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Since there have been two pieces on what was described as the "political agenda" of the 9/11 vigil, I am happy to share the reflections I offered that night. I spoke as one person, a professor of religion whose work was transformed by the responses of religious communities to catastrophe of that day.
The morning of 9/11/2001 was startlingly beautiful. We had been House Masters at Lowell House for just two years. It was the beginning of term. When we heard a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, we rushed to the TV in the junior common room. And as we stood there with a growing number of students, the second plane hit. Our bewilderment and, yes, our fear grew as we learned of other planes, hijacked, in the air. We could not believe our eyes when we saw the towers fall.
By the end of the day, the whole University community gathered here in this Yard. 5000 strong, seated on the grass in the evening light. As somber a gathering as this space has ever had. This was the beginning of a new era in our lives and would challenge the fabric of our community.
How would a student of religion, like me, even begin to track the depth of questioning, the response, the doubt, the fear? That became the subject of my teaching that fall. People of every religious tradition died in the twin towers, in the Pentagon, in a field in Shanksville, Penn. For weeks, we read their stories: a Chinese restaurant worker, who had put his children through college and contributed to the Buddhist temple; a New York born Hindu stock analyst, a loving Jewish father; a devoted Catholic mother.
I had been studying America's growing religious diversity for some ten years by that time, tracking the emerging histories of new Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh communities here in America. In the days after 9/11, some of the very communities with whom I had developed relationships, were also under attack
In the early afternoon of September 11, I received an email from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a joint statement from eleven national Muslim organizations condemning the violence as Muslims and expressing their grief and solidarity as Americans. Their voices were not easily heard in the maelstrom of news coverage. Months later, people were still asking, “Why don’t Muslim leaders say something?"
We had our homemade violence—rifle fire that very night through the dome of the mosque in Toledo, for example. But wait! By the next day, over 2000 citizens of Toledo were holding hands in a circle of protection around the mosque to say "This is not who we are." And that story of homegrown violence and the rejection of violence would be repeated dozens of times.
Sikhs were also attacked, as we know. Our turbans made us targets, they said. A Sikh advocacy group reported of over two hundred incidents: a Sikh attacked with a baseball bat in Queens, beaten unconscious in Seattle, and assaulted at a stop light in San Diego, shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona. In those days after 9/11 the Sikh Coalition was born, to begin to educate the rest of us about their faith, and to stand for the most American of principles, their civil rights.
In that time of real vulnerability, mosques across the country held open houses, including our Islamic Center here in Cambridge. In a letter of invitation to the whole city, they said, “God willing, we can lend one another strength to find hope in these uncertain times.” More than seven hundred people came, many of them visiting a mosque for the first time. In Austin, Texas, hundreds showed up for the Sunday open house. A woman interviewed by the Austin American-Statesman put it plainly for all of us when she said, “The time of not getting to know each other is over."
I remember the Jewish festival of Sukkoth that fall. The fragile booth, called the sukkah, was built, open to the sky and its sides to the wind, here at Harvard Hillel. The Jewish theologian Arthur Waskow wrote on Sukkoth, 2001: He said, "This year the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah. Even the greatest oceans do not shield us; even the mightiest buildings do not shield us; even the wealthiest balance sheets and the most powerful weapons do not shield us. There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us."
September 11, 2001, made clear to us the deeper meanings of globalization: that our borders in this world are now but dotted lines at best. There is no strength in brick and steel, but there is strength in the relationships we build. In the years that followed, we would see Jewish, Muslim, Christian students, students of every faith and none, gather to eat and get to know one another in the sukkah or at the iftar meals of the Islamic society during Ramadan.
This is our task, now: understanding one another and building the relationships that will guide this university, our communities, and the communities of the world into a future of hope, creating a fabric of relationship that will be too strong to rend asunder.
Diana L. Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and co-House Master of Lowell House.
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