12/13/2011 04:12 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

Fighting Terror: What Can Ordinary Citizens Do?

Sept. 11, 2001 was a day that I remember vividly, sitting in a day-long graduate class on Christian-Muslim relations and interreligious dialogue at Hartford Seminary. I distinctly remember initially thinking that, all this academic material on Christian-Muslim relations and interreligious dialog that we were covering seemed to be an arcane and irrelevant waste of time. Yet as that fateful day wore on and the horrifying news of the terror attacks in New York City gradually filtered in, I began to form a very different opinion about the possible importance of interreligious dialog and community building.

Few people would dispute that the psychological impact of 9/11 on members of Western society has been noticeable and enduring. This is common knowledge without need of referencing the various studies that empirically evidence the widespread damage of these and other terror attacks. However, I have since found little formal empirical evidence to make the case for the utility of interreligious dialogue and I tend to rely on the anecdotal evidence provided by seasoned practitioners of the various arts of interfaith relations and dialogue as well as my own observations. These seasoned veterans tend to tell me the same general pattern of observations: interreligious dialogue does have a positive impact, even if it is usually subtle. They also tend to tell me that its positive impact is best achieved by a sustained effort at interfaith dialogue activity over time. I have since come to believe that interreligious dialogue is not a waste of time when planned correctly, carried out with the proper motives and intention, and sustained.

In North America, a developed institutional infrastructure and expertise for interfaith dialogue and community building exists. North American Christians and Jews clearly have been active in establishing projects and institutions for dialogue with others outside their communities. What becomes clear is that, as there has been a multitude of Christian and Jewish dialogue projects, there has also been a multitude and variegation of Muslim scholarly dialogue projects and establishments. These have been intellectually equipped and prepared to carry on dialogue with others. These various academic and religious institutions and projects can choose from different perspectives and genres of dialogue matching different situations of participants and their surrounding contexts. This would appear to be all well and good for all those interested.

However, my own addition to and possible critique of the above is that there is a heavy price to be paid for any possible arrogance on the part of academic and scholarly elites who might insist that this dialogue must be and remain only an elite endeavor. This activity should not be reduced to the province of academic and scholarly elites. The widespread negative impact of the terror attacks has created a widespread need for healing in our society. Although the work of academic scholars and leaders of religious movements in support of dialogue across communities usually proves invaluable as a reference for interfaith dialogue participants, the work and its benefits should be distributed and made more widely available for the various victims of terror in North America.

In North America, we have seen various and often simple spiritual approaches to healing carried on in churches (and elsewhere) on a wide scale in response to the need for healing after the terror attacks of 2001. These spiritual approaches that North Americans have taken to heal constitute various elite and non-elite forms and genres. In addition to these, generally speaking, a number of elite and non-elite ways exist where ordinary citizens can become involved in interfaith dialogue and community building. For the academically inclined, one way to get involved is to locate and get onto the events mailing list of one of the established academic religious dialogue institutions in North America and observe trained specialists at their craft. Another similar way to get involved with interfaith dialogue is to work with or through one of the larger religious associations that has an interreligious dialogue unit. However, it becomes clear with these two ways that the number of events is usually limited and more restricted than grassroots work. To be more accessible for most folks, the way that is probably easiest and most practical is working through one's own house of worship to arrange interfaith events, arranged more closely to meet the preferences and interests of the local community.

This last option may be not only the most practical and useful for ordinary citizens but also allows more grassroots activities on a wider scale. For use at the practical grassroots level, it is worth considering a selection from Jane I. Smith's description of a number of models of Christian-Muslim dialogue which have been done in North America: Smith describes the "dialogue of persuasion model, the 'get to know you' model, the dialogue in the classroom model, the theological exchange model, the ethical exchange model, the dialogue about ritual model, the dialogue about spirituality model, and the cooperative model for addressing pragmatic concerns." (See J.I. Smith, "Muslims, Christians, and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue," Oxford University Press, New York, 2007, pp. 63-82.) All of these are possible in theory but for grassroots work the "Get to know you model," the "Dialogue about spirituality model," and the "Cooperative model for addressing pragmatic concerns" appear to be the three that are the easiest to start with and are the most immediately amenable to grassroots nonviolent counter-terror activism.

Of the three models that I recommend for getting started with grassroots counter-terror activism, the "getting to know you model" is often easy to organize, for example, with either visiting another faith tradition's house of worship or having one or more outside representatives of a tradition visiting your own house of worship and talking about their religious tradition. The "Dialogue about Spirituality Model" is also often easy to arrange in a similar way to the above and offers a pleasant focus, which can be a nice alternative if needed. The last choice of "the Cooperative Model for Addressing Pragmatic Concerns" may have the most potential of all as it is directly relevant to adherents from different traditions concerned with the impact of terrorism. This model can involve a wider range of expert opinions from different fields and be directed in a number of areas interesting for and giving audience to people in different religious communities. My only addition to Jane Smith's wise advice about the practical reality of doing interreligious dialogue is that perhaps the most important thing is to get started and get involved yourself rather than merely reading books about someone else doing interreligious dialogue.

Whether it is an elite or non-elite genre of dialogue, these uses of religion for creating understanding and improving relations are very different from the various abuses and exploitation of religion which we have seen done by the small non-representative minority inclined to terrorism. With a popular approach to interfaith dialogue and relations, we can hope that just as tyrants and terrorists weren't counting on recent popular demonstrations of ordinary people in the streets of Arab cities, they also will not have been counting on ordinary citizens in various North American houses of worship and in different communities coming together to carry on interreligious dialogue and to strive for improved relations. In this way ordinary citizens can demonstrate their lack of fear and support of improving relations across communities, this being the exact opposite of the intended impact of terror. These activities may all be counted amongst legitimate nonviolent proactive countermeasures to terror undertaken by ordinary citizens.