faith and doubt at ground zero

A New Religious America -- After September 11 by Diana L. Eck

From the preface to the paperback edition of A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).

DURING THE LAZY SUMMER MONTHS OF 2001, as I spoke about A New Religious America to audiences across the country, I found many people still surprised to learn about America's new religious diversity and reluctantly challenged to think about what this diversity means for America. Muslim voter registration drives? Hindu temples being built in the suburbs? Turbaned Sikhs going to court over job discrimination? These were relatively new considerations for most of us.

cover of diana l. eck's book

But on a brilliant blue September morning when hijacked planes exploded into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a new era began for us all. Within hours an unprecedented rash of xenophobic incidents began -- from low-level harassment, ethnic slurs, broken windows, and threatening calls to arson, beatings, and murders. While the roster of hate crimes was growing, so were prodigious efforts at local and national outreach across religious boundaries -- interfaith services, civic education programs, and escorts for Muslim women afraid to leave home wearing a head scarf. It is too soon to gauge the climate of the new religious America in which we all now live. One thing is certain: the challenge of relations between and among people of different religious and cultural traditions, both here in the United States and around the world, is moving to the top of the agenda.

In the early afternoon of September 11, I received an e-mail from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Members of the council were taking an immediate initiative, as Muslims, to denounce the violence and to express solidarity as Americans. Within a few hours eleven national Muslim organizations had joined in a statement condemning "vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism" and calling for "the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators." It signaled a relatively well developed American Muslim infrastructure that these organizations could and did respond so swiftly and publicly. Individual Muslim scholars and leaders also raised their voices in countless public forums, yet their voices could not compete with searing coverage of the devastation at what came to be called Ground Zero and the distant devastation in what came to be called America's New War. Months later, people were still asking, "Why don't Muslim leaders say something?" It was clear that Muslim voices could not easily be heard in the storm.

Diana L. Eck is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University and director of The Pluralism Project. As a Christian, she has been involved in the United Methodist Church, the World Council of Churches, and Harvard Divinity School. Her book Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (1992) won the prestigious Grawemeyer Book Award. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Humanities Medal for the work of The Pluralism Project in the investigation of America's religious diversity.

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 over."

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 dialogues.

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.[1] 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 Hsing Yin:

Great and Compassionate Buddha!
There, buildings collapsed and devastation abounds amidst the wreckage and rubble.
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 separated.
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 hate."

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."[2] 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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