I am beginning with these personal memories because the loss of the towers and of so many metropolitan New Yorkers buried beneath them was very personal. For many years the towers had been a daily sight while living across the Hudson in Jersey City. The scar of their absence from the skyline is still present today. Yet I felt proud that the city responded to the tragic loss of life and its iconic symbol with gests of endurance, compassion, and solidarity, and with the determination to rebuild and to not forget. Not a single “Muslim-looking” person was attacked or harassed in the city. Ten days later, on September 21, there was an official New York City Prayer Service at Yankee Stadium for the victims and families of those killed and missing in the terrorist attacks. It was conducted by Republican Mayor Giuliani jointly with Democratic political leaders and by religious representatives of all the major faiths, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu. The multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious city seemed united like never before with itself and with the country.
New Yorkers were well aware that among “the heroes” who perished, along with city police and firefighters, were many undocumented immigrants whose job was to bring food and services to the hundred thousand people working or transacting business inside the vertical city, which so dramatically collapsed. We will need to reflect on how quickly we have moved from a culture of “pluribus unum” to today’s culture of polarization, so well represented by such quintessential New Yorkers as Rudolph Giuliani and Donald Trump.
On another personal but more professional note, the tragic violence inflicted by “Islamist” terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—symbolic centers of global finance, of the United Nations, and of the United States as the hegemonic superpower—provided, albeit for the wrong reasons, unexpected resonance to the role of religion in global affairs, confirming the argument I had developed in Public Religions in the Modern World. Academic disciplines and universities, governments and political institutions, foundations and financial organizations began to take religion seriously, albeit for the wrong reasons.
Religion could no longer be ignored as a private affair, benevolent at best, but mostly irrelevant for the functioning of the secular hegemonic institutions, all of which were supposed to function etsi Deus non daretur. Religious matters had to be taken seriously once the potential destroying power of the sacred was made evident. Suddenly, the power of religion needed to be harnessed for harmonious purposes, for interreligious and intercultural dialogue, for peacemaking and reconciliation, for softening the clash of civilizations. But it had to be done without shaking too much the secular system of global governance: the world system of capitalism with its well-oiled global financial system and its unequal exchanges between centers and peripheries and the world system of nation-states, formally isomorphic and equal, yet grounded in the hierarchic and hegemonic world of superpower real geopolitics.
I’ve always felt ambivalent over the links between the foundation of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the response to September 11. I felt the same ambivalence over the foundation of so many new academic centers in Germany dedicated to the study of religion and politics, religion and violence, and Islam, with which I became associated. I often felt that my discourse on “public religions” was gaining recognition for the wrong reasons. This ambivalence was captured in the title of a collection of my essays in German, Europas Angst vor der Religion. Angst can be translated either as “fear of” or more softly as “anxiety over” religion. I am afraid that secular Europeans, secular social science, and secular institutions all too often only take religion seriously for the wrong negative reasons, out of fear and anxiety.
Twenty years later, the debacle in Afghanistan has shown that “the War on Terror” was the wrong response to the terrorist attacks. Eight post-9/11 wars remain unfinished, at tremendous costs to the American taxpayer ($6 trillion), having left countries in ruin; leading to over one million persons killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; and displacing as many persons as did World War II. Authoritarian governments from China to Russia could use with impunity the same War on Terror to justify the terrorist repression of some of their own populations.
Alas, the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has made evident the dysfunctional character of our global system of governance and its inability to respond in a globally responsible and solidaristic manner to a global public health crisis. This comes on top of its inability to offer credible responses to the growing global environmental crisis, to the growing global challenge of immigration and refugees, and to the global challenge of increasing inequality between and within nations around the world. Global challenges demand global responses, which neither the world capitalist system nor the world system of nation-states seem able to provide on their own.
Religions need to be taken seriously not for the wrong reasons, out of fear of the damage they can inflict on our modern secular system of governance. Notwithstanding the dysfunctional nature of most of our religious institutions, religion ought to be taken seriously if and when, following Pope Francis, it can contribute to a new “culture of the encounter.” In the language of Durkheim, religion could then serve as the sacramental symbol of a transcendent sacred that can bring people together in new bonds of human fraternization. Such bonds of solidarity are needed if we, individually as well as collectively, are to find the strength and the courage to respond creatively and prophetically—with love, faith, and hope—to the pressing global challenges we are facing. “We the people(s) of God” need to rethink and reform our global system of governance so that it is redirected to serve the common good of global humanity and of creation. It is an open question whether religions today could contribute somehow to such a pressing endeavor. But this could be an academic and practical inquiry worthy of the Berkley Center and of Georgetown University for the next 20 years.