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01 September 2011

Rebuilding Ground Zero

Rebuilding Ground Zero

by Chine Mbubaegbu

There are moments in history that define a generation - and the tragic events of 11 September 2001 certainly did that. The actions of a group of Islamic extremists who hijacked planes and flew them straight into two of the most iconic symbols on the Manhattan skyline have influenced global politics, international relations and religious discourse over the past decade.

This September we remember the 2,973 people from many walks of life and many faiths that were killed on that day. We condemn the actions and wickedness of those that slaughtered in the name of their god.

But we also ask: what now? As Christians called to be salt and light in the world, how do we bring good out of the situation while the horrifying images remain etched on our memories? How do we relate to Muslims with tolerance, understanding and grace?

For those such as Neil Wain, a Christian and temporary assistant chief constable at Greater Manchester police, 9/11 will forever have a profound effect. At the time of the attacks, Neil was a superintendent in the Force and was on secondment in New York.

In New York, work is being done to move forward, to create a lasting symbol that will remind us never to forget but to move on and work together for a better future.

"I saw the smoke rise into the blue morning sky from one of the towers, and then watched in disbelief as an aircraft crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Centre.

"Later, as I stood on the edge of what they were calling 'Ground Zero', my senses were numbed, my mind bewildered and my heart overwhelmed with pain."

Neil, chair of the GMP Christian Association, adds: "I was profoundly affected at the time by those events, both by my proximity and subsequent involvement but also by the bravery of my US colleagues in the New York Police Department and the Fire Department New York. I can say that 9/11 and following events have only served to prove how uncertain this world is and that for me the only thing that is certain is the love of God."

How do you move on from that? How do you pick up the pieces of the crumbling metal and the broken lives? In New York, work is being done to move forward, to create a lasting symbol that will remind us never to forget but to move on and work together for a better future.

On 12 September this year, the 9/11 memorial will open to the public. Occupying eight of the 16 acres where the towers once stood, it will be a "tribute to the past and a place of hope for the future", with the names of each person who died during the attacks inscribed onto bronze panels lining the memorial pools.

Earlier this year, old sores were opened up when US president Barack Obama announced to the world that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed. For some, the jubilant scenes at Ground Zero were unsavoury, while others thought it right to celebrate the death of a man who had caused such unimaginable pain to thousands of lives.

An unlikely pair were together for a meal with their wives on the night bin Laden was killed: Geoff Tunnicliffe, a Canadian who is secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf - the Sufi imam who hit the headlines last year for his plans to build Park51 - an Islamic community centre just a few blocks away from Ground Zero.

The pair's friendship is a symbol of how Christians and Muslims can work together with understanding and grace, while not compromising their beliefs. Geoff has been criticised for forming such a close friendship with the imam.

But he says: "Jesus reminded us we must love our neighbour as ourselves, no matter who he/she is or what religion or ethnicity they represent. We must treat a person as an individual not as a representative of some religious group. For many Muslims, hospitality is at the heart of their culture. Showing hospitality and building genuine friendships will help overcome stereotypes and will allow for a free flow of ideas and sharing of one's beliefs.

"I think Jesus was criticised for some of the people he hung out with. Even though Feisal and I have a different set of beliefs, I am humbled that Feisal calls me his friend."

Both men live and work in New York and were profoundly affected by the events of 9/11. But together, they long to see a better future and are working to bring this about.

Says Geoff: "9/11 shook America to its core. For the most powerful nation on earth to be so vulnerable was shocking to many. For some Americans this has challenged their understanding of their national identity and destiny.

"It has caused some to want to build higher walls and become more insular. For other Americans, it has caused them to seriously reflect on their values, lifestyles and to seek understanding of why such hatred was perpetuated against them."

He adds: "9/11 profoundly changed the world for an entire generation. There are of course the obvious outward signs, including increased airport security, terror alerts, and protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, on a deeper and more individual basis, we have seen increasing fear, insecurity, profiling and racism. There is also a greater recognition by governments (in particular western democracies) that faith and religion must be taken into account when developing international policy."

What happened on 9/11 was a stark wake-up call and highlighted what some sociologists have called the 'myth of secularization'. As a recent study conducted between Ipsos Mori and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation revealed, religion really matters.

But the study found that among the 18,000 people surveyed across 24 countries, 33 per cent had no or almost no friends or acquaintances from another religion.

Commenting on the survey, Tony Blair said: "The evidence is that, though people fear the prospect of religious strife, even here in Britain, there is much to encourage the view that people can learn to respect those of another faith and live with them peacefully. Interfaith dialogue and action today is not just an interesting but peripheral minor subject, it is the essence, central to creating greater social cohesion and harmony."

In 2004, Imam Feisal set up the Cordoba Initiative - a multi-faith organisation dedicated to "improving understanding and building trust among people of all cultures and faith traditions". He has worked particularly to improve relations and understanding between Islam and the West. In April this year, Time magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Speaking to idea, he said 9/11 had been a painful time for the Muslim community in New York, but was optimistic that the lessons learned from the tragedy, and as Muslims, Christians and those of other faiths endeavour to break down the walls, the future would be better.

He said: "9/11 was a double whammy for us because we felt that we had been attacked as Americans, but we were also then attacked as Muslims by those who thought we were responsible for it. We have been dealing with this ever since."

Pointing to examples including the furore surrounding Pastor Terry Jones' threat to burn the Qur'an, he urged against extremism of any kind.

"This is not about Muslims and the West. It's about the moderates and the extremists on all sides. We need to align ourselves so that we can pool our efforts and deploy them against the extremists.

"Working together with people of other faiths is not a problem, but we do need to look at where the problems have arisen. A lot of the issues are not primarily religious in nature: they may be political, sociological, theological in nature, or to do with the media.

"9/11 was an event that framed the discourse between America and the West and structured it in religious terms. If bin Laden were not a Muslim, the same problem would exist. "In terms of Muslim-Christian relations, there has been a greater understanding of the issues all round. I'm optimistic that gradually we are moving towards a better place." For people like Geoff Tunnicliffe, as Christians looking back at the tragic events in New York a decade ago and looking ahead to the future, there is only one reason for us to seek to build relationship with our Muslim neighbours. The reason is not political or sociological, but is based on the example Christ sets us of breaking down racial and cultural barriers, and his commandment for us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Says Geoff: "My office in New York is located just a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. Every day I walk past this site where they are building new skyscrapers and a reflection pool to forever remember the death and destruction that took place at this location 10 years ago. For me it is a constant reminder that we live in a fallen world and that we have a lot of work to do in being peacemakers in the world. The gospel is about reconciliation. We are reconciled to God through the person of His Son, Jesus. Because of this reconciliation we can be reconciled to each other. I pray regularly as I pass Ground Zero that I would be an instrument of reconciliation in a world that is torn by war and conflict."


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