Free Speech and Religion

Shared Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of September 11th

September 9, 2021  • Religion & Society Program

This is not a silver lining story. Silver lining stories give too much credit to the cloud.

This is a story of millions of human choices in a broken world. Today, more than anything, more even than those first images of the two towers in flames that I will never forget, I remember the power of choice.

Twenty years ago this week, a few human beings made a choice with fierce consequences. In the moments, weeks, and years since then, the collective power of our choices has changed us all. Limiting or creating possibilities for ourselves and others. Bringing the future into being. The reflections we have collected here show just how different our communities, nation, and world are now than before that day. That difference is not the result of a few men’s choices. We have, all of us, brought today into being. Today is full of sadness and fear. But today is also full of hope and beauty.

A decade ago, one person, Meryl Justin Chertoff, looked around and recognized the post-9/11 rise of Islamophobia as akin to anti-Semitism. More than recognize it, she felt it in her Jewish bones. Knowing so deeply where it could go and what harm it could do, she made a choice to reach out to friends across differences to bring together the first gathering of what became the Inclusive America Project. Meryl was then Executive Director of the Justice & Society Program here at The Aspen Institute, and this gathering set the foundation for everything we have done since.

IAP gathers a community of scholars and practitioners who, individually and collectively, choose to build a thriving religious pluralism where everyone has the rights, freedoms, and safety to worship or not, according to their conscience. We gather people who choose, every day, to make space for and build relationships across difference; people who see the brokenness of our society and work to mend it.

Today we celebrate the choices of our network members to protect one another, despite their differences of theology and ideology, gender, race, and ethnic identity. We hope that as you read these reflections, you note the beauty of their differences and the common threads that run through their experiences and hopes for a more inclusive America.

Allison K. Ralph, Interim Director of the Inclusive America Project

Growing up as a Muslim Afghan-American after 9/11 meant your life was tangentially touched by conflict. I was just eight years old when the planes crashed through the World Trade Center. Almost immediately afterward, our dinner table conversations began to include words and phrases like “American intervention,” “radical Islam,” and the “Taliban.” As a child navigating these conversations, I slowly realized it wasn’t just politics for us—they were our very lives.

I distinctly remember my parents setting me aside and warning me not to say we were from Afghanistan or even identify as Muslim, to “just say we are American” to keep me safe from any possible harm. I didn’t understand then the gravity of the situation, but I did not shy away from my identities. Looking back, I was lucky I didn’t face the consequences so many others did.

This environment shaped my life’s passion for addressing rising bigotry against members of Muslim communities and those who appear to be Muslim from Black, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian American communities by enforcing the same values that bring us together—equality, pluralism, diversity. I’m inspired by the countless Muslim and ally leaders who have continued to push against anti-Muslim sentiments. We continue this fight.

This year, the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States and resulted in over 350,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other parts of the region from subsequent wars. We also must not forget those lives that continue to be impacted.

Lida Azim, Program Manager, America Indivisible

On September 11, 2001, I worked for the New Jersey governor as head of his intergovernmental affairs office in Washington, DC. Even after we saw on TV the first plane go into the World Trade Center, we kept to the schedule of taking a group of state agency officials to Capitol Hill to meet with members of the New Jersey congressional delegation about an income assistance program. By the time we reached the top of the Hill, we could see smoke rising from what we soon learned was the Pentagon. A single military plane ascended above us like a white arrow up and away. Then the Capitol Police ran down the steps, alerting us all to evacuate. I have seen a photo of shoes littering the Capitol grounds from that day. Two were mine.

In the weeks that followed, one of my duties was to open the spreadsheet with the growing list of New Jersey’s dead. 706 names, they were everyone, originating from everywhere, representing the diversity of the state. They left behind spouses, parents, brothers, sisters, and children, some of whom now have their own children. Their deaths left us all with a great question about who we would become after such a loss.

My answer to that question, personally, was mission. September 11 was not just an attack on our population, it was an attack on the idea of a pluralistic society, where everyone is included. I do not think it was an accident that one of its targets was New York City, perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world, home to so many immigrants and Americans by choice. One of the challenges in the years that followed was to prevent the otherization of American Muslims and in founding the Inclusive America Project, I tried to take a role in that. In pushing for interfaith conversation, I have tried to emphasize that what unites us is way stronger than what divides us. It has been a generation since the events we memorialize now, but it will take longer than a generation to build a world where another September 11 is unthinkable.

Meryl Justin Chertoff, Executive Director, Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law and Founding Director, the Inclusive America Project, The Aspen Institute (2011-2018)

It’s hard to believe 20 years have passed. The memories from that day, and where we were during those initial moments, undoubtedly left an indelible mark on anyone old enough to experience them. But when reflecting on what changed that day, and the days after, it’s sometimes even more painful. Memories tend to fade, so it’s hard to know if it’s just time, age, or naiveté that mar what I thought this country was pre-9/11. But what was clear after, was there was a shift. A noticeable distrust, fear, and even hate of anyone who was different. Specifically, brown. As a first-generation Indian woman, albeit one who never leaned into her ethnicity or culture, it was heartbreaking to watch the vitriol and suspicion that landed on anyone who looked like me. Specifically Sikh Americans in their turbans of whom I have many family members. It’s so interesting to see oneself as American first, which I think is the intent and beauty of this country, yet at a certain point in time, you’re made aware that you’re not the majority. That you’re seen by others as other.

Fast forward two decades and that distrust, fear, hate, and othering extend so much further. Instead of ebbing, it’s flowed towards anyone who is different. Much has been opined about whether the political leadership of the last four years (and maybe even the eight before) contributed to this escalation. But it’s been painful to watch how 9/11, the murder of George Floyd, Covid-19, and countless other tragic happenings have evolved these divides. Despite it all, I’m optimistic. I’m in awe of the people who endure direct hate, discrimination, or profiling and continue on with a positive, proud spirit. I’m in awe of the others who have stood up to stand by them. Today, instead of being saddened or scared for the thousands of Afghan refugees, I am hopeful. I’m inspired by the outpouring of support from many walks of life to help them resettle. To have empathy for their struggle. While I’m sure there is still plenty of distrust, fear, and even hate among our neighbors, I want to believe that there is also more love and understanding. Moments in time like 9/11 can change a person, a community, a country forever. But I believe these moments also provide an opportunity for us all to learn. And with knowledge comes growth for people, communities, and the country.

Amrit Dhillon, MSW, President, Ad House Communications

My entire adult life happened after 9/11: I was a first-year college student, in my third week of classes, on September 11, 2001. I happened to be in a Religious Studies class, taught by an Islamic studies professor, as the first tower fell. I often talk about how that class—combined with my own Jewish upbringing and a fierce, post-Holocaust sense of “never again” means now—changed my career path.

As a scholar of Islam whose work routinely confronts how non-Muslims (and especially white folks from Europe and the US) perceive and vilify Muslims, I can say that post-9/11 anti-Muslim hostility shapes quite a lot of my understanding of the world. How could it not? Questions of hate crimes, imprisonment, global politics, war, refugees, gender—all of these complex issues are and have been impacted by how mostly white, mostly non-Muslims see Islam and Muslims. From the so-called “Muslim Ban” to the current panic about Afghan refugees to the nicknaming of Texas lawmakers limiting reproductive healthcare as “the American Taliban”—all of this reflects how deeply anti-Muslim sentiment is ingrained in our communities.

Immediately following 9/11, we saw really overt racism, on TV and elsewhere. Today, that Islamophobia is subtle but pervasive. It has become normal, in other words, to assume the worst about Islam and Muslims, and for “brownness” as a racialized category to have meaning and purchase, almost always tied to ideas about Islam or Muslims.

I like to identify as a killjoy, in part because of Sara Ahmed’s inspiring work, but largely because naming problems helps us address them. I think critique is, at its finest, an argument for better, which is itself optimistic. I am cautiously optimistic because I see people in my various communities doing real, hard, meaningful, and powerful work to push back on anti-Muslim hostility, among many other social ills. If hate is a pandemic, so too are the anti-racist activists working across fields, regions, and languages to make the world better. That level of engagement, however hard and sometimes futile, is optimism. The least I can do is gear my scholarship and teaching toward those goals!

As a scholar and an activist, my hope for the future is that we can rewrite these horrendous norms. But as I look around, 20 years after sitting in a class about comparative religion, I know we have a long, long way to go before the effects of 9/11 are truly past.

Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, Associate Professor, Department of Religion,
& Associate Director, Humanities Center, University of Vermont
Member of IAP’s Powering Pluralism Network: Religious Literacy Cohort

I have no historical memory of 9/11—I was four years old—but the anti-Muslim sentiments unleashed after 9/11 have impacted my life in both obvious and subtle ways.

As Hindus, we occupy a liminal space in the world of post-9/11 racism. Many of us Hindus are racialized as “brown,” but we often try to deflect racism by insisting that we aren’t Muslim; that most of us come from South Asia, not the Middle East; that our names are often derived from Sanskrit, not from Arabic.

And yet, racists don’t care. My fifth-grade classmate who called me a terrorist during recess, telling my classmates that I was “hiding a bomb in my turban,” didn’t care that I wasn’t actually wearing one (clearly, he didn’t know what a turban was). The teenagers who spray-painted Nazi swastikas and “Get Out Muslims” on my local Hindu temple and a school across the street during my senior year of high school didn’t care that they were targeting a Hindu temple and not a mosque. The man who killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla in a Kansas bar in 2017 thinking he was Iranian didn’t care that Kuchibhotla was actually Indian. As scholar Vijay Prashad writes, “the gaze of imperial whiteness does not discriminate between the dusky bodies. In its eyes, we are all Muslims.”

Thus, Islamophobia hurts all of us who are perceived as Muslim. As Hindus, we need to stand up for our Muslim siblings—not just because Islamophobia affects us, but because it’s the right thing to do. 20 years after 9/11, I wish I could say this sentiment is shared by most American Hindus. Unfortunately, our community has a lot of work to do.

Despite being targets for violence and harassment rooted in Islamophobia, segments of the Hindu community in the US have actually contributed to it in different ways. Many American Hindus trace their roots to India, and much of the Islamophobia we see in our community is fueled by rising anti-Muslim sentiments and violence in India under the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi. Although Hindu Indian Americans strongly favor the Democratic party—two-thirds of Hindu respondents supported Joe Biden over Donald Trump in a survey of Indian Americans prior to the 2020 election—a small but vocal minority of conservative Hindus expressed support for Trump due to their shared Islamophobia. Several of the major American Hindu organizations have ties with Islamophobic individuals and organizations such as the Middle East Forum. Earlier this year, my organization was successful in getting a conservative American Hindu organization, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, to cancel a virtual event series featuring an extremist Hindu priest from India who has publicly declared that “Islam should be eradicated from Earth” and “all Muslims should be eliminated.” On a personal level, I’m called an “Islamist proxy” on a regular basis by trolls on Twitter simply because my organization, Hindus for Human Rights, works closely with an Indian American Muslim group.

That being said, more and more American Hindus, particularly young people, are speaking up against Islamophobia. As a college student, I worked with a Muslim friend to initiate an annual interfaith concert series that was the first collaboration between our Hindu and Muslim student groups in over a decade. The progressive Hindu organizations, to which I belong, have been working for years to break down Islamophobia in our community, through Hindu-Muslim iftars and satsanghs during Ramadan, advocacy around minority rights in India, and a civil rights youth essay and art contest. I’m grateful to work with partners such as Muslims for Progressive Values and Indian American Muslim Council. Together, slowly but surely, we will counter Islamophobia in all of its forms and build a society in which we can all thrive.

Nikhil Mandalaparthy, Advocacy Director, Hindus for Human Rights

In his provocative gem, On Bullshit, Princeton Professor Harry Frankfurt makes the critical distinction between lies and B.S. Ultimately, the liar knows the truth but simply does not want to face its consequences. The, on the other hand, does not care about the truth; in fact, his or her faculty for engaging truth has been so thoroughly degraded that s/he no longer has much of a sensitivity to it. Facts do not matter; s/he simply says, advocates, suppresses, or denies whatever serves his/her personal or group interests. Of course, “truth” itself is a dangerous construct. All we have to do is claim that our interests are “true,” and anyone worthy of respect is either immediately converted or silenced. This is the’s ultimate deception. And once a democracy loses its ability to distinguish “truth” from “interests,” dialogue and debate start to feel like an unwarranted compromise, public discourse degenerates into zero-sum contests of blue smoke and mirrors, and we begin our tragic descent into the B.S. Society.

We have never been immune to B.S.: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” But September 11, 2001, marked a new phase. Because the attackers presumably acted in the name of their ‘truth’, everything we wanted to do in response was converted into some unassailable truth: the Patriot Act, the war on terror, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the curtailment of civil liberties, even the renaming of French fries. That these interests were converted into absolute ‘truths’ is reflected in the timidity, reticence, and rarity of dissent, even among the powerful. Ultimately, 9/11 transformed “with-us-or-against-us” into a new American creed. And this has left us helpless in the face of our far-flung diversity and the simple, dogged antinomies of life. Black lives certainly matter, but not only when they are taken by police. Homosexuals have rights—God-given rights; but homosexuality is not ‘true.’ “Law and order” are important, but no more important in Ferguson or Minneapolis than in the nation’s capital. Terrorism kills Americans, but nowhere near as frequently as do drugs, guns, or alcohol—and now COVID-19. American foreign policy, especially in the Muslim world, routinely smacks of a cynical, self-serving abuse of power. But as many Muslims will attest, if they are honest—especially minorities within the Muslim community—America hardly exercises anything near a monopoly in this regard.

The subtle reality is that there is more to life than truth. Yet, brave and brutal truth-telling is what we need in this country today, perhaps more than ever. Of course, telling ‘our truth’ about our enemies will be easier than telling it about our friends let alone ourselves. But, as James Baldwin once noted, exchanging one pack of lies for another simply will not do. America is not a place but a project. And without the truth that we must all be willing to tell about ourselves, 9-11’s “new creed” may ultimately consume us, leaving little to arrest our hapless decline into the dank and layered darknesses of the B.S. society. And Allah knows best.

Sherman A.  Jackson, Director, Center for Islamic Thought, Culture and Practice,
University of Southern California

Anti-Muslim bigotry has accompanied my life and my work for as long as I can remember. If I wasn’t dealing with the disinformation and fearmongering of strangers in person and online, it was the assumptions and misconceptions that family and friends would share in confidence to avoid judgment. What we, unfortunately, tend to forget is that the fire of hatred destroys everything in its path; that same fire of Islamophobia has fueled violence towards so many communities that we lose sight of our ability to connect and understand one another. At its worst, it even undermined the compassion and appreciative inquiry that informed my upbringing because of the peer pressure of fear aggrandized by the political and media circus.

This didn’t stop me from learning or digging deeper into the issues and how they impact our work for pluralism; the foundation of this work was based significantly on absolving Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of xenophobia. From showing up to a vigil following the New Zealand mosque attack, to launching a letter campaign to support a local mosque after receiving a hateful note, I continue to show up for those who are an inseparable part of a greater beloved community.

Twenty years after the September 11th attacks, it is now clear that the urgency of understanding and engaging with difference is immense. The only way to challenge the interconnected nature of extremism, in the form of white supremacy or the Taliban fueling each other, must be challenged by the interconnected power of interfaith cooperation. We should not shy away from the work of standing for what is right wherever it may be happening around the world; our colleagues and loved ones suffering from natural and human catastrophes deserve to have our support and a sense of hope that they live in a better world now. This means we have a long road ahead to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing that center accountability, intersectionality, and mutual abundance. We have to work harder to address deeper issues and not shy away from talking about matters that may make us uncomfortable. We are called to invite people into a space of growth and transformation by becoming incubators for positive change.

Tahil Sharma, Regional Coordinator for North America, United Religions Initiative
Member of IAP’s Powering Pluralism Network: Racial Justice & Religion Task Force

Free Speech and Religion
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