The Place of Religion in 9/11 Commemorations

by Richard L. Rubenstein (September 2011)

If there is any public event at which prayer would seem appropriate, it is the commemoration ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 assaults, the most devastating attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, in spite of strong protests from religious leaders and laypersons of all denominations, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ruled that no clergy are to participate in New York’s ceremony.

In view of the Mayor’s impassioned public support in 2010 of the proposal to build a 13-story Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, the Mayor’s decision excluding the clergy from the 9/11 commemoration would appear surprising. On second thought, the Mayor may have learned something from his initial support of the Ground Zero mosque, namely, how very powerful are the emotions aroused by the memory of 9/11.

Former New York State Governor David Patterson seems to have gotten the point somewhat earlier than the Mayor. Initially supportive of the mosque project, he subsequently urged its developers to choose an alternative site further away from Ground Zero and even offered state property on which to build it. The Muslim leadership refused the offer. They were determined to build near the Ground Zero site.

The governor understood the real issue. While acknowledging that the developers had every right to build the mosque, he said that that the proposed structure “…obviously ignites tremendous feelings of anger and frustration.” Few people objected to Muslims building an edifice for their religious and communal needs, although there were undoubtedly some. Connecting the mosque with the site of 9/11 was what made the affair so anger-producing.

The Mayor was of a different opinion. In a dramatically-staged speech at Governors Island on August 3, 2010, the  Mayor declared:

Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists – and we should not stand for that.[i]

Unfortunately, while the Mayor did not want “to treat Muslims different than anybody else,” the Muslims who perished in the 9/11 attack were different in a very fundamental way. Muslims did not die at the World Trade Center because they were Muslims. They died because they happened to work or had other business there when the jihadi-hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Admittedly, their presence in the doomed buildings would not have deterred the jihadis who undoubtedly would have regarded such deaths as collateral damage. If the jihadis thought of their Muslim victims at all, they were consoled by the fact that the truly faithful among them would receive their reward in Paradise. By contrast, the jihadi hijackers regarded every Jew and Christian who died that day at WTC  as hated infidels.

In his Proclamation of “Patriot Day and National Day of Remembrance” commemorating 9/11, President Obama characterized the attacks as “unthinkable acts of terrorism.” The President thereby deliberately obscured the fact that on 9/11 the United States was attacked by a monumental jihad assault which, according to The Times (UK) was greeted with spontaneous rejoicing in Palestine, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Muslim world in spite of official statements of sympathy by Muslim agencies.[ii] The 19 hijackers were religious, not political, extremists. They did not sacrifice their lives as secular “terrorists.” In their minds, they were committing a divinely-sanctioned holy act, jihad. The spirit of their sacrifice was expressed by their leader, Osama Bin Laden, in the World Islamic Front declaration of “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.” That document stated that “in compliance with Allah's order” the following fatwa was issue to all Muslims: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it….[iii]  In the eyes of the hijackers and their enablers, they were engaged in neither a crime nor “acts of terrorism.” Whether or not the President of the United States was willing or able to recognize it, the suicide hijackers saw themselves as holy warriors engaged in a war of religion.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have been consistently in denial about the nature of the attack, at least in public. On September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush declared at the Islamic Center of Washington that “Islam is peace.”[iv] A year later, he stated: Our enemy doesn’t follow the great traditions of Islam. They’ve hijacked a great religion.”

President Bush’s statements were not consistent with the historical record. From the Pyrenees to the Ganges, the history of Islam has been one of conquest. Admittedly, the vast majority of American Muslims had nothing to do with 9/11. Nevertheless, 19 educated Muslims, including at least four capable of acquiring the skills necessary to fly giant passenger jets into their targets, were acting neither out of compulsion nor a quest for personal gain. They willingly and deliberately gave up their lives in response to a call to serve Allah by killing as many Americans as possible.[v] Part of the anger, noted by Governor Patterson in connection with the building of the Ground Zero Mosque, undoubtedly stems from the misleading official spin on the connection between Islam, 9/11, and other jihad attacks. One doesn’t have to be an authority on Islam to understand the spiritual and intellectual provenance of the motives for jihad.

In addition to the New York City service of commemoration of 9/11 which Presidents Obama and Bush are scheduled to attend, there will be many commemorations throughout the United States and elsewhere. One such commemoration is scheduled to take place on Sunday afternoon September 11, 2011 in Fairfield, Connecticut. It is co-sponsored by the Fairfield Clergy Association, the Tent of Abraham Interfaith group, the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport as well as by the Jewish Community Relations Council and Congregation Beth El of Fairfield , the synagogue to which I belong. According to the event announcement, local Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy will participate in a service honoring “the memory of those lost, as well as the shared bonds of faith and hope that draw us together as a community.”

While I will under no circumstances attend the event, I have no criticism of my rabbi for participating. There is no way he could have refused to participate with the Fairfield Clergy Association and the Greater Bridgeport Council of Churches in this community “expression of interfaith unity.” Nevertheless, I seriously question whether there are  ”shared bonds of faith” between Judaism and Christianity on the one hand and Islam on the other. Admittedly, there have been very great theological differences between Judaism and Christianity, but in the past half century there have been strenuous and largely successful efforts at frank and honest inter-religious dialogue. There has been no comparable effort between Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslim efforts at dialogue have been exercises in da’wa, the invitation, sometimes subtle, sometimes less subtle, to conversion to Islam and partnership in the creation of a universal order of peace, justice, and harmony under Allah. When, however, infidels decline that call, they are not regarded by strict Muslims as faithful to their own traditions but as rejecting the sovereignty of Allah and his God-centered world order. At least theoretically, Muslims are obliged to wage war until the unbelievers either become Muslim or acknowledge Islam's supremacy and accept “protected” status within the Islamic world as a humiliated religious minority or dhimmis. In the final analysis, strict Muslims believe that universal world peace under Allah requires the conversion or submission of all of humanity to Islam.[vi]

Far too many Muslim imams worldwide have called for the destruction of Israel, its people, and in many cases, all Jews, for me to join with any Muslims in commemorating a massively destructive act that many Muslims see as a sanctified act of jihad. I fully understand that many American Muslims do not share such views, but I do not have any reliable way of knowing when assurances of fellowship and toleration are truthful and when they are examples of taqiyya, religiously sanctioned acts of dissimulation and deception.

While there is no way Muslims can or should be excluded from attending communal commemorations of 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg may very well have made the right practical decision in excluding all clerical participation, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. That way Muslim clerical participation could not become an issue. I have no way of knowing what was in the Mayor’s mind, but my guess is that he recognized the anger and resentment some non-Muslims, especially relatives of 9/11 victims and their friends, would have felt and decided to exclude all clergy rather than deal with the problems arising from Muslim clerical participation.

[i] Wall Street Journal: “Bloomberg on Mosque Vote,” August 3, 2010,

[ii] See for  a collection of newspaper accounts in the days immediately after 9/11 by Reuters, Agence Presse France, Associated Press, CNN and other  media resources of Muslim rejoicing and attempts by the Palestinian Authority and other agencies to prevent the publication of celebrations of the attacks.

[iii] “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,”

[iv] George W. Bush, “Address at Islamic Center of Washington,” September 17, 2001,

[v] Remarks by President George W. Bush, Dwight David Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Washington, DC, October 11, 2002,

[vi] Bassam Tibi, “War and Peace in Islam,” in Andrew Bostom, ed., The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims, 328.


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