On the eve of the 20th anniversary of America’s worst terrorist attack, “Where were you when you first heard the news on 9/11?” has become one of the formative questions for today’s generations.

I was privileged to be among those serving as ambassadors of reconciliation and friendship in the name of Jesus who met face to face over the past four years to engage in dialogue about a wide range of important issues, including religious freedom and human rights, with top Arab-Muslim political and religious leaders in the Gulf region. We also asked them to reflect on their 9/11 experiences, lessons learned and ongoing reforms for the better.

In his latest nonfiction book, “Enemies and Allies,” released this week from Tyndale, New York Times bestselling author Joel C. Rosenberg chronicles these compelling conversations by first-ever delegations of American Evangelical Christian leaders he organized to the Middle East. 

Two years ago today, we were welcomed to the Royal Court in Jeddah by His Royal Highness Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We asked Salman, frequently identified as “MBS,” to describe his memories of what he was doing on Sept. 11, 2001. 

Though he was just 16 years old at the time of the attack, like other Arab-Muslim leaders with whom we met, MBS became alarmed and angry. He realized that the jihadists didn’t just take over and turn jet planes into ballistic missiles that day, they hijacked his religion and tried to redefine Islam. For the first time in his life, he was humiliated to be a Saudi, as a new pejorative perception of his nation and people did not reflect the reality of who they are. 

As a result, the young teenaged prince made a decision that galvanized his resolve and determined priorities he is carrying out today in combating extremism and making sweeping societal changes and cultural reforms toward moderate Islam. Though significant progress has been made there are still many challenges yet to be addressed. But, today the Kingdom, its neighbors and the world are far different, especially regarding matters of faith and religion.

In October 2018, we had a similar discussion with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (widely known by his initials, MBZ), the Emir of Abu Dhabi who is driving similar reforms in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He told us that Sept. 11, 2001, was “a time for choosing,” and a pivotal moment for him and his father, the late Sheikh Zayed, UAE’s modern founder and visionary.

Within days following the 9/11 attacks, the UAE severed ties with the Taliban. In time they would send the first Arab forces into Afghanistan to fight alongside their most important and valued ally, the United States.

We had similar important discussions in November 2017 with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan as part of a regional tour. 

King Abdullah reinforced previous public statements, such as in a 2014 interview on CBS “This Morning,” during which he described the ongoing battle against violent Islamists. “This is a Muslim problem,” he said. “We need to take ownership of this. We need to stand up and say what is right and what is wrong. This is no reflection on our religion. This is evil.”

Evangelical delegation with the Jordanian King Abdullah II, Nov. 8, 2017 (Photo courtesy Royal Hashemite Court)

Déjà vu

These recent conversations were significant for me personally, returning to the Gulf region nearly two decades after that catastrophic day in 2001, when I was traveling in the Middle East with my then-13-year-old son (just three years younger than MBS at the time) leading a group of journalists and pastors on a tour of biblical sites in Jordan.

While standing in the ancient ruins of the Decapolis city of Jerash, where Jesus once preached, I was notified by a U.S. reporter seeking client comment. Less than 10 minutes after the initial attack, I learned that a plane had been kamikazed into the World Trade Center, and realized we were taking a group photo at 3:46 p.m. local time – the exact moment the first tower was hit.

On the hotel television that evening I witnessed the shocking damage to the two quintessential symbols of America’s military power and financial strength. By that time, they were reduced to rubble, like the 2,000-year-old ruins of an earlier all-powerful civilization I had been trampling on that day.  

Because the Kingdom of Jordan is known as a land of peace, my traveling companions and I were eminently safe; in fact, the local people couldn’t have been more hospitable. But how surreal, from a region of the world identified with tension and violence, to watch the horror unfolding on our own shores. And we most certainly felt far away from home.

Indeed, the free world was under attack: physically, through an unimaginable but intentional act of terrorist aggression, but also spiritually, targeting our nation at its very soul. It became an occasion for us as Americans to take personal inventory of our lives and our priorities.

We returned to the U.S. on the first flight from the Middle East and entered a country I had never before known. American flags were flown everywhere, and ubiquitous car ribbons reminded us to never forget. All of our disputes and differences melted away as we stood together in our defense and healing.  

As a result of our communal lifeboat, cultural mindset shifted during the following days and weeks from “me” to “we;” civility returned as a societal virtue; church attendance soared; and prohibitions against prayer were temporarily lifted. During the most vulnerable time in our history, we were reminded – collectively and individually – that every day is a gift.

The attacks brought unity; God was at the center of our thoughts, needs and existence. Adversity and tragedy made us one people for a season. But as the months passed, that unity faded and slowly people returned to their corners and soapboxes once again.

Perhaps the national crisis of 9/11 was part of the remaking of the American soul, individually and collectively. Now two decades hence, it is my prayer that Ground Zero will become a symbol of America’s true strength and power – not financial, but spiritual – and the epicenter of a revitalization and renewal that will shake the world.    

May it continue at this milestone memorial 20th Anniversary, with each of us choosing to come home in his or her heart; back to God in gratitude for what we still have and what we can do, and back to His purpose and will for our lives. 

And may that also be true for Arab leaders in the Middle East, as they collaboratively battle Islamist extremism, reinforce the true identity of the faith of their fathers and continue much-needed cultural and religious reforms in an effort to pursue peace in the post-9/11 era. 

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