The spiritual meaning of September 11

The world over, particularly Muslims, stood in horror and outrage at the decision by an obscure group of religious fanatics in Florida to burn the Qur’an in the name of Christianity. For the moment, it seems they have decided to defer the terrible act, which allows the rest of us to pause and reflect about how our global society could have devolved to such a low point.

To begin with, untold millions are wondering, Why aren’t the American authorities stopping them?, especially considering the violence and instability that is likely to result from the deplorable act. There are very real and important legal and philosophical issues. In simplest terms, many Americans believe that to stop this group from burning the Qur’an would be to endanger one of the core principles of human rights, namely, the right to express one’s opinions, no matter how strange, controversial, or abhorrent.

To the charge that the United States’ own laws may have made it morally impotent, or worse, complicit in such an affront to humanity, Americans respond that they are reaching for a higher morality, one that encompasses the total civic community and not any one group. The rights of the few must be protected for the sake of all.

That argument is true and must be stated clearly, but I feel that what’s been missing from the discussion, though, has been the deeper spiritual and cultural dimensions. What kind of world are we living in when members of a religious community can so radically misunderstand or grossly misinterpret the principles of their faith and their nation as to attack the entirety of another religious community so symbolically and with such hatred?

Indeed, what kind of world are we living in when members of the recipient religious community themselves think it equally justified to rise up in violence and to exact vicious reprisals upon innocents who are in no way connected to, affiliated with, or approving of the desecration of their holy text?

This is the question many of us in the Baha’i Faith seek to raise at dark, despondent moments such as these. That the Qur’an burning was scheduled to happen today, on the ninth anniversary of September 11th, the remembrance of one of history’s most vile acts of ideologically-driven religious hatred, itself coinciding with this year’s Eid al-Fitr and the start of Rosh Hashanah, appears to me especially symbolic and not in the least coincidental at a metaphysical level. It’s as if the universe were trying to shake humanity awake.

To the world’s desperate question of why the desecration of the Qur’an is going to be allowed, although I cannot speak for the Baha’i community as a whole, I feel a great number of us would agree that the answer would be: ultimately, this and other actions like it are symptomatic of a deeper illness, one that cannot be halted or cured by legislation and law enforcement — indeed, as the Americans argue, such actions might only serve to reinforce the downward spiral. No, the answer must be a deep and global change in consciousness.

Our prophet and founder, Baha’u’llah, has identified the bacterial elements of this global illness as the inequality of the genders, racial and national prejudices, and gross misprioritization in political and economic decision-making — in other words, sexism, racism, jingoism, egotism, and avarice.

Religion itself, if it is unwilling to hear the criticism of reason and detach itself from political and national passions, becomes the most egregious part of the disease. Baha’u’llah has written, “Religious fanaticism and hatred are a world-devouring fire, whose violence none can quench.” Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha, whom we consider his authoritative interpreter, elaborated this point, writing, “Religion must be the cause of fellowship and love. If it becomes the cause of estrangement then it is not needed, for religion is like a remedy; if it aggravates the disease then it becomes unnecessary.”

The fact that such an isolated and obscure group has been able to thrust itself upon the world stage at all highlights another key element of the current illness, namely, the media’s own distorted sense of what is newsworthy. Again, Baha’u’llah has written about the power of the media both to help and to hurt:

“In this day the mysteries of this earth are unfolded and visible before the eyes, and the pages of swiftly appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world; they display the doings and actions of the different nations; they both illustrate them and cause them to be heard. Newspapers are as a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech; they are a wonderful phenomenon and a great matter.

“But it behooves the writers and editors thereof to be sanctified from the prejudice of egotism and desire, and to be adorned with the ornament of equity and justice. They must inquire into matters as fully as possible in order that they may be informed of the real facts, and commit the same to writing. […] Good speech and truthfulness are, in loftiness of position and rank, like the sun which has risen from the horizon of the heaven of knowledge.”

The cure to the disease, in my opinion, must be the re-spiritualization of human society. Of course, many fundamentalist religious groups around the world make the same claim, but where they envision further politicization and division, if not totalitarianism, I believe the Baha’i vision is something very different: to return to the true essence of democracy, in which the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective are consultatively worked out, and most of all, a vibrant holism in which the genders, the nations, the religions, the sciences, and the arts are reconciled and work together for everyone’s mutual growth.

In short, humanity has to get its priorities straight. Which is more important: to bring out our demons by further fanning the flames of hatred and discord, to burn scriptures and murder innocents while entire nations struggle to feed themselves? Or to work together to bring out humanity’s angels? Unity, not discord, is indeed the true will of God, and the true cure and innermost aspiration of humanity:

“The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Day Star of Truth beareth Me witness! So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. The one true God, He Who knoweth all things, Himself testifieth to the truth of these words.”

Today, let’s try to transform September 11th from a day of grief and rage to a day when religious believers everywhere resolve to work toward that which humanity has longed for with all its heart during the countless millennia of our troubled history.

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