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September 11, 2001 is more than a tragic event of death and
destruction. It is an advent of transformation into a new
consciousness. We are at the conjunction of two perspectives. One is
the emotional perspective, the perspective that all was peaceful and
well. Why did this tragedy happen? Our peace has been shattered.
The other perspective is born of resentment, pain, and suffering that
have been building for a long period of time, particularly among those
who did not experience the period before September 11 as peaceful. In
order to draw lessons from this tragedy, we cannot limit ourselves to
the first perspective. We have to take into account the second
perspective as well.
We need to experience ourselves in relationship, not out of
relationship. We need to experience our commonality. We need to do
that, so that the suffering that Americans have undergone has a
counterpoint in the suffering of those who have inflicted the pain.
In other words, our movement has to be from isolation to unity. To do
so, we need to stimulate reflection and find meaning in our common
tragedy. The activities we undertake should move towards such
reflection and the search to find meaning and commonality. To move
towards reconciliation, we should invite ourselves to identify common
responses to our common tragedy.
Now that the ashes of the World Trade Center have settled we find that
we need to face a new world. America and the planet after September
11, 2001 are different from the day before. This is a truly
transformative period in our human experience. New syntheses and new
narratives are emerging, affecting all of us. We need new thinking.
Outward transformations of our world-collapsing borders, compressed
time and space-reflect a parallel transformation taking place in human
consciousness as our ways of thinking begin to adapt, and make the space
necessary to include and incorporate the proliferating multiplicity of
life, culture and being. This transformation of consciousness, with its
increasing recognition of our deep interconnectedness and interdependency,
suggests a shift from a religious perceptual framework to a spiritual one.
The difficulty this transition poses for us, and the responsibility that
facilitating this change entails, cannot be understated. We appear to be
most divided by multiple, and purportedly religious, fault lines, which are
most apparent in proclamations that you are either with us or against us.
Materially and ideologically, our world has never appeared more
divided. Globalization and privatization have acutely intensified
inequalities to an unprecedented degree. Yet it is precisely the
possibility of a transformation of consciousness which allows us to
cope with the rapid changes taking place. To the extent that we are
aware of the possibility of transformation, we can work in this
formative, early period to nurture and direct expressions of an
emerging consciousness wherever we find them.
The emphasis on transcendence, the spirit’s quest for ultimate
reality, is one of the purest, oldest, and most mysterious aspects of
human spirituality, and has been the source of strength for humanity
for achieving grace under adversity, for balancing power with
humility, and for connecting with a larger meaning and purpose.
Moving from a religious to a spiritual framework allows us to relocate
our most basic, inherited assumptions in ways which can free us to
untangle ourselves from our present circumstances and move with grace
toward our shared, collective destiny.
A spiritual framework involves understanding that we come from a place
of abundance, not scarcity. We are not speaking about material
resources (although in our society today we have the means to meet the
basic human needs of our entire population), we are talking about the
human spirit: here, your win is not my loss; your greatness is cause
for my celebration and marvel. When we engage with one another on a
spiritual basis, our dialogues are not characterized by one party
speaking with arrogance and insensitivity, leaving the other side
defensive and insecure.
Moving from a religious to a spiritual framework breaks down us
versus them dichotomies and allows us to see that the neat
conceptualizations of old systems of power no longer fit. These ways
of thinking were fictions that could only be upheld through physical
separation and deep existential anxieties that arose from entrenched
perceptions of scarcity. It is precisely this either – or dichotomy
which empowers fundamentalist opportunism, and undermines the
discrimination required for individuals to create and direct their own
community. An emerging globalized ethic of spirituality embraces the
unity we see in diversity, which finally gives us permission to
celebrate both. In celebrating we find comfort in our individuality
as one unique expression of a larger sameness. Only from this
position do we possess the freedom to recognize that the parts reflect
In this way, our emerging spiritual ethic frees us from our
commitments to metaphors and symbols, while focusing our attention
instead on the power animating them. Spirituality finds its own
reflection by transcending metaphors and crossing borders, to discover
the value of human life and a deeper awareness of a larger, living
reality in which one finds oneself. In older paradigms, mutual
understanding and dialogue often could not surmount the differences
inherent in choices or preferences for metaphor. Our new framework
unhooks us from these linguistic and cultural constraints. This opens
up room for mutual understanding and dialogue when we focus on the
spirit and encourages its expression through creativity, imagination,
A spiritual framework which no longer frames rightness or
wrongness based on “us” or “them” frees us to grasp the real meaning
of interdependency and mutuality. When we see anger and outrage we
hear human dignity’s response to fear, and we must be secure enough
physically and mature enough spiritually to hear it. The real,
embedded meaning of our interconnectedness is mutual responsibility,
and the implicit trust that your safety and well-being is directly
related to my own, whether you are a believer in my particular faith
tradition or not. Our sense of accountability must be expanded in
tandem with our influence and reach.
In the old way of thinking, a “just cause” depends largely on who
you are, distorting and undermining our essential sense of
responsibility to one another. A spiritual perspective frees us from
our preconceived identity commitments, and our rigid adherence to
metaphors and symbols that are all too easily appropriated in ways
entirely different from their original intentions. Where concern for
human dignity and social responsibility are manifest as global values,
the exclusivism of religious extremists is defused.
A new perspective gives us permission to listen to and abide by
our consciousness, and to cultivate an ever-emerging transnational
consciousness, which is a meeting of the best of East and West, North
and South. The transnational consciousness is not molded by the
media, nor is it the creation of the elites and intellectuals: it is
the cry for human dignity. It is an innate human expression. This
transnational conscience has the power to generate new metaphors,
symbols, practices, models and resources that represent new values and
goals beyond outdated, arbitrary, artificial boundaries.
Moving from the old framework toward a spiritual one frees us to
move beyond the immediate gratification of short-term approaches
designed to secure “us.” We begin to cultivate networks of support
with each other, networks that are intended for our longue duree here
together. As Martin Buber said in 1962, we must replace the way of
tactics, which is the short- term approach, with the way of strategy,
which is thinking for the long- term. Real defense consists of seeing
far ahead, of taking the long view. We must work for long-term
results, the decisive word must be dictated not by political tactics
but by political strategy.
We no longer have the choice of holding on to our habituated ways
of thinking. Our metaphors and older ways of thinking and believing
do not encompass the traditions, history, and experiences of the rest
of the world on their own terms. Recasting the world in one image
would prove a bloody, violent and vain enterprise. Instead, we have
experienced a shift from separateness to connectedness which is
manifest in all the world’s social movements. There is also a shift
in the location of authority from the external to the internal. We are
relying more on our own inner wisdom and conscience while
simultaneously discovering the humanity and interdependence of all
communities. We are witness to the affirmation of brotherhood and
sisterhood as well as a passion for social justice and political
participation. We are discovering in this process that cultural and
human diversity is our source of strength and our greatest resource,
as living expressions of the ultimate creativity.
What other choices do we have? Our reason and conscience tell us
that the old ways continue to threaten our survival, and that our
vision and reality can no longer live so painfully apart. And so our
consciousness begins to direct us as we begin to view ourselves and
our relationship to one another in a new context befitting our rapidly
changing environment. Moving toward a spiritual framework opens our
perceptual and affective capacity for embracing our unfolding reality.
Retreating from the challenges of active engagement only serves
to strengthen the position of fundamentalists in all of our
communities. Retreat from one another is itself a symptom of
fundamentalism, which is a pathology of culture that arises when a
group takes a subset of basic tenets of a tradition, and either under
pressure of insecurity or in the pursuit of hegemony and total
security, uses them either to seal off others or to maintain
dominance. A retreat is not only a denial of the rich diversity of
the modern cultural experience, but also a rejection of responsibility
for future generations.
Historically, we humans have relied overmuch on the self-evident
testimonies of our beliefs and accomplishments, at the expense of
genuine interpersonal or inter-civilizational dialogue and
bridge-building. A new and mutually rewarding relationship must now
emerge, in which accumulated wisdom and insights may be shared to
avoid stagnation and to allow authentic human progress to be achieved.
Such a relationship will have to be premised not on ideas of cultural
superiority, but on mutual respect and openness to cultural
eclecticism. We can learn from one another and cooperate in the
pursuit of humane values. We are not destined to meet as rivals.
Each one of us can give the best we have in exchange for the best from
Abdul Aziz Said is the senior ranking professor at American University and the first occupant of the endowed Mohammed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace. He founded the American University Center for Global Peace which undertakes a wide range of activities domestically and internationally aimed at advancing our understanding of world peace.
Fall | Winter 2016