The Stories of 2001. (Cover Story)

The Christian Century, December 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Stories of 2001. (Cover Story)


1. September 11

NINE-ELEVEN" HAS BECOME a shorthand reference to the shocking day when four hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center's twin towers, into a side of the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania--bringing to the U.S. numbing, outrageous examples of the terrorist mayhem that much of the world has experienced in the past. It was a nine-one-one call that shook America's sense of security.

In selecting the top religion-related news stories of 2001, CENTURY editors made the obvious No. 1 choice--the terrorist attacks and the subsequent military, political, diplomatic and financial counterattack against Afghanistan's Taliban, the al-Qaeda network and possibly other targets. As some analysts have noted, the "war on terrorism" is, like it or not, profoundly religious in its roots--both in its violent, extremist interpretation of Islam and the instinctive "God bless America" response.

The conflict's first few months saw the U.S. and Great Britain painstakingly define the war as not one against Islam but against evildoers, not as a "clash of civilizations" but as a defense of civility and civilization, not as revenge but as justice. In defending U.S. Muslims from slurs and hate crimes, President Bush--like other mainstream Christians--praised peace-loving Islam and visited with Muslim leaders to underscore the ideal of religious pluralism. That included the White House's distancing itself from disparaging remarks against Muslims by conservative Christian figures like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham.

Unlike the high-profile, mainstream Christian protests against launching the 1991 Persian Gulf war, today's mainline Protestant and Catholic groups raised relatively muted concerns about the "war on terrorism" that did not make big news. Some have questioned whether the bombing in Afghanistan is moral, whether enough humanitarian relief can be delivered quickly and whether proposed domestic security measures might seriously erode cherished constitutional rights, especially affecting "foreign-looking" citizens and residents. But such concerns are voiced also by many lawmakers and journalists, by people in secular as well as religious circles.

In judging the biggest news stories of the year, editors saw the effects of the September 11 attacks as two significant developments for people of faith. First, there were the ramifications of the horrific attacks taking the lives of thousands of innocents--Americans as well as many foreign citizens who worked in New York's World Trade Center. If the buildings, target of a less-successful bombing in 1993, were a symbol of Western domination to furtive extremists claiming the blessings of Allah--contrary to most Islamic scholars then--the Ground Zero ruins also became a symbol of U.S. unity, heroic character and the fragility of life.

2. Attention to Islam

THE SECOND TOP STORY was the renewed attention in the United States to Islam and Muslims, so different from the curiosity of 1979-80 when Iran's theocracy was in the news and in 1991 when Iraq's Kuwait invasion and battle with the U.S. had some in the media talking about jihad, or holy war. Over the last ten years, however, American Islam has gained in prominence. Even if (according to a recent study and poll) the Muslim population in this country is something less than the 6-7 million usually claimed, organized Islam in the U.S. has become politically astute and savvy in its defense of Muslims' civil rights.

In other words, this time around U.S. political leaders were aware that there were mosques, Islamic organizations and articulate spokespersons to meet and talk with. No less important, the Muslim communities provided a domestic window to the more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide.

3. Faith-based eclipse

HAD THE long-planned September 11 attacks been aborted or delayed, the top religion news story of the year might have been the Bush-pushed initiative to share more federal funds for social service among religious groups.

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