9/11 and Compassion: We Need It Now More Than Ever (orig. published Sept. 12, 2010)

The following is an op-ed written by Karen Armstrong that appeared on the Huffington Post on Sept. 10.  The original can be found here.

By Karen Armstrong

The anniversary of 9/11 reminds us why we need the Charter for Compassion. It should be an annual summons to compassionate action. The need is especially apparent this year. In the United States, we have witnessed an upsurge of anti-Muslim feeling that violates the core values of that nation. The controversy surrounding the community centre near Ground Zero, planned by our dear friends Imam Feisal Rauf and Daisy Khan (who were among the earliest supporters and partners of the Charter) has inspired rhetoric that shames us all. And now we have the prospect of the Quran burning proposed by a Christian pastor, who seems to have forgotten that Jesus taught his followers to love those they regard as enemies, to respond to evil with good, and to turn the other cheek when attacked, and who died forgiving his executioners.


If we want to preserve our humanity, we must make the compassionate voice of religion and morality a vibrant and dynamic force in our polarised world. We can no longer afford the barbarism of hatred, contempt and disgust. At the same time as we are so perilously divided, we are drawn together electronically, economically and politically more closely than ever before. A Quran burning, whenever it is held (it appears to have been delayed for questionable reasons by the pastor behind it), would endanger American troops in Afghanistan and send shock waves of distress throughout the Muslim world. In an age when, increasingly, small groups will have powers of destruction that were previously the preserve only of the nation-state, respect and compassion are now crucial for our very survival. We have to learn to make a place for the other in our minds and hearts; any ideology that inspires hatred, exclusion and division is failing the test of our time. Hatred breeds more hatred, violence more violence. It is time to break this vicious cycle.


In response to the prospect of a Quran burning, some people planned readings of the sacred Quran. Others are organizing interfaith gatherings on September 11. Each person who has affirmed the Charter, each one of our partners and associates, will know how best to respond in his or her own community. It is an opportunity to protest against the hatred that is damaging us all; to sit and do nothing is not an option. Instead of looking at one another with hostility, let us look at the suffering that we are seeing in so many parts of the world — not least in Pakistan, where millions of people have been victims of the flooding. On September 11, let us all try to find something practical to do that can, in however small a way, bring help and relief to all those in pain, even — and perhaps especially — those we may regard as enemies. We are all neighbours in the global village and must learn to live together in harmony, compassion and mutual respect.


Imam Feisal Rauf is a Sufi. Over the centuries, Sufis, the mystics of Islam, have developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions. It is quite common for a Sufi poet to cry in ecstasy that he is no longer a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew and that he is at home equally in a synagogue, mosque, temple or church, because once you have glimpsed the immensity of the divine, these limited, human distinctions fall away into insignificance. We need that spirit today — perhaps especially near Ground Zero. Here I would like to add some words of the great thirteenth-century Sufi philosopher Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi, which I have found personally inspiring:


Do not attach yourself in an exclusive manner to any one creed, so that you disbelieve all the rest: if you do this, you will miss much good; nay, you will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for He says, “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah” (Quran 2.109). Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just but his dislike is based on ignorance.


It is time to combat the ignorance that inspires hatred and fear. We have seen the harm religious chauvinism can do; now let us bear witness to the power of compassion.






September 11th, 2010 (originally published Sept. 12, 2010)

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of September 11th.  I’ve never been in New York City for any of the previous 11th’s so, though my original plan for yesterday was to hang around my apartment and try to find places for things that are still sitting on my floor after three weeks of living here, I decided to go out into the city for a few of the events that were happening.

The first place I went was a march that was being staged in support of the Islamic center being built near Ground Zero.  I have not (and probably still won’t) pay earnest attention to the debate around the center (clarification: it is a community center, and not a mosque).  When I first heard about it, I thought, “Well, that seems a little insensitive, but whatever.”  But as time has gone on, and the rhetoric and invective has gotten more inflammatory and racist, it’s become clear to me that to side with the people who are against the center is to ally myself with a whole lot of people that I don’t want to be allies with, and to ally myself with an indefensible position.

The hijackers on September 11th believed firmly in “us vs them.”  They believed that they had the monopoly on truth, on divine guidance, and in the arrogance of their moral bankruptcy, they committed the atrocity of a generation.  They believed that America is befouled, that we hate them, and that in death, they could destroy us as a country or elevate Islam as a religion/nation.  They believed, in short, that they were fighting a holy war.

I want to prove them wrong.  And I don’t think they were wrong simply in their actions; I think their conclusions, their thought processes that led them to this action, was wrong, every step of the way.  If I want to prove them wrong, I have to make sure that I am never like them.  I have to prove to myself that being that hateful is a choice–and then make sure I’m making the opposite one.

I was taught in elementary school that America is a melting pot, a place where anybody can find opportunity, where anybody can find a voice, where freedom of speech and religion are basic, inalienable rights.  I was taught that these things are the foundation of our democracy.  As I got older, I also learned all sorts of times when these ideals weren’t true and were allowed to be corrupted–but that, I think, is all the more reason to keep holding them up, keep looking at them, and make sure we never violate them or take them for granted.

During World War II, we imprisoned thousands of Japanese-Americans in internment camps, for fear that they would become spies and sabotage the American war effort.  We told ourselves we had to do this to preserve our national security, to protect America.  But “protecting America,” particularly in this century, has never been about protecting our borders.  It’s been about protecting the ideas that make this country what it is.  That America needed protection from the Japanese-Americans living here has been soundly debunked; the Japanese-American community has received several apologies and some even received reparations.  And America, it is hoped, learned the lesson that when we violate our national ideals in the name of fear and in hope of safety, we end up with none of the above.  (As Ben Franklin famously tried to warn us in  1775, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”)

The Irish have also been accused of debasing and corrupting America.  Now fully one-third of Americans have Irish surnames and I think our country is stronger for it.  Jews and Germans and Italians and Catholics and Africans and other Asians, too, have been accused of debasing our national moral character.  Commentators say, “Would these things that are being said about Muslims be allowed if the people saying them were talking about blacks or Jews?” without ever bothering to point out that we have said those things about blacks and Jews, and nobody blinked an eye: not until we learned better.

So now it’s the Muslims’ turn to bear the brunt.  (And Latinos’, but that’s another post.)

Never mind that we hear these accusations over and over again, with merely a different group in the crosshairs, and none of it has ever proved true.

Never mind that a Muslim has never violated anybody else’s right to the First Amendment, or even implied that the Constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s written on–no, it’s only White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who seem to do that, who argue that this group or that group “hates America,” and in the name of protecting it, is perfectly willing to destroy what makes living here worth it in the first place.

We don’t get to pick who is protected by inalienable rights.  By definition, everybody is, or nobody is.  So when I see White Anglo-Saxon Protestants doing what they’ve always done, repeating the same sad acts of fear and regression that our fathers and grandfathers perpetuated, my choice, now and forever, is this: I will not be the white person who acts this way.  I think our national character is stronger and better than this.  I will not allow terrorists to win and convince us that our country is in danger.

The political power structure benefits when we avoid each other and divide ourselves into factions.  Fundamentalists (of all religions) do too.  And so do terrorists.  All kinds of people want to claim to speak for me.

So who am I going to ally myself with?

I’m going to ally myself with Jesus, and the Buddha, with Martin Luther King, Jr and John Adams and Ben Franklin.  I’m going to ally myself with people who have stood up against war and hatred and fear.  “We get your message loud and clear, but we refuse to live in fear,” sang the Bouncing Souls, and they’re right.  I choose to believe that we are all us.  I ally myself with those who refuse to let their fear get the best of them.

I may be wrong.  But at least I’m in good company.

“There is a war going on for your mind.  Professional wrestlers and vice presidents want you to believe them.  The desert sky is their bluescreen, they superimpose explosions, they shout at you:  ‘Pay no attention to the men behind the barbed curtain, nor the craters beneath the draped flags.  Those hoods are there for your protection and the meteors these days are the size of corpses.’  There is a war going on for your mind.”  –from the album Fight With Tools by the Flobots

More succinctly: why did I show up at the protest to support the community center near ground zero?



Because I want this kid to be able to walk through JFK someday and not get stopped by security every single time.




Because I want these girls to be able to go to school and not fear being teased, or told to take off their headscarves.


Because I want these kids to be able to live in the same America that I live in: one whose borders may not be safe (no country’s are), but whose ideals certainly are.

The march itself was pretty tame, as marches go.  I generally show up at political actions woefully unprepared (no political t-shirt, no sign, no bullhorn), and yesterday was no exception (though I did remember my camera).  The New York Times reported this morning that gatherings of pro- and anti-Islamic center rallies were kept apart with “police barricades and officers,” but I personally didn’t see any anti-Muslim protests or gatherings.  I saw a couple of ranting ravers, but that was it.  It’s not like the point was to win hearts and minds and then immediately go break ground on the center.  There were speakers, we walked around the block (more or less), and that was it.  But it was important to me to show up, to be counted amongst the many people who are anti-racist, and for the country and the world to see that the voices of those who are opposed to the center are not the only ones worth listening to.



And it looks like a few other people agree with me.





*Heads up: if you want to see the rest of the pictures I took yesterday, check out my photography page.