The tenth anniversary of September 11 is in just four months. Plans for commemorative ceremonies, gatherings, and memorial services are underway. But how we understand 9/11 is still far from certain ten years later.
Fears and pain remain; two (or, arguably three) wars are still underway; misconceptions and generalizations about Islam remain pervasive. We also lack a physical space in which to permanently memorialize the 3,000 victims of the attacks at the World Trade Center -- adding to the sense that there has not been, and perhaps can never be, closure from 9/11.
Braving the fraught but often unspoken topic of 9/11 and its commemoration, Odyssey Networks convened a day-long gathering on "9/11: The Conversation We Never Had," focusing a great deal on the role that religious communities can play in memorializing it.
Featuring thought leaders, from Dr. Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core to Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Ms. Lisa Miller of Newsweek and Imam Khalid Latif of New York University, it delved into the difficult topics that surround the upcoming commemoration: notions of "sacred space" and what it means for those mourning loved ones; last year's controversy over Park51 and the fears that lay behind it; politics and the politicization of 9/11; and the impact of media on the way we may come to understand and make sense of perhaps the most significant day of the new millennium. Most speakers agreed about a profound shift that took place in America following September 11, 2011, but a shared vision for how the date and the events it precipitated are to be understood remained a topic of open conversation.
Imam Latif described the repeated, individualized, and extensive security searches he has experienced when returning to the United States from travels abroad -- even when he is traveling on behalf of the U.S. State Department and in spite of the fact he is a uniformed member of the New York Police Department. This has been an ongoing experience for him, he noted, and one that he correlated directly with heightened security and scrutiny of Muslim Americans following 9/11. "We need to raise up more of the right Muslim voices," he affirmed, in order to reduce the fear of Muslims in America.
Ms. Miller candidly discussed her experience as a journalist and the impact that social media is having on the very nature of news reporting. Quick turn-around times, new mediums, and the outright inundation of media is changing the nature of reporting. As it pertains to coverage of 9/11/11, it means the search for new angles -- yielding both potential for narratives of unity and hope, as well as those which may prove more divisive.
Rabbi Saperstein and Dr. Patel discussed at length the need for pluralism and the interfaith movement to undergird discussions if 9/11 in order to ensure that it becomes (and remains) a time of unity, rather than one of discord centered on religious difference.
Yet Frank Fredericks, Director of Media and Events for Prepare New York -- a coalition of religious and interfaith organizations who will be hosting a number of commemorative gatherings this coming fall -- summed up the event: "This is only the beginning of the conversation." The search for a way to authentically remember America's great tragedy, and one that avoids singling out religious communities, is underway.