This past Sunday, I gathered with many Muslim, Jewish and Christian neighbors for an interfaith service commemorating the victims of 9/11 at Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago. The entire service was beautiful but there was one moment that I found especially compelling: a short reflection by Zaher Sahloul, the chairperson of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. I had met Mr. Sahloul before, had been impressed by his kindness and commitment to building bridges between communities of faith but had never heard him speak personally of his experience as a Muslim.
As many who provided reflections did, Mr. Sahloul begin by telling those assembled about his memories of the tragedy ten years ago. After learning of the news, he continued through his day at work treating patients (he is a physician) and made calls to donate blood, offer his services in New York to the victims and began to organize a blood drive at his local mosque. At nightfall, he returned home to his family but found his neighborhood drastically altered: dozens of police cars were surrounding his neighborhood and the Bridgeview Mosque while almost five hundred protestors waved American flags and shouted anti-Islamic slurs.
While being familiar with the realities of Islamophobia in America I was still stunned by this account. I knew there had been many instances of prejudice, racism and even hate crimes within the Chicagoland area towards Muslims, but I had no idea this began literally hours after the 9/11 attacks. Something about how the hatred had developed so instantaneously struck me as particularly heartbreaking. America was founded in part on acceptance of religious pluralism and yet this tenent was quickly forgotten when unchecked fear and hatred of the “religious other” was accepted.
Mr. Sahloul continued his story by detailing his surprise by and eventual resignation to the racial profiling that many within his community experienced. He explained how he realized quickly that he would need to prove to his neighbors that he was patriotic, when it had not been a question the day before. While acknowledging the pain that had occurred, there were no hint of anger or judgment in Mr. Sahloul’s tone towards a culture that had discriminated against Muslims. His narrative concluded by affirming the friendships and alliances that had formed to protect the civil rights of Muslims and increase interfaith partnerships across the city.
Earlier that morning in my own community of worship at Edgewater Presbyterian, I, along with other church members, offered a confession as Christians for the discrimination our Muslim neighbors had experienced. Later on in the service, as I was helping distribute communion, I thought of the last moments of the life of Jesus – a man who healed one of his captives hours before he was killed. Jesus, even in his last hours, demonstrated peace and love, not fear and hatred, towards his enemies. I thought of the contrast between the peaceful actions of Jesus and the hatred many Christians had towards Muslims, the vast majority of whom are peaceful. I thought, perhaps with more personal conviction, of how I have been mostly ignorant of these realities within my backyard and my role in alleviating them.
The ten-year anniversary of September 11th is a reminder that my lack of hatred and discrimination should not justify my passivity. It is a humble reminder of the need for increased interfaith relations and understanding between people of diverse religious and ethical conviction. As a Christian, my identity is deeply connected to the promotion of peace and love to my neighbor; as an American, my identity is connected to the constitutional norm that fellow neighbors should be respected regardless of their religious or ethical tradition. So, to my Muslim neighbors (both in Chicago and elsewhere): I promise to be a better Christian and better American in the future, which means I promise to be more aware of discrimination towards your community and my active role in countering it.