Although Muslim groups condemned terrorist violence, there was an unprecedented
wave of attacks on Muslims and Muslim communities. As I document in [A New
Religious America], America's newest, smallest, and most vulnerable
religious communities -- whether Vietnamese Buddhists, Gujarati Hindus or
Pakistani Muslims -- have experienced all along some of the recurring
xenophobia that has haunted American history. But the shock and anger palpable
in America after September 11 amplified, for a time, the voices hostile to
Muslims, to Sikhs, to South Asian immigrants, to anyone who had the look and
feel of "different." In the days following the attack, a furious man smashed
his car through the plate-glass door of the mosque in Cleveland. A crowd
approached the Bridgeview mosque in Chicago shouting anti-Arab slogans. As
Muslims gathered at their mosque in Sterling, Virginia, to take a chartered bus
to a blood drive, they found a message inscribed on the building in big black
letters: "Die Pigs" and "Muslims Burn Forever!" In Alexandria, Virginia,
someone hurled bricks wrapped with hate messages through the windows of an
Islamic bookstore, shattering the glass. A firebomb landed in the mosque in
Denton, Texas, on the outskirts of Dallas, and rifle fire pierced the
stained-glass dome of the mosque in Perrysburg, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. The
rash of scattershot incidents across the country also included Hindu temples
attacked in Medinah, Illinois, and in Matawan, New Jersey; a Gujarati-owned
convenience store fire-bombed in Somerset, Massachusetts; and an Iraqi pizzeria
burned down in Plymouth, home of the Pilgrims.
Sikhs were also attacked, as we know, for the beards and turbans that marked
them, in the eyes of the uninformed, as cousins of Osama bin Laden. Sikh
organizations tracking the attacks received reports of over two hundred
incidents: a Sikh attacked with a baseball bat in Queens, beaten unconscious in
Seattle, assaulted at a stoplight in San Diego. On September 14, a New England
Sikh who was traveling by train from Boston to Washington was pulled off the
train in Providence, Rhode Island, questioned, handcuffed, and detained by the
police. While they found no evidence he was anyone other than a Sikh traveling
by train, he was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon -- his
kirpan, the ceremonial knife to which he himself called the officer's
attention. Only weeks later and after a deluge of letters to the governor of
Rhode Island and the mayor of Providence were the charges dropped.
There were also shootings and murders. The clearest instance of a hate crime
was in Mesa, Arizona, where a Sikh was shot and killed as he was planting
flowers around his Chevron station and convenience store. In Pleasant Grove,
Texas, a Pakistani Muslim was shot in his grocery store. In San Gabriel,
California, a Coptic Christian who had fled religious persecution in Egypt
twenty years ago was shot and killed in his store. Whether all these and other
killings are successfully prosecuted as hate crimes remains to be seen, but it
is clear that they were part of a much larger nationwide wave of xenophobia.
ON THE WHOLE, however, we would have to say that these incidents of
backlash unleashed by the terrorist attacks ultimately revealed something more
complex, and more heartening, about American society. The response evoked by
each ugly incident made clear that the multireligious and multicultural fabric
of the U.S. was already too strong to rend by random violence. Despite new
fears of "sleeper cells" of Muslim terrorists and "assimilated terrorists"
lounging by the condominium pool, Americans would not condone indiscriminate
violence against neighbors of any faith or culture. The Pakistani bookstore
owner in Alexandria, Virginia, stunned by the shattered glass and its message
of hatred, soon discovered hundreds of supportive neighbors he did not know who
sent him bouquets of flowers and cards expressing their sorrow at what had
happened. In Toledo, Chereffe Kadri, the woman president of the Islamic
community, reflected on the September 11 rifle fire: "That small hole in the
dome created such a huge outpouring of support for our Islamic community," she
said. "A Christian radio station contacted me wanting to do something. They
called out on the airwaves for people to come together at our center to hold
hands, to ring our mosque, to pray for our protection. We expected three
hundred people and thought that would be enough to circle the mosque, but two
thousand people showed up to hold hands around the mosque. I was amazed!" In
Plymouth, the Iraqi pizzeria owner whose shop had been burned out was inundated
with flowers, trays of brownies, and offers of financial support. In Mesa,
Arizona, where one man shot and killed a Sikh, hundreds of people left flowers
at the gas station where he had died, and thousands of people who had never met
him or any other Sikh came to the civic center for a public memorial service.
By early 2002 his family had received more than ten thousand letters and
messages of condolence. Statistically, one would have to say that benevolence
outweighed the backlash.
The impetus toward education and outreach was nationwide. As American bombers
were preparing to fly nonstop to Afghanistan, mosques all over the country were
preparing outreach programs and holding open houses, inviting neighbors in to
learn more about Islam. The Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge published an
open letter to its neighbors, saying, "We utterly condemn the use of terror to
further any political or religious cause. As Muslims, we abhor the killing of
innocent civilians. Our holy book, the Qur'an, teaches: 'If anyone kills an
innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity. And if anyone saves
a life, it is as if he has saved all of humanity' (chap. 5, verse 32)." The
letter announced an Islamic Society blood drive and a community open house to
be held the following Sunday. It closed, "God willing, we can lend one another
strength to find hope in these uncertain times." More than seven hundred people
came to the open house, many of them visiting a mosque for the first time. The
story was the same across the country. In Austin, Texas, for example, hundreds
showed up for the Sunday afternoon open house. A woman interviewed by the
Austin American-Statesman put the matter plainly and succinctly for many
Americans when she said, "The time of not getting to know each other is
GETTING TO KNOW EACH OTHER is often difficult and filled with tension,
misunderstanding, and real disagreement. Yet as the months pass, Americans have
displayed a consistent new level of eagerness, even urgency, to learn more
about Islam, to hear from Muslims, to know something about the Sikhs. We have
seen a very practical, very American "get busy and learn" response to tragedy.
Translations of the Qur'an and books about Islam were among the best-sellers on
the Internet and in bookstores. Seminars and programs on Islam took place in
colleges, universities, churches, and civic organizations all over the country.
Oprah hosted a version of "Islam 101" on her daytime television program, while
talk show host Larry King invited Muslim guests into his late-night
At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in late November, a
prominent journalist compared the two months prior to September 11 and the two
months after the tragedy. News and feature articles on Islam had multiplied
sevenfold. During these months Americans probably saw and heard more
Muslim Americans on television, radio, and in the print media than in the
entire thirty-five years since the new wave of immigration began in 1965.
Public awareness of a new religious America has never been higher.
Local newspapers seemed to create a counterpoint to the images of Muslim
hijackers. Muslims were the subjects of hundreds of human interest stories,
like the piece on Muslim Girl Scouts in the Charlotte Observer on
October 2, 2001. It featured color photographs of three green-uniformed Girl Scouts with head scarves and sashes of merit badges, holding their hands to
their eyes in a gesture of prayer. The back of one head scarf bore the words "I
Love Being a Muslim Girl Scout." Aside from the scarf, these were typical ten-
to fourteen-year-olds, but recently they had been taunted by fellow students
who associated their Islamic dress with terrorism. "Go back to where you came
from!" said one classmate. "I came from Connecticut," responded a ten-year-old
scout. "We don't believe in blowing up stuff. Islam is not terrorist," said her
thirteen-year-old sister. Even so, as the scout troop met at the Islamic
Society of Greater Charlotte, three squad cars sat outside in response to
threatening phone calls. ...
As the month of Ramadan began in November, local papers all across the country
carried human interest stories about the Muslim families in their communities.
The word iftar, the fast-breaking meal at the end of a day of Ramadan,
became part of the American lexicon, as community leaders responded to the
Muslim invitations to share the iftar meal with them. While recent years
have seen iftars on Capitol Hill and at the State Department, Ramadan in
2002 saw the first-ever iftar in the White House, a banquet hosted for
Muslim leaders by President George W. Bush.
The iconography of inclusion took a quantum leap in the weeks after September
11. ... The gradual civic recognition of the multiplicity of American religious
traditions had grown through the past decade, with Muslim and Hindu prayers in
Congress and Sikh Day parades through the city streets. But the fall of 2001
gave America new and powerful images that made the "we" much clearer. President
Bush stood with Muslim leaders at the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue in
Washington, D.C., and the National Day of Mourning Service at the National
Cathedral in Washington included the prayers of a Muslim imam. Two weeks later
the multifaith service in Yankee Stadium gave Americans who had never before
heard Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu prayers a chance to see and to listen in. As part
of its response to September 11, a national Sikh organization published a
widely distributed informational brochure with plenty of red, white, and blue
and the "United We Stand" motto on the cover. It featured photographs of Sikhs
holding American flags and a photograph of Sikh leaders meeting with President
George W. Bush in the White House on September 26.
MOST OF US DO NOT YET HAVE an overall view of how Americans of many
faiths have responded to this tragedy in cities and towns across the country.
For many weeks we watched a national story focused on Ground Zero and a faraway
international story focused on Afghanistan. What has not yet come into view is
the cumulative picture of thousands of local stories from cities and towns all
over America, struggling in new ways with religious and cultural differences.
People of every religious tradition and none died on September 11. People of
every religious tradition mourned, held services in their respective places of
worship, and participated in volunteer activities in record numbers. We heard
little of Hindu communities in these months, but Hindu temples held special
prayers and posted the American flag on their flagpoles and on their Web sites.
We heard very little of the Buddhists during these months, but we should know
that there were also Buddhist services across the country. On September 11 the
huge Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in Los Angeles echoed with the prayer of Master
Great and Compassionate Buddha!
There, buildings collapsed and devastation abounds amidst the wreckage and
There, buildings tumbled over and people died, anguish and shock everywhere.
So many were trapped in the wreckage, filled with fear.
So many were bound in danger, unable to escape.
So many lost their family in just one morning, with loved ones forever
So many lost their lives in a flash.
They are desperate for the relief of the rescue crew!
Buddha, they are in dire need of your blessing and protection!
For they are like lost travelers looking for a secure home,
Fearful lambs seeking a safe shelter.
Great and compassionate Buddha!
For the many that lost their lives,
And for the many that were injured.
Buddha, we pray for you to please bless them.
The burgeoning interfaith movement in the United States made great advances in
these months. Interfaith networks from Washington, D.C., to Milwaukee to
Seattle sprang into action with immediate civic leadership. Cities like
Portland, Oregon, that had never had an interfaith council formed one. These
organized instruments of relationship between people of many faiths became more
important than ever, for the easy, tolerant goodwill of civic life is truly
tested in times of tension and suspicion. At an interfaith service in the San
Francisco Bay Area, the governor of California, Gray Davis, put it clearly:
"Our enemies have failed to divide us. We are one people. We are Americans. We
don't care if you were born in the Mission District or the Middle East." And in
Washington, D.C., at the National Cathedral, Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon said,
"Those of us who are gathered here -- Muslim, Jew, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist,
Hindu -- say to this nation and to the world that love is stronger than
There were many frayed edges in the common fabric, to be sure. The Missouri
Synod Lutheran Church battled over whether its religious leaders should have
participated in an interfaith service. Some charged that by participating they
were acknowledging that other faiths were somehow valid. And there were some
very conservative Christian leaders like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, and
Pat Robertson who gave public expression to their Islamophobia and made
intemperate remarks, fueling monolithic stereotypes about Islam. In every case,
however, they were criticized, immediately and decisively, by fellow
Christians. The days when Christian church leaders could ignorantly assail
Islam with impunity were over.
Muslim-Jewish relations suffered most in these months. Some American Jews were
critical of American Muslims for what they believed was a long silence on
Islamist terrorism, especially the Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel. Jews'
criticism of what they saw as extremist Islamic organizations, such as the
American Muslim Council and the Council on American Islamic Relations, was
relentless. American Muslims, who consider these organizations to be moderate
and mainstream, bristled at the allegations. The oft-quoted quip, "Now all
Americans are Israelis," because now we had experienced firsthand the random
civilian violence that Israelis had known for years, offended and affronted
many Muslims, who felt that there was little or no U.S. critique of Israeli
violence in the West Bank and Gaza. Hard talk went back and forth, and
Americans of every faith found it difficult to sustain any public discussion of
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America's role in it. Perhaps the most
honest conclusion was that the mistrust between the Jews and Muslims was
amplified by the lack of authentic knowledge of each other on both sides. As
James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee put it, "Muslims know practically
nothing about authentic Judaism. ... So, too, most Jews know little about the
Muslim faith and community." While the term Abrahamic faiths
has become an increasingly common designation in conversations among Jews,
Christians, and Muslims, it is clear that there is still a long way to go in
establishing relationships of trust and respect, even among moderate,
open-minded people of the three traditions.
Most important in the wake of September 11 is the widening realization that all
three religious communities and many more are now a permanent part of American
religious life. All of America's religious communities are also part of
worldwide networks of coreligionists, and global interdependence is a reality
of religious life in the twenty-first century. There are tiny Christian
communities in Pakistan and Palestine, Muslim communities in Columbus, Ohio,
and Cairo, and American Jewish communities whose life is inextricably involved
with the well-being of the state of Israel. Awakening, as we have, to a new
religious America, we face a world of understanding and relationships from
which there is no retreat.
1. Jeff Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, participating in a panel
on "A New Religious America," November 23, 2001.
2. James Rudin, "Can American Jews and Muslims Get Along?" Reform
Judaism, Winter 2001.
From the book A NEW RELIGIOUS AMERICA by Diana L. Eck, which is published by HarperSanFrancisco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Inc., and available wherever books are sold. ©2001 by Diana L. Eck. All rights reserved.
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