Nineteen years ago, I was attending an international conference in Zürich, Switzerland. Just a couple of days before, I had flown to Europe from Newark. I distinctly remember seeing the World Trade Center towers from the airport as I waited to board my flight.
That Tuesday, I had gone back to my hotel room in between sessions to catch up on e-mails when my wife called to tell me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My first thought was someone had flown a small private plane into the building–some stupid rookie flying where he wasn’t supposed to be. So, I turned on CNN to see what was going on, more out of curiosity than anything else.. While we were catching up and watching the news, a second plane flew into the other tower. It was then that I realized something much bigger was happening.
As events unfolded that day, I stood alongside people from every region of the globe, watching the horror taking place back home in the USA. The conference continued, but as everywhere, the terrorist attacks were the main topic of conversation at every coffee break, dinner, and evening event.
It wasn’t too long before news began to spread about the origin of the men who had carried out these attacks and their religious affiliation. I happened to be standing next to a Palestinian man at one of the evening social events. He was a Muslim. What struck me most was how distraught and angry he was. He was outraged that these atrocities were carried out by those claiming to be followers of Islam. Pointing at the TV screen in front of us, he said to me, “This is NOT Islam! This is not how we believe we should treat people!”
I will always remember the events of September 11, 2001, and the uncertainties that followed. I didn’t know it at the time, but someone I went to high school with–not a close friend by any means–lost his life in the World Trade Center that day. I will never forget returning to the USA, where my flight’s final approach to Newark took us over Manhattan. The vast plume of dust spreading north from Ground Zero made it look like there was a forest fire in Central Park. Yet, it’s the comments of this Palestinian man that stick with me the most.
For those who would use this day to paint Islam with the broad brush of hate, I would encourage you to consider this Palestinian’s reaction. I believe his response represents the feelings of the vast majority of Muslims around the world. It reminded me that people are more alike than they are different.
In Leviticus 19:18, God tells the Israelites,
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”Leviticus 19:18, NRSV
In Hebrew, the last part of that phrase, “as yourself,” has another equally valid translation: “like you” or “like yourself.” So, this command can just as easily be read, “you shall love your neighbor who is just like you.” I think I like that translation better.
As a Christian, this Muslim man’s words reminded me that I am commanded to love–even those who would consider me their enemy. That is the lesson I pray I will never forget.