The Deep Need for Understanding across Religious Differences: A Reflection on the Legacy of September 11

By: David Hollenbach

September 8, 2021

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

The horror of the attack on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, increased my conviction that the need for interreligious understanding is probably the most important religious and ethical challenge of our time. But despite my shock at what had happened on 9/11, I was not entirely surprised by the eruption of religious animosity toward the West.

This lack of surprise was due in large part to my longstanding work on the relation between interreligious understanding, human rights, and peace. For example, in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against the shah of Iran took place, I was traveling in the Middle East researching Jewish, Christian, and Muslim approaches to human rights. While at the Jesuit-sponsored Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut on that trip, for the first time in my life I faced the reality of being under fire by rocket-propelled grenades. Also in Lebanon, I was accompanied by a Jesuit colleague from the university who was subsequently assassinated by religious radicals. Despite such extraordinary dangers, the university remained open throughout the civil war that had divided Lebanon for decades, seeking to be a sign of hope that conflict need not be perpetual. The Lebanese university’s commitment to interreligious understanding among its students, who were roughly half Christian and half Muslim, returned to me on 9/11. Whether in the Lebanese Civil War or in dealing with terrorist threats against Westerners by Islamic radicals today, the effort to deepen understanding of the faith and values of others is an absolutely essential step toward mutual respect and peace.

Whether in the Lebanese Civil War or in dealing with terrorist threats against Westerners by Islamic radicals today, the effort to deepen understanding of the faith and values of others is an absolutely essential step toward mutual respect and peace. 

Indeed, the need for interreligious understanding is not limited to settings where Muslims threaten Christians. Several of the most severe conflicts of today are in fact directed against Muslims. In Myanmar, Buddhist animosity targets Muslim Rohingya, and in the Xinjiang district of western China, a culture with complex roots in both Confucian and Marxist traditions is violating the dignity and human rights of millions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Christians, too, have contributed to interreligious conflict, as Christian anti-Semitism and The Troubles of Northern Ireland sadly demonstrate.

My memory of 9/11 thus reinforces my conviction that increased understanding across religious differences should be a central goal for both religious and academic communities today. In the religious sphere, Pope Francis has made this one of the central goals of his papacy. Academically, the Berkley Center has grown from the conviction that respect across religious difference requires mutual understanding and that such understanding requires serious intellectual work. 

My memory of 9/11 thus reinforces my conviction that increased understanding across religious differences should be a central goal for both religious and academic communities today.

On this anniversary, my memories of 9/11 lead me to hope that the needed interreligious respect and understanding will grow through the efforts of both the Church and the university, helping to advance the peace of our tragically divided world.

comments powered by Disqus