Cultural and Religious Literacy after September 11

By: Erin Cline

September 8, 2021

Religion, Peace, and World Affairs: Reflections on the Legacy of September 11

On September 11, 2001, I was a graduate student at the University of Hawai’i (UH) and one of a handful of American students affiliated with the East-West Center, where the majority of graduate fellows were from throughout Asia and the Pacific. We had all come to UH to focus our graduate studies on different kinds of intercultural and international studies, and while we studied in different departments—from philosophy to anthropology to politics—we lived together in a large dormitory at the East-West Center on the edge of the UH campus. We shared meals and shopped for groceries together, and became something of a family, though we came from nearly 50 different countries. On my floor alone were students from Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Guam, Fiji, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Samoa, Inner Mongolia, India, Japan, and South Korea.

The morning of September 11 was characteristically bright and sunny in Honolulu, and we were the last ones in the United States to wake up to the news. All circuits were busy when I tried to call my parents in Alaska. And so our international community found ourselves stumbling out of our dorm rooms, meeting in hallways and on balconies, looking out over the Pacific Ocean at Diamond Head in the distance, the blazing sun glittering on the water as we listened to radio reports about what had happened on the opposite side of the country. 

The dialogue that began on our graduate student list-serve that day was a bitter and terse one. Some students expressed the view that America had gotten what it had coming to it. Other students replied that no country deserved this, regardless of its foreign policies or cultural orientation. Still others speculated that Hawai’i would be the next target. Tensions began to run high. It was difficult, because even though it was early in the year, we’d already become close.

Some students expressed the view that America had gotten what it had coming to it. Other students replied that no country deserved this, regardless of its foreign policies or cultural orientation.

In the coming days, I puzzled over what to say at an event for all of the East-West Center fellows. I was supposed to speak to everyone about electing future leaders of our participants’ association, but a friend on the mainland had sent me an email about an outdoor candlelight vigil that was being organized all over the United States, with the hope that lights would be visible by satellite if enough people did it. I walked to the store and bought a big box of candles. And that night, instead of speaking, I distributed the candles to everyone in the room and asked them to follow me outside, where we stood in a big circle in the parking lot in front of our dorm. One by one, we lit each other’s candles, and shared our hopes and fears. One thing was clear to all of us: Cultural and religious literacy was going to be more important than ever for our generation. And if we could live together as friends despite our differences, surely we could make some headway in helping others to do it.

I carry the image of the candlelit faces in that circle each day, as I go about my work as a senior research fellow in the Berkley Center and as the Paul J. and Chandler M. Tagliabue Distinguished Professor of Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Georgetown. I see them when SFS students tell me they are taking my Chinese philosophy class to learn about the cultural values of the countries in which they hope to work as diplomats. I see those faces when I speak to the Foreign Service Institute, orienting diplomats who are being deployed by the U.S. State Department to Asia about the cultural and religious values of the places where they will serve. I see those candlelit faces when I think of the work that this generation—my students—will do to address human rights crises in places like Xinjiang, and when I help my students to understand how cultural and religious illiteracy has contributed to U.S. failure in places like Afghanistan.

I see those candlelit faces when I think of the work that this generation—my students—will do to address human rights crises in places like Xinjiang. 

I also see those faces when I hope that my students will be the ones to teach U.S. soldiers to take off their sunglasses when talking with villagers in cultures that value eye contact, or that knowing and exchanging favorite verses from a sacred text with locals is an expression of shared values. I also see those candlelit faces when I hope that my international students will have the courage to return to their countries and work for change internally, in places that oppress and persecute their people for religious and cultural reasons. Much like millions of candles create a light that doesn’t compare to one, the day-to-day interactions we have with each other, multiplied over millions of interactions over time, can decide the outcome for us all.

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