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From fear of Islam to outreach: how 9/11 prompted interfaith efforts

In the decade since 9/11, the percentage of US congregations that participate in interfaith worship has doubled, a study says, and more mosques are engaging in outreach and dialogue.

By Patrick WallContributor / September 8, 2011

A man walks past a memorial pool at ground zero in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 7. Over the past 10 years since 9/11, the percentage of US congregations involved in interfaith worship has doubled, while more mosques are engaging in outreach and dialogue.

Seth Wenig/AP

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After the deadly attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the first person Rabbi Ted Falcon called was his friend, Jamal Rahman, a Sufi imam. On the following Sabbath, the rabbi invited the imam to his Seattle synagogue to speak to the congregation.

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Soon after, the two spiritual leaders, along with Pastor Don Mackenzie, commenced a series of frank conversations about their beliefs, both shared and exclusive. The talks eventually inspired a radio show, a pair of books, and worldwide speaking tours.

The men’s willingness to ask and answer tough questions about faith in the wake of 9/11 had clearly struck a nerve with many Americans. In particular, many people wanted to talk about a religion they had barely considered before the attacks, but which now consumed their thoughts: Islam.

“One of the things that 9/11 showed was that, generally speaking, Americans had an abysmal ignorance of Islam,” says Rabbi Falcon, who founded his Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in the 1990s.

In the decade since 9/11, despite some Americans’ fears of and hostility toward Islam, many individuals and institutions have followed the path of the rabbi, the pastor, and the imam: They’ve reached out across faiths to increase their understanding and to address common concerns.

Over the past 10 years, the percentage of US congregations involved in interfaith worship has doubled – from 7 to 14 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of congregations performing interfaith community service nearly tripled – from 8 to almost 21 percent – according to a new survey by Hartford Seminary’s Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. In doing so, these congregations have joined the colorful, decades-old American interfaith movement. Since 9/11, the movement has gained new momentum and, more than ever before, has drawn Muslims into its ranks.

As America marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, several interfaith events are planned around the country, including, prominently, the 9/11 Unity Walk in Washington, D.C.

“To think about 9/11 without thinking about the interfaith movement would almost be a travesty,” says Maureen Fiedler, host of “Interfaith Voices,” a nationally syndicated radio program that was created in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Islam was so misunderstood and so vilified by those events,” says Ms. Fiedler, “that a real interfaith understanding has to be brought to bear on the issue.”

In the days and weeks after 9/11, when Muslim extremists killed nearly 3,000 civilians, some Americans came to view Islam itself as the enemy. Around the country, mosques were vandalized, people who appeared Muslim or Middle Eastern were harassed and, in Arizona, a Sikh man who was wearing a turban was mistaken for a Muslim and shot and killed.

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