Last year, on September 11, 2003, the President of New York University, John Sexton, hosted a special dinner in the lobby of a historic building located in downtown New York's government and business district, next to "Ground Zero" in lower Manhattan. The purpose of the dinner was to gather a "cross-section of New Yorkers coming together with political leaders to assess, after two years, the lessons of 9/11 for New York City, the nation, and the world."
The dinner was entirely video-taped by PBS-TV in order to be shown later as a two-hour documentary special on "September 11 and the Future of the West." The guest list was impressive. It included Raymond W. Kelly, New York City's Police Commissioner; Paul McHale, the second in command at the new Federal Department for Homeland Defense; Robert Morgenthau, District Attorney for New York County; Jessica Stern, Harvard professor and terrorism expert; and prominent journalists (Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker; Fareed Zakaria, Chief Editor of Newsweek International; Ti-Hua Chang, correspondent for NBC-TV news; and Rossana Rosado, publisher of the oldest Hispanic daily in the United States); as well as authors (like Salman Rushdie), scientists, and business leaders.
I was invited to attend the dinner as "a prominent Catholic educator and scholar, and as commentator of the role of religion in terrorism."
Since most of us did not know each other very well, I thought it would take long before the conversation would pick up. However, the conversation was in fact heated almost from the very beginning. All day long, the City had been commemorating the second anniversary of the terrorist attack, and these "expert guests" seemed anxious to make their pronouncements.
It became immediately clear that we were facing two hours of old, pre-packaged opinions challenged by other, opposing pre-packaged opinions.
It became immediately clear that we were facing two hours of old, pre-packaged opinions challenged by other, opposing pre-packaged opinions. At no time did anyone give evidence of having changed his mind or penetrated more deeply into the subject. From the outset, it was mostly a discussion about politics.
NYU President Sexton, a Catholic lawyer with a degree in religious studies, tried numerous times to bring the conversation to a deeper level of discourse, but it quickly returned again to the usual themes: unilateralism vs. multilateralism, globalization, US arrogance, Arab resentment, poverty and hopelessness, racism and loss of civil liberties, and comparison with casualties in other terrorist attacks, tragedies, genocides, and even traffic accidents.
The mood was certainly anti-Bush Administration, with the exception of the Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense and New York City' s Police Commissioner. As to the non-political types, Iranian-American artist Shiria Neshat bemoaned discrimination at airport security checks, and Professor Jessica Stern (author of Terror in the Name of God) did not pursue the connection between religion and terrorism but concentrated instead on the humiliation that the modern age had inflicted on the Arab world.
The representatives of the business world were remarkably subdued, except a member of the prestigious "Council on Foreign Relations," who questioned the seriousness of war leaders who asked the people to "sacrifice" by spending more money in order to spur the economy and show the terrorists that we were not intimidated.
The only difference was Salman Rushdie, who, frankly, seemed out of place in a discussion like this one. Early on, he insisted on the need to understand the present religious situation of Islam and the internal struggles for its future. It seemed he was suggesting that the "future of the West" was tied to this struggle between modernity and a religion that had yet to go through the encounter with critical thinking and tolerance.
Toward the end of the dinner, sometime between the "Tribeca Grill" and the "Warm Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream," President Sexton asked me to more or less try to summarize the new insights learned from the conversation (providing more or less the "exalted" view "from the perspective of eternity, I guess), but since I had not discovered any new insight so far, I repeated again what I had said before, namely, that we would not understand our present situation adequately if we failed to perceive its basis as a religious war.
The human vocation to the Infinite had been effectively suppressed by modern criticism and, instead of disappearing, it had struck back with a deadly force.
The human vocation to the Infinite had been effectively suppressed by modern criticism and, instead of disappearing, it had struck back with a deadly force. The proper response, I suggested, was not further suppression of the religious instinct, but its adequate education by insistence on the requirements of reason and a humble respect for a non-syncretistic pluralism based on true religious liberty.
Salman Rushdie exclaimed: "We have all failed tonight to see the elephant in the room [a reference, I imagine, to the famous Buddhist parable]. Only the Monsignor has described it adequately. In the end, our future depends on the encounter between religion, critical reasoning, and humility."