My 9/11 story: How Unity Day, an annual event, seeks to bring people of all faiths together

By Dr Mike Ghouse*

On that tragic Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001, I was called on to address the emergency after the Second Tower in New York was hit by the Terrorist plane. On the way to the Radio station, I set my goal for the day, and it was to bring coherence to the chaotic situation of the day.

I went on the Air from about 10 AM and stayed thru 4:30/5 PM on Radio Station AM 1150, and later AM 950 Radio simulcasted. I was on the radio for straight 7 hours carrying on a live conversation from Dallas Area Mayors, religious, civil, business, cultural, and other public leaders. 

 A sense of coherence, confidence, and hope was developed, and the following three new initiations took place on the day and were accomplished:

  1. Interfaith prayers
  2. Blood Donations
  3. Fund Raising

Since 2005 we have been organizing the Unity Day USA event every year, and this year, I was supposed to do a full program on Fox News with my friend Jack Pagano from the town of Marquette in Michigan. My surgery last week has spoiled my plans. 

As a Muslim, I am deeply committed to America. Together as Americans and American Muslims, we uphold, protect, defend, and celebrate the values enshrined in our Constitution, a guarantor and a sustainer of our political and social structures that each one of us wants.

The great tragedy had left everyone speechless and had frozen everyone from doing anything. I was shaking but was committed to make sense out of the chaos and bring coherence to the day, and pave the way for relevant action.

I was on the air for 7 hours straight, standing on my feet and getting just about every area Mayor, community, religious, civic, and business leader and the general public on the air to talk about the situation. Many of them read prepared statements, and one by one they condemned the attack. I did not even get to eat or take a break. The calls were pouring in, and I was wholly absorbed in the situation.

Among many who jumped on the idea to hold interfaith prayers were Mr. Joel Brooks of American Jewish Congress, Ms. Vinoda Kumar of the DFW Hindu Temple, Mr. Mohammad Suleman of the Islamic Center of Dallas, Mr. Poras Balsara of the Zoroastrian community, and Kevin Rafraf from the Baha’i Temple, the list was endless. All the announcements and pronouncements were going on the radio live from every community leader. Mr. Taiyab Kundawala of India Association agreed to hold and announce the prayer vigil at the association, and the fundraising was set up the very next evening. Mr. Mansoor Shah of Pakistan Society was there to do anything that needed to be done. Mr. Ashok Mago of the Indian Chamber of Commerce also joined in on the Radio. I apologize to many friends, whose name has gone blank on me. I would appreciate it if you could share them.

The fog was clearing up; Osama bin Laden was the bad guy and we have to go get him to serve justice. President Bush announced that he will chase Bin Laden to the far end of the world and get him.

Muslims had nothing to do with Osama, nor did they authorize that terrorist; and a declaration of war against Osama announced.

Spiritual leaders from different faiths and traditions were called in to pray and share their wisdom for this moment.  They were from Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islam, Jain, Jewish, Sikh, and Zoroastrian traditions. Area City Mayors, community, and business leaders joined in an effort to bring a sense of direction.

The sense of Unity that emerged on the Radio, the multi-faith prayers that were arranged instantly was a relief in that chaotic disharmony.

I made a commitment to dedicate this day and unite people on the day every year.  For the first four years, I did the radio show talking about the effect of 9/11 on society, economy, and refreshing and galvanizing the interfaith movement.

While this was going on, my late wife Najma had called in to announce about the blood drive, and sure enough, hundreds of people were lining up at Wadley Blood center. She drove to the facility, and the folks told her that the lines were too long and asked us to hold off the announcements till the next day. I wish I could get hold of the CNN tapes from the next day where they interviewed me for over 10 minutes at the Radio Station we were hanging out. Our friends and my late wife said that every word I said on the TV was just the right word, what a relief! I was tense but determined to clear the muddy waters.

9/11 is one of the most significant days of my life, and I have made a lifetime commitment to dedicate this day, every year to serve my nation by bringing Americans together for the safety and security, and peace and prosperity of America.

As the community was fully involved on the air with me, the Interfaith-faith prayers, blood donations, and fundraising for the men and women in uniform were all in place by evening. The fog was clearing up, Osama bin Laden was the bad guy, and Muslim-Americans had nothing to do with his actions, nor did they authorize him to terrorize anyone. Indeed, he placed a wedge between Americans that still need to be undone. I had literally declared war against this man.

Atheists, Baha’i, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Jews, Native Americans, Pagans, Sikhs, Wicca and Zoroastrians along with area city mayors, FBI, police and fire chiefs and community leaders graced the first interfaith event in Frisco. Out of which a new tradition evolved called Unity Day. It continues year after year.

A few of us formed a team from different religions and went from place of worship to place of worship and shared the prayers or gave a small talk about the respective religion. That’s where we built the relationship of trust between us for me to read the Jewish Prayers when Joel Brooks was not available, recite the Zoroastrian Prayer for Poras Balsara, Jain prayers for Pradeep Shah or Hindu Prayers for the Hindu community and of course, I represented Ben Moghaddas of Baha’i faith and was always a substitute for the Muslim community. There never was a shortage of Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs in interfaith activity at that time. However, it has dwindled down now. Muslims are not participating as much, and at many places, I am the only Muslim participating in smaller interfaith events. They go to the big ones though.
Peace pledge

I worked on the following peace pledge and recited at the conclusion of every interfaith gathering after that.

  • I will speak up when there is injustice.
  • I will speak up when the truth is not spoken.
  • I will do my best to make my words and my actions to mitigate conflicts.
  • I will do my best in nurturing goodwill for the benefit of all.
  • I will do my share of peace work, without looking for others to do theirs.
  • I will do my best to respect the God-given uniqueness of each individual. 
  • I will do my best to live and let others live their way.

One of the biggest walls between Hindus and Muslims was dissolved that week. President of The Dallas Islamic Center, Muhammad Suleman asked me to pull the religious groups for the interfaith prayers, and I was pleased to include Hindu prayers. Vijayshree Venkatraman came and chanted the Om Shanti Mantra amidst all other prayers. Perhaps it was the first time Hindu prayers were recited in a Mosque. I am sure it is done elsewhere, but it was a new experience for Muslims in Dallas.

If there were one gratifying moment in my interfaith life, that would be one. The other ones are chanting the Jainism’s Navakar Mantra at the Maya Temple in Mexico, Hindu prayers in the Snotes at the Mayan Temples, getting Baptized in the name of God at the place in Jordan River where Jesus was Baptized, and dancing with the Pagans in Melbourne and spending time with the Native Australians.

The idea for Unity Day USA was first conceived on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and took its current form on Sunday, September 11, 2005. It is a Muslim initiative to come together to stand up for the safety, security, and cohesiveness of America, my initial team included Lee Holcomb of UT Dallas and other volunteers and women members from the Plano Mosque who handled terrific refreshments.

During the planning session of the event, I was opposed by a few to hold prayers from all religious groups in an alphabetical sequence. They preferred that Muslim Prayers be done at first and others to follow, someone did not want Islam to be in the Middle of Hinduism and Jainism. Even the idea of the Abrahamic faiths first and others following it was floated. I was not in favor of it as I have always believed in the equality of all humans and by analogy all religions, we dug in our heels.

Before it got messy, I called Imam Dr. Yusuf Zia Kavakci and asked his guidance on it, and I was praying for wisdom from him and was willing to walk away from the event if there was the preferential treatment to any group. He thought it over and said, Islamically I was on the right track to treating everyone on equal footing. However, he said, if you want to be political, you choose. I asked him if I could put those words in an email and send to the group, and that was the end of the conflict, what a relief! This Imam is a blessing to our town. Indeed I have written a few more of the interfaith moments between us.

The prayers were indeed led by 13 groups of religious leaders. Regina Rafraf led the Baha’i prayers, Ben Boothe prompted the Buddhist prayers; Christian prayers were influenced by the late Baptist Minister Roy Harrell with a team of clergy from Presbyterian, Methodist, Unitarian, Catholic, and other denominations; Swami Nityananda Prabhu led the Hindu group representing 7 different Hindu Temple; Islamic prayers were led by Imam Dr. Yusuf Zia Kavakci with Shia, Bohra, Ismaili, Sufi, Warith Deen Muhammad, Sunni, and other Muslim traditions, Pradeep Shah led the Jain prayers, Rabbi Haas led the Jewish prayers, the Sikh prayers were led by Bhai Harinder Singh and Ramneek Singh, Wicca prayers were led by Brian Langford and the Zoroastrian Prayers were lead by Poras Balsara. In the later years Native Americans, Pagans, Earth-based Traditions, Atheists, and others have joined in, no one is excluded. However, a few continue to insult us and refuse to join standing shoulder to shoulder with people of different faiths.

FBI Chief Danny Deffenbaugh, Mayors or Mayors pro-tem and Police chiefs of Plano, Frisco, Richardson, Dallas, Garland, Carrollton, Addison, and representatives of Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and State Representative Florence Shapiro were all on the stage. Among the civic leaders were Dean Hobson of the UT Dallas among others.

My conversation with Maria Arita of Fox news was interesting. She wanted to know if it was challenging to pull these various groups together. She could not resist the inherent bias and blurted out, “was it the Moslems that were difficult?” I said no, and the answer will be in my upcoming book. It’s a fantastic story of interfaith.

In the 3rd annual Unity Day event, we discovered something beautiful about how we hold things inside. I have real relationships with my friends in different religious communities, and they share whatever bothers them, usually is it about Muslims. Every one wants to genuinely find the truth and thanks to my friends from the Zoroastrian and Sikh Communities who held back the issue for two years.

Dr. Harbans Lal and Firdosh Mehta asked me to find out why Muslims walked out on them when it was their turn to pray in the first Unity day? Remember the Alphabetical sequence? I thank Bhagavad Gita for instilling in me with “finding the truth is one’s own responsibility”… we dug up and found out that it was the prayer time for Muslims when the Sikhs and Zoroastrian got on the stage. I shared that story and told our friends attending the event that you have got to admire our Muslim brothers and sisters when the time for prayer comes up, they drop everything as nothing else is a priority to them, and Mayor Pat Evans appreciated the hint. If that time were during the speech of the Mayor, they would merely fulfill their duty to God and pray. Isn’t it amazing what was construed as dislike to hear the Sikh and Zoroastrian payers, was not? It was such a relief to our friends Dr. Lal and Mehta.

Gregory Gomez, the Apache American surprised everyone and continues to remain the talk of the town. When Gomez went on to the stage with our Hopi Chief Ambrose to cleanse the environment (Done with feathers, a native tradition and I have been washed a few times). The first words the Native American spoke thrilled the audience, it was ironic, unexpected, and truthful, he said, “Welcome to my country.” The most significant appreciation came from Richardson Mayor, Gary Slagel without missing the beat.

Indeed, every year, our friends who attend the event have said, they feel right about being prejudice-free and free from stereotyping others, that is the power of the Unity Day.

Throughout America, we have the same federal laws for the criminals as well as the good people among us. Criminals violate the rules, and the right people don’t. The problem is not the law books or enforcement, but the few who do not follow the proper laws. It is the same story with a few Muslims, it is not the Quran or Islam, it is them, those few.

We don’t stereotype people based on the actions of a few.

As Americans we need not swayed by the current events in the world with the ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their likes, they are shamefully within the comparable statistical range of the world. The same percentage of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus or others behave the same; mind their own business, and a similar proportion is extremists.

Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Racism, Homophobia, Xenophobia, and Misogyny destroy the fabric of the nation and keep each other’s throats. We need to clean up ourselves and build a safe America for everyone.

Islam teaches one to be non-judgmental and consistently encourages individuals to do good. It emphasizes about individual responsibility towards the peace and security of society at large. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) described a good deed as an act that benefits others whom you don’t even know, such as planting a tree that serves generations of wayfarers with fruit and the shade. The world is a better place today because of a good legacy bequeathed to humanity by people of all faiths that came before us. We owe it to coming generations to leave the world a little better than we found to usher an era of justice and peace. Indeed, this is the same message, every messenger of God in every faith or a peacemaker or wise men and women have reiterated.

On my part, I am committed to building a cohesive America, and last year the Unity Day was held in Florida, and here is one of the most powerful stories, which is being made into a film.

Each one of us has a dream… a dream to have livable wages, a loving family, children, a home, reliable car, decent health care, and comfortable retirement.

A majority of Americans want a just society with safety and security. We want to live our lives as good neighbors and let others live theirs.

*Executive Director of the Center for Pluralism in Washington, DC

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