Opinion Columns & Blogs

In the unity 9/11 created, one big problem remains

Like tens of thousands across the nation, a few hundred people from around the county got together Sunday at a local church to remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001. But these folks had more on their minds than the past.

The people who gathered Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church in San Luis Obispo wanted to talk about the future, lessons learned, and hope.

“Our hearts are full of hope,” said Sister Theresa Harpin, and the very diversity of those who congregated attested to that fact. Though the service was held in a Christian church, members of other faiths joined in — Jews, Muslims, those whose spiritual parameters are more vaguely defined, and those who belong to no religion at all.

The interfaith service was organized by the San Luis Obispo Ministerial Association and the Central Coast Clergy and Laity for Justice.

They came to share their experiences, because 9/11 is one of those “where were you then” days, like Pearl Harbor or the murder of President John F. Kennedy. It is a day that makes us stop and think.

“In strange and mysterious ways, we all are connected to that event,” said San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx.

While individual experiences differed, there were common themes. One that several speakers touched on was the tremendous feeling of unity that gripped the nation in the aftermath of the tragedy, the “great outpouring of community,” as one speaker put it.

Keynote speaker Stephen Lloyd-Moffet likened the American populace at that time to a sort of national “flash mob of mutual caring and unfiltered love. We felt the harmony of our shared pain,” said Lloyd-Moffett, who teaches religious studies at Cal Poly.

And yet, as someone else said, there has been “so much brokenness in the past 10 years.”

One visible emblem of that brokenness has been the treatment of Muslims in America, a well-documented abuse that lingers and offends not only moral and religious traditions but also the U.S. Constitution.

Congregants did not dwell on anti-Islam sentiment — that’s not why they were there — but neither would they ignore it.

Lloyd-Moffett in particular spoke of what he called widespread ignorance of Islam and religions in general. He said America has become “religiously illiterate.” He gave examples from outside Islam: 12 percent of Americans, he said, think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

But it is Islam that is most misunderstood, and religious illiteracy has allowed too many Americans to view Islam through the prism of the handful of murderers who made nine-one-one happen, as though the more than a billion and a half other adherents to the faith are cut from the same cloth.

Too many people cherry-pick the Koran, “ignor(ing) the beautiful passages of love,” Lloyd-Moffett said.

Dr. Rushdi Abdul-Cader, a Muslim man in San Luis Obispo who works tirelessly to close cultural and religious gaps between communities, warned against scapegoating. He noted that many in Europe blamed the plague in the Middle Ages on Jews. He didn’t have to say anything about Germany between World War I and World War II; we all remember.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson said that when someone behaves badly we should focus on the behavior, not the religion or race. Lloyd-Moffett echoed the sentiment: “Religions do not kill; people kill,” he said.

In the end, solving the problem of America’s seeming dissolution into competing factions — a phenomenon nowhere more apparent than in our politics — was beyond the job description of these folks who got together on a sunny Sunday to celebrate their shared humanity.

But some of them had general thoughts, and they were pretty similar — all of them aimed at helping the struggle to stop hate, as Rabbi Scott Corngold of Congregation Beth David put it. They may sound at first like feel-good cliches, but they have meaning if you choose to give them meaning.

Here, for example, is Abdul-Cader: When the bad combine, he said, the good must unite.

And Rep. Lois Capps: We need to reawaken the spirit of community and country.

And, finally, Lloyd-Moffett: “In the days after 9/11, we hugged and prayed alongside people of other religions not in order to change them but to help them stand tall in the face of fear and bewilderment.”

Now we just need to absorb these messages and live by them.