(Originally published in Spring 2002)
The unbelievably savage attacks on September 11 prompted conflicting feelings in all of us. I felt scared, angry, confused. How could this be happening in American soil? How dare these fanatics attack innocent people going about their daily lives
Then I began to fear what America would do in retaliation. For years we have pleaded, cajoled and threatened warring nations around the world, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland to Kosovo, to settle their ancient differences through peaceful negotiations and international treaties, not through escalating war, renewed violence and ever more bloodshed.
On Sunday, September 23, I found my way to an interfaith service at All Saints Church in Pasadena. I was deeply moved by the scriptural readings, prayers and songs presented by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others. I had not expected to be so touched by this outpouring of spiritual faith in peace and justice and the rejection of war and violence.
The outgrowth of that healing event was the creation of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (“ICUJP”), which has been the center of my personal efforts since September 11 to contribute to greater understanding and lasting reconciliation between people of all nationalities and beliefs.
In the last five months, ICUJP has sponsored a series of interfaith services at churches, mosques and temples throughout Southern California, held Teach-Ins with prominent speakers; issued several thoughtful papers on issues of war, peace and justice (which can be viewed at www.icujp.org, along with announcements and a calendar of events) and recently held a protest over the prisoners of war in Guantanamo Bay, calling for strict adherence to the Geneva Convention.
Beyond these public activities, ICUJP has offered me the opportunity to meet people I may never have met had it not been for the tragedy of September 11. On that terrible day, I realized that I could not count any Muslim among my friends or acquaintances. Through my involvement with ICUJP, I now have many.
I’ll never forget early on at a study group arranged by ICUJP, I sat next to Iman Saadig Saafir, an African American Muslim teacher. He turned to me and said he didn’t have a Torah. I responded that I didn’t have a Qur’an. At the next meeting, we exchanged our holy scriptures. It brought us closer together and I later shared the breaking of the fast with him on an important day in Ramadan. We have become friends, and I have learned a great deal about Islam.
When Irv Rubin and another individual were arrested for plotting to bomb a mosque in Culver City, there was great fear in the Muslim community whether it was safe to go to their houses of worship. Spontaneously, about 25 of us from ICUJP went to the Islamic Cultural Center on Vermont to stand in solidarity symbolizing our defense of their freedom of religion.
When the prayers ended, men and women flowed out of the Center, hugging us and shaking our hands, thanking us for being there to “protect” them. I was overwhelmed with emotions, realizing how vulnerable this community is, especially since September 11.
Approximately 1200 Muslims, Arabs and South Asian immigrants have been taken into custody, held for extended periods of time without lawyers or visits from their families, many totally innocent of any crime or immigration violation whatsoever, others guilty of nothing more than overstaying their visas. The government refuses to disclose the identities of those who remain in custody or what, if anything, they have been charged with. They are the “disappeared” in America.
Five thousand others from Middle Eastern countries have been targeted for questioning and six thousand more are selectively scheduled for deportation out of the 360,000 aliens in the United States from Europe, Latin America and around the world who are subject to deportation.
The Muslim and Arab communities are being subjected to unprecedented racial and ethnic profiling, yet they yearn to be seen as loyal to the U.S. government and they fear that expressing opposition to what the government is doing will mark them as “anti-American,” causing them even further grief, and exposing them to the kinds of vicious hate crimes and discrimination they have suffered across the country since September 11.
ICUJP has created a safe place where people of all faiths and beliefs can come together, dedicated to the common goals of peace and justice, learning to respect each other, discarding stereotypes and abandoning long-ingrained biases and prejudices.
I can only hope that everyone finds their own ICUJP; that everyone studies alternatives to war; that everyone learns about the power of reconciliation and the teachings of non-violence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
One often looks for silver linings in tragic events like September 11. I hope I have found one.