very general way from a colleague, returned to my office, and turned on my radio. The first announcement I heard was that the second World Trade Center Tower had just collapsed. I had no framework for processing this stunning news. Other colleagues in the Departments of Theology and Philosophy soon gathered at my office to listen to the radio updates on the unfolding events. I worried that heavy traffic from New York City would make it difficult for me to drive home to Yonkers, but the authorities closed all the bridges to Manhattan, and there was virtually no traffic on the road that day.

The attacks shattered the confident self-assurance that the United States had enjoyed since the end of the Cold War and sharply increased suspicion of Muslims, as well as interest in the relationship between religions and violence. In 2000, I published a book—Revelations, the Religions, and Violence—and had already accepted invitations to speak on religiously motivated violence at various venues, including Siena College and Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut; these presentations received added attention in the changed situation. I was already involved in the Midwest Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims. On account of the difficult atmosphere for American Muslims after the attacks, these discussions too took on added importance as both Muslim and Christian leaders appreciated the vital importance of developing stronger interreligious relations. 

In the months and years that followed, I participated in numerous dialogues with Muslims in the United States, Turkey, India, and Australia discussing how to improve our relations. In January 2002, a Muslim colleague and I spoke to a conference on “Violence in the Life of the Believer” at the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson, New Jersey. In October 2001, at Christ the King Church in Yonkers, I offered a series of lectures on the origins of Islam, the classic forms of Islam, and the encounter of Islam and modernity—including the militant extremist movements. A reporter from Westchester’s Journal News attended the final talk of the series and published a favorable description of my talk the following day. 

The terrorist attacks opened up a major opportunity for learning, prompting tremendous interest in the New York metropolitan area in learning about Islam. I spoke on Islam and on Muslim-Christian relations again and again in parishes, colleges, universities, and retreat centers for the next three years. The vast majority of my audiences were uninformed about Islam and wanted to learn; a few persons were very hostile to Islam and criticized me for being too positive about the religion. I emphasized that the Islamic tradition contains a very rich heritage that is far broader than the issue of violence. Some of my audience became very interested in Islamic mysticism in the Sufi tradition and were impressed by areas of convergence with Christian spirituality. At the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in Garrison, New York, some Muslims attended my talks on Islam. Initially worried that I would attack Islam, they were delighted by my presentations, and the younger persons took copious notes. We expanded the series to include an additional session to allow the Muslims to share about their experiences of living in the United States after the attacks of 9/11.

So, amid the tragedy came moments of hope. In November 2001, Dr. Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America thanked the Catholic members of the Midwest Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims for their support during that difficult time. He pointed to a basket of letters that he had received from Catholic school children across the United States praying for Muslims and asking to be peace partners with them. He told us, “These are our most precious possessions.”

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