In Fragmented Miami, a 9/11 Show of Unity Among Faiths

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Sebastien Desarmaux / Corbis

The 9/11 hijackers didn't just want to kill human beings. They were out to destroy human ties. They brought down the Twin Towers hoping to put up even higher walls between countries, races and especially religions. And they almost got away with it, judging by last year's divisive protests against a Muslim community center near Ground Zero — or last week's Pew Research Center poll of Muslim-Americans, in which more than a fifth say they still see support for Islamic extremism in their community. But then, if a few clerics and their congregations here in Miami are any indication, the terrorists lost.

When a so-called Florida preacher announced this year that he and his so-called church had burned a Koran, my coverage of that otherwise abhorrent episode led me to Masjid al-Ihsaan, a Sunni mosque in south Miami-Dade County. Its Gandhi-esque response to the preacher's affront was not to lash out but rather to hand out the Muslim holy book. For every Koran he burned, Al-Ihsaan would give 114 of them (the Koran has 114 chapters) to the community. The mosque's imam, Tarek Chebbi, asked me to present one to the Rev. Luis Perez, the pastor of a nearby Roman Catholic church I attend, Holy Rosary-St. Richard. Father Perez enthusiastically accepted Imam Chebbi's invitation of an interfaith partnership, as did Rabbi Mark Kram of a local Reconstructionist Jewish temple, Beth Or, and their congregations responded just as positively.

Fast forward to this weekend, when members of those three congregations plan to attend each other's services to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. On Friday, Sept. 9, Catholics and Jews will be guests at afternoon prayer at Al-Ihsaan; Catholics and Muslims will go to Shabbat service at Beth Or that evening; and on Sunday, Muslims and Jews will be at a Holy Rosary-St. Richard mass. Faith communities across the U.S. could do worse than conclude that interfaith communities are one of the best ways to honor 9/11 victims — and denounce their murderers.

Like the malignant dust that fouled Ground Zero, one of the sad siren songs that hung in the post-9/11 air was that we're locked in a "clash of civilizations." And that rhetoric is bound to pollute this weekend's national observance, as talking heads of all religious and political stripes try to turn a solemn period of outreach into cable-news noise about the "imposition" of Shari'a law or the "decadence" of western culture. Rather than engage the more critical issue of how we defuse the religious resentments that lead to so much of the world's violence, they'll insist on parsing questions like whether Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred 76 people in Norway this past summer in the name of Christianity, can be called a Christian terrorist; or whether Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 gunned down 29 praying Palestinians in the West Bank in the name of Judaism, can be called a Jewish terrorist, in the same way we call the 9/11 hijackers Islamic terrorists. (Yes and yes, by the way.)

What the Miami congregations are saying, in their small but salient way, is that the terrorists and hate-mongers do not represent their religions. Just as important, they're recognizing that those faiths, for all their real differences, have a great deal in common. In fact, Abraham's submission to God, a central theme of the Torah and the Old Testament, is the focus of one of Islam's most important holy days, Eid al-Adha. The Koran, meanwhile, reverently mentions Jesus and the Virgin Mary almost 60 times. And western civilization owes a big debt to medieval Muslim thinkers like Ibn Rushd (Averroes to western readers) for keeping alive classical texts, like Aristotle's, that inspired medieval Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas — and helped nurture the European Renaissance.

Which makes it all the more regrettable that while Judeo-Christian fellowship is fairly common in America — I met one of my best friends growing up when my confirmation class attended his bar mitzvah — Judeo-Christian-Muslim fellowship is fairly rare. This is the weekend to correct that, especially since the core greeting of each faith is "Peace": Shalom in the Hebrew of Judaism, Salaam in the Arabic of Islam and Pax vobiscum (peace be with you) in the Latin of early Christianity. For that matter, it's the central tenet of any credible religion, from Hinduism to Buddhism to paganism.

South Florida, thankfully, was spared the carnage of 9/11, but its ghosts abide here nonetheless, since many of the hijackers covertly trained in our midst. That, and the fact that Miami remains one of the country's most fragmented communities, makes it important that we mark the 9/11 anniversary by opening our churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. But it's just as important that the rest of the country — not just New York, Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania but every village and metropolis in the South, Midwest and West — realize that we can either perpetuate the "clash of civilizations" or halt it. Doing the former is just what the hijackers wanted.