From Fear to Faith, From Grief to Understanding

From Fear to Faith, From Grief to Understanding
September 11, 2011
Delivered at Temple Israel, Tallahassee, FL on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 9-11. Event hosted by the Interfaith Council of Tallahassee, FL.
By Parvez Ahmed

Good evening. Shalom, Peace and Salaam-

It is my great honor and pleasure to be here today.

Today is a day whose memories are seared into our individual and collective consciousness.

Today is a day that is profound and yet instructive.

Today is a day that is solemn but also a reminder of our capacity to triumph over tragedy.

Rabbi Alvin Fine in his celebrated poem, “Life is a Journey” wrote:

Birth is a beginning and death a destination.
…..
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength

From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith…
.”

The good Rabbi in poignant words reflected eternal truths. Such sentiments are not only part of his Jewish spirituality but are also at the heart of all other great religious traditions. Rabbi Fine could have read this from the pulpit at a mosque or a church and the congregation would have nodded approvingly.

Such commonality between the essential core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, what we often call the Abrahamic traditions, ought to be our springboard to transform ourselves “From Fear to Faith, From Grief to Understanding.”

Grief, fear, ignorance, loneliness, pain, weakness and foolishness are all part of our human existence. These emotional responses sometimes are useful defense mechanisms, allowing us the means to cope with tragic situations. And yet if such feelings linger then they can also be debilitating.

And so with the passage of time and by reaching deep into our indomitable human spirit we hope to arrive at place where we develop understanding, gratitude, compassion and love. In this journey to rebuild and renew, we stand in need of God and we stand in need of each other.

On the 10th anniversary of the fateful terrorist attacks against our country, it is fair to ask - have we overcome our fears and regained our trust in humanity. Have we overcome our grief and gained new insights about the world we live in?

While we had no choice in being attacked we did and do have a choice on how we respond. Ten years ago we asked questions such as - Why us? Why they hate us? Where were you when you heard the news? What did you feel?

Today the relevant questions are we safer? Are we freer? Are we better off? And finally, where do we go from here?

The fact that there has been no large scale attack since 9-11 creates a perception that we are safer. And yet Americans continue to die at the hand of terrorists. Sometimes the terrorists are foreign born, such as the 9-11 attackers.

Sometimes they are people who we entrusted to protect us, such those who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995 or the Army major who gunned down his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009. And sometimes the terrorists are our neighbors, such as the gunman who went on a rampage in Arizona killing several innocent people and nearly killing a U.S. Congressman.

Terror comes in many forms. While being vigilant we must also restrain ourselves from applying superficial narratives, which can do more harm than good.

The lingering fear of another attack has caused us to significantly change our lifestyle. In our effort to guard against any and all possible attacks, we have sacrificed essential liberties and accepted cosmetic security measures. Even if we accept the argument that we are safer, we are not the same America we used to be. In the words of my friend David Cole, professor at Georgetown University, we are less safe and less free. Benjamin Franklin’s prophecy that those who trade away liberty to be more safe deserve neither has sadly come true.

But are we better off today?

In 2001 the U.S. GDP per capita was second in the world and the U.S. economy the undisputed and unchallenged leader in the world. In 2011 U.S. GDP per capita is 9th in the world with several major economies closing in fast. China was ranked 129th in 2001 is now ranked 24th.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 9600 on September 10th 2001. On Friday the Dow closed at a little below 11,000. This represented an anemic 1.4% annual growth rate in the decade after 9-11. In the decade preceding 9-11 the Dow grew at the rate of about 22% per year.

In 2001 the U.S. had a 128 billion dollar budget surplus. In 2011 we have a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit. Gas was about $1.50 per gallon in 2001 and is nearly $3.60 per gallon today. Unemployment rate was 4.9% and today is it 9.1%, more than doubled.

It is true that not all of the economic problems are related to 9-11 or even connected to it. Much of the bleak picture is attributable to the economic recession and financial market troubles that started in 2007. Yet it is undeniable that the costs of 2 ½ wars (Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya) has crossed 1.24 trillion dollars and has had an indelible impact on our life at home and our image abroad.

The changing face of the world after 9-11, is most easily recognized every time we go to the airport to take a flight. The changing face of the world after 9-11 is most readily felt by the military families who bear the disproportionate burdens of keeping us safe. The human toll from the death of soldiers to soldiers returning with life altering wounds has been staggering and yet as a society we have mostly paid lip-service to their plight.

Today we are also less tolerant of each other and generally uncivil in our public discourse. One minority community, the American-Muslims, have been particularly challenged after 9-11. In addition to the things that worry all Americans, Muslims have to put up with increased scrutiny of their activities and constant second guessing of their motives, not to mention discrimination or profiling. Last year, a survey released by Time showed nearly six in ten Americans held an unfavorable view of Muslims. A Gallup poll released the same year revealed four in ten Americans admitting to “feeling at least ‘a little’ prejudice” towards Muslims.

The tragedy of 9-11 naturally evoked fear and many of our fellow citizens mistakenly felt that reducing the freedom of others will increase our safety. During difficult times we need the courage to understand others. Mutual respect is the cornerstone of great civilizations. All great religions of the world teach us this.

In the Jewish tradition, one of the basic teachings of Avot, understood to be Ethics of the Fathers, is the necessity of respecting others - respecting their space, their property, their right to opinions and their humanity. Respect for humans is a distinctive Torah value, as respecting human’s leads to appreciation and reverence of the Almighty Himself.

The Christian tradition asks that honor and dignity be afforded to everyone. "For in the image of God has God made man." (Genesis 9:6)

In the Islamic holy text the Quran we read – “O mankind! Surely We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other; surely the most honorable of you in the sight of Allah (God) is the most righteous of you; surely God is Knowing, Aware of all things.” [49:13].

And yet many times throughout history, people of faith have fallen short of these ideals. A small minority among all faith groups have developed a militant form of piety. The genesis of such militancy is the world view, common to extremists, that God is on their side. They fail to heed the common sense sentiment of Abraham Lincoln that rather than falsely claiming whose side God is on, it is far better that each one of us strive to be on God’s side.

Unfortunately many of my fellow Americans have mistakenly concluded a link between terrorism and my faith of Islam. A closer scrutiny reveals that such heinous actions are a misrepresentation of core religious teachings. The Quran emphasizes sanctity of life, “and do not take any human being's life (the life) which God has declared to be sacred.” (Chapter 6:151).

The Islamic traditions honor Christians and Jews as People of the Book and states, "Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures), and the Christians, and the Sabians, and who believe in God and the last day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve." (2:62)

Terrorism is not a result of any religious teaching. Equating terrorism with any religion makes a community of faith doubly vulnerable - to both the random acts of terror and the ensuing backlash.

All of us can make a difference. We must regain the best of our faith traditions and our core American values. In my faith tradition there is a famous saying: “Do you want to love God? Then start by respecting those you live with.”

Such inward introspection will help us live up to Rabbi Fine’s optimism that from within the depths of unimaginable tragedy can arise the best of our collective and common values.

I will leave you with a poem from my native India, from a poet named Tagore who in his Nobel Prize winning work the Gitanjali (Ode to God), wrote,

In desperate hope I go and search for her in all the corners of my room; I find her not.
My house is small and what has gone from it once, can never be regained.
But infinite is Thy mansion, my Lord, and seeking her I have to come to Thy door.
I stand under the golden canopy of Thine evening sky and I lift my eager eyes to seek Thy face.
I have come to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish--no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears.
Oh Lord, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into its deepest fullness.
Let me for once feel the lost sweet touch - the allness of the universe
.

Thank you.

May God bless you. May God bless the United States of America.