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9 Years After 9/11, Has Religious Tolerance Changed in America?

September 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown moderates a conversation among four religious leaders and experts on the tolerance -- or intolerance -- of different religions and cultures in America, nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

JIM LEHRER: And picking up on what the president discussed today, Jeffrey Brown has our own 9/11 conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nine years later, and very suddenly and very loudly, a new national conversation has grown around questions of tolerance, trust, and religious and cultural values.

We get four voices on these matters now. The Reverend Janet Vincent is rector of Saint Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Nine years ago, she ministered to rescuers, workers, and families of those killed at the site of the World Trade Center. Bishop Harry Jackson is pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. His books include “Personal Faith, Public Policy,” and “The Truth in Black and White.”

Reza Aslan is author of “No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.” He’s also a contributing editor to the Web site The Daily Beast. And Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of and previously served as editor of “Reason” magazine.

Welcome to all of you. I will start with you, Reverend Vincent. We heard the president refer to the country being anxious. He said, fears can surface, suspicions, divisions. How much of this to you goes back to 9/11?

REV. JANET VINCENT, Saint Columba’s Episcopal Church: I think it all goes back to 9/11. I was interested to hear him say today that we’re in a time of anxiety. But I think the anxiety has never left us since 9/11. There are deep, deep wounds, psychic and spiritual, as well as the physical wounds. And they haven’t gone away.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bishop Jackson, all from 9/11, or responses to specific new events and real concerns?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, Hope Christian Church: Yes, some from 9/11. I believe we never fully grieved out in the mainland, if you will. And grieving is a process where we acknowledge our hurt and pain. Further, it’s not politically correct at this particular juncture to talk about the fact that tolerance is a twofold thing. We can be tolerant, but the people that we deal with also have to be tolerant. And, very often, preachers are not willing to say, hey, you may be feeling angry, upset. Here’s how we deal with this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain that political — what do you mean by the political correctness and the…

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Well, if America is still majority Christian, I’m going to put some of the blame for this problem at the feet of us clergy people.


BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: And perhaps we’re not talking about the fact that there can be a sense of anger and outrage that someone will blow themselves up in a particular setting. And, in D.C., we may feel very intimidated. We know that we would be high on a target list.

The 9/11 mosque controversy is one that I don’t think that we have helped people process their feelings. So, as a pastoral counselor for many years and one who trains ministers, I think you would agree with me, Reverend Vincent, that there needs to be a voice, a pastoral voice that helps people deal with how they feel positively, as opposed to explosively.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me bring Reza Aslan in. What do you see? Has something changed. Are we a less tolerant society than we were nine years ago?

REZA ASLAN, author/journalist: Well, as far as the polls go, it seems that that is the case with regards to Islam. The Washington Post recently released a poll that showed that almost half of Americans have a negative view towards Islam. What’s remarkable about that is, that is about a 7 — excuse me — a 7 percent or 8 percent jump from the months immediately after the attacks of September 11.

Now, I think the president is right. Some of this has to do with the economy. Some of it has to do with fear of President Obama. After all, 20 percent of Americans believe he himself is a Muslim. But, as far as the polls indicate, there’s no question that anti-Islam sentiment is at unprecedented levels in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Nick Gillespie, bring you into this. Do you see a rising Islamophobia…

NICK GILLESPIE, editor in chief, No.

JEFFREY BROWN: or a vocal minority?

NICK GILLESPIE: Yes, I mean, it’s clear. It is not even a minority. I mean, when you look at somebody like Terry Jones, he is a nutcase who has a constituency of essentially zero people. What has he got, maybe 50 people in his flock. There are people — I think people — the reaction over the 9/11 mosque, as it is called, or Ground Zero mosque, is more complicated. But even that has more to do with the proximity to Ground Zero.

And I would offer this up. When you look at the number of hate crimes that are attributed to anti-Islamic sentiment, it’s way down from where it was in 2001. And there’s no sign that there is going to be an uptick of that. I think that Americans have actually processed 9/11 pretty well, in the same way that they have processed — processed a lot of other natural and manmade disasters.

What we see here, I think, coming up in a lot of this stuff is more anxiety about the lack of leadership in America. I mean, when you look at somebody like Barack Obama — and I’m not picking on him — I think the Republicans were terrible, you know, in their time in power — but Obama has not even come clear with what he thinks about the Ground Zero mosque.

He immediately invokes kind of abstract notions and principles, and he doesn’t just say what people want to hear, “Yes, I think it should go forward or not.” And I don’t even think people care that much about the decision. What they are looking for are leaders who are somewhat decisive. We’re nine years into a war with — in Afghanistan with a very hard-core religious background. It shows no sign of ending. There is a lot of religious-tinged violence in Afghanistan coming — you know, coming our way. These are the problems that people are dealing with. I don’t think anybody has a problem with Muslims in America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Reverend Vincent, you started this by saying that we had not processed 9/11. And that was a very contrary — contrary view.

REV. JANET VINCENT: I agree with Nick that — the lack of leadership. I think the lack of leadership in helping to process the trauma of 9/11 is — is — we’re paying a big price for. I also agree that being at war for nine years causes constant anxiety, this anxiety that so many people experience, but have no reasonable outlet for.

How do we deal with that? I think we do need to deal with it politically and pastorally. Our leaders need to stand up and say who we are. In this time of anxiety, our highest — when we are fearful, when we are afraid for our lives, for our safety, for our children, our highest values go out the window, the things we hold on to. But we say we are Americans. We say we love liberty. We say that we love equality. We say we love freedom. Then, we have to stand up and show examples of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but do you think we are not? To put it bluntly…


JEFFREY BROWN: … do you think that we — not the leaders, but we, the American people, are less tolerant today than we were 9/11?

REV. JANET VINCENT: Yes. Yes. I think we can be less tolerant. I think we often are less tolerant, because we’re afraid. I think, at heart, though, I think we want to be more tolerant. I think we want to be good people. We see ourselves as a good people. But our political leaders across the aisle must stand up and demonstrate that they are good people, so that we can be good people. Our religious leaders need to stand up and say that we will not be intolerant. In fact, we need to go beyond the — a debate about tolerance and intolerance. We must talk about acceptance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bishop Jackson, I just want to read you part of an e-mail we received. This was a response to a story we did yesterday about the Florida pastor.

So, it’s from a viewer, man or woman. I’m not even sure. “This nation has Judeo-Christian roots. Muslims have gained a tremendous foothold in this country since the 1970s, and they are very, very public about their religion, in a way Christians are not. Why should the American people not be distressed by all this? Also, many, if not all, the plots foiled in this country involved domestic Muslims. Millions of plain, ordinary Americans have disquiet about the growth of Islam.”

Now, do you understand that? Where is that coming from?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: I understand it. But, again, I agree that there needs to be leadership, religious leadership. I pastor a church in D.C. that has 22 different nationalities, black, white, Hispanic, first-generation Africans, people who have come from all kinds of walks of life and faiths.

I think there needs to be some specific teaching on this. And the next generation may be less tolerant if we don’t do something. Think about what happened with Al Sharpton vs. Glenn Beck on the Mall, all the hubbub: Is the Tea Party racist or is it not?

We are in a time that, unless we give clear leadership, as Reverend Vincent said, we can slip away from our professed values. And our leaders are supposed to lead the way in exemplifying the American dream.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reza Aslan, I will bring you back in here. What — pick up on all this. Do you — where do you see it coming from?

REZA ASLAN: Well, look, I think the important thing to understand here is that it’s not so much that Islamophobia is on the rise, as that it is becoming increasingly mainstream. I mean, there are fringe figures, figures like Stop Islamization of America, the group that is going to take over Ground Zero tomorrow for an anti-Islam rally, that six months ago would never have received the kind of mainstream media attention that they are receiving these days.

Six months ago, it would have been impossible to think of some of the words that have come out of GOP presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich’s mouth, in which he has completely associated American Muslims with al-Qaida. So, I think what we really need to worry about is the mainstreaming of this kind of religious bigotry, the idea that it could actually become a wedge issue in the midterm elections. But, n

evertheless, we do need to pull back for just a moment and remember that, you know, in the 19th century, we had the anti-Catholic “Know Nothings” who thought that Catholics couldn’t be Americans, that Catholicism itself was an evil religion.

We look back at them now with shame and derision. In the 20th century, you had people like Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford and politicians like Louis McFadden talking about the great Jewish conspiracy and the conspiracy to pull the United States into the Second World War.

Again, we look back at them with derision. And I’m certain that, decades from now, maybe not that long, we will look back at the Pamela Gellers and the Robert Spencers of the world with the same kind of derision that we think of. The foundation of this country, the religious liberties of this country, they can be challenged, but they cannot be overcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Nick Gillespie, come back here. You started — your first round here, you were talking about you think that we are still fundamentally a tolerant people. So, you don’t see — you don’t even see the problem that some of the other guests here are talking about?

NICK GILLESPIE: Well, you know, there is no question that somebody like Newt Gingrich has been abominable in this discussion, I think, you know, easy equations of all Islam with al-Qaida terrorists, things like that, the fact that he is supposedly a proponent of property rights and he was talking about using eminent domain to keep the people from building a mosque or a cultural center near Ground Zero.

But what I would argue is that, more fundamentally, I don’t think that there is any reason to believe that people are less tolerant that religion is on the rise. People in — over the past 10 years and even the past 20 or 30 years before that, people have been embracing different types of lifestyles, whether you are gay, whether you are, you know, from a foreign country, et cetera.

It’s much easier to be different in America than it was 20 years ago. And I think that includes being Islamic. The real question, you know, on a certain level about anxiety I, why are we still talking about Ground Zero in the sense that nothing has been built there? And I think that that is actually — in a lot of ways the displaced narrative of grieving or of healing of 9/11 and moving on is the fact that the political leadership and in many ways the economic leadership hasn’t gotten back on track.

If the Liberty Tower had been built by now, this wouldn’t even be an issue, because people wouldn’t be talking about a scarred Lower Manhattan anymore. This — you know, these are the types of things — and even more than the wars, I would argue, what we are seeing is, you know, this has been a very long and difficult recession, which people haven’t been acknowledging and politicians haven’t been acknowledging in any kind of real way.

And a lot of weird stuff bubbles up, you know, when you have longtime economic pain. You know, realistically, the people who have been bearing the brunt of a lot of kind of inarticulate or inchoate anxiety are really illegal immigrants or immigration more generally, which illegal immigrant entries are down, but people seem to be much more hepped up about the threat of illegal immigrants taking their job.


NICK GILLESPIE: It is not a real fear, but it’s a very harshly, palpably felt one.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bishop Jackson, I know you are eager to get back in. Now, there’s a lot on the table, right, politics, economics, immigration, all kinds of anxiety.


JEFFREY BROWN: But put it in the context we are talking about.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Well, I wanted to talk about the 9/11 mosque issue. I think, there, there is an opportunity for the Islamic community perhaps to show tolerance themselves, to say, look, I don’t have to build there, since it is causing so much trouble, and I am going to get a higher bid.

I understand there is money on the table that would give them a profit. That kind of offering an olive branch could, in fact, multiply a sense of forgiveness…

JEFFREY BROWN: You would like to see it moved?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: I would like to see it moved, only because that’s the spirit of reconciliation, in my view.

JEFFREY BROWN: But — but — you are shaking your head.


JEFFREY BROWN: The other side of that is, the other spirit is, no, let them build, right?

REV. JANET VINCENT: Yes. No, I think we must let them build. I think we must deal with the anxiety of it. We are a culture that is afraid of conflict and anxiety. We need to deal with it. We need to allow that mosque to be built. You know, the comments before about different groups, Catholics and other groups who were persecuted in our country, Islam is now being persecuted. And we need to stand up for them, as we would stand up for groups who have come before them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reza Aslan, what — what — is there a way forward that you see or propose? Even right at this table, we’re having the conflict over the — over what to do at Ground Zero.

REZA ASLAN: Yes. Well, let me, first of all, just say to what was said by Bishop Jackson, is that we do not in this country hold our constitutional rights hostage to people’s sensitivities, regardless of what those sensitivities are. So, this isn’t an issue of necessarily just about location, though there are some good people who do feel that the location is the issue.

The same people who are gathered at Ground Zero to protest the building of this multifaith center, that’s essentially modeled upon the YMCA and which has Jews and Christians on its board, are the same people who are protesting the creation of mosques all around the country.

And I think the question to those people who say that it should be moved is, well, how far is enough for you? Is four blocks enough? Because there is already a mosque four blocks away. So, I think that this issue of the Islamic community center has allowed some of these marginalized groups and some of these anti-Muslim views on the fringes to come out into the center, to come out into the mainstream.

And that’s what we need to push back on, because, in this country, we do not tolerate this issue of treating some religious communities differently, even if it’s temporary, even if it’s just in one particular occasion. That is not how we do things around here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we just have time for a very short response, Bishop Jackson.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Yes. I was in a situation recently where we were — had land. We could build in a certain community here. And the neighborhood rose up and said, it’s too much traffic. You are too busy. The way you want to help people is not appropriate.

We chose to move because we want a friendship and a relationship with the community we’re seeking to serve. I think now we’re fighting on principles, instead of saying, maybe, where is your heart concerning the individuals you want to serve in the nation?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I know this is going to continue. I know you all have a lot more to say, but we have to end it there. Reverend Janet Vincent, Bishop Harry Jackson, Reza Aslan, and Nick Gillespie, thank you, all four.