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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.

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In recent years, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States has diminished, but not disappeared. A proposal to build a Muslim community center near the World Trade Center site provoked heated protests last year. This year, Congress held controversial hearings on Muslim radicalization within the US.

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Curiosity about Islam

While America’s post-9/11 Islam fixation filled some people with dread, others were filled with curiosity.

“Many people realized, maybe for the first time, that, ‘Hey, there are mosques in our town,’ ” says Diana Eck, a comparative religion professor at Harvard University and director of the Pluralism Project, which documents America’s religious landscape.

As interest in American Muslims surged, many Muslim leaders went to great lengths to explain Islam to outsiders and to develop partnerships beyond the Muslim community – often, for the first time.

“Before 9/11, most mosques were fairly insular. Today, most mosques, if not all, have intensive programs of reaching out and having dialogues,” says Imam Rahman, who helped found the Interfaith Community Church in Seattle.

In the weeks immediately after Sept. 11, mosques and Islamic community centers around the country held open houses. Then, in 2008, a multinational group of 138 Muslim scholars, called Common Word, invited senior Christian leaders to Yale University to discuss commonalities among their faiths.

Real-world collaboration

Interfaith interaction can sometimes amount to little more than religious show-and-tell: you show me your strange rituals, and I’ll show you mine. But often, the theological icebreaking leads to real-world collaboration.

In Seattle, Falcon, Rahman and Pastor Mackenzie, who lecture and publish as the Interfaith Amigos, decided to turn their talk into action. They joined various interfaith service projects – including one where the men worked with the congregants of an evangelical megachurch to build a Habitat for Humanity home for a Muslim family.

In an area of Brooklyn, New York known as “Little Pakistan,” a local entrepreneur founded a nonprofit agency in early 2002 to serve low-income South Asians and Muslims, including many who were detained after 9/11.

Since then, the group has expanded its mission to serve non-Muslims and has worked with Jewish and Christian leaders on several initiatives, including a public health campaign, hate crime prevention, and youth leadership training. In August, the group honored rabbis and pastors at a series of public iftar dinners during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Successful interfaith coalitions must focus on shared concerns, rather than theological differences, says Mohammad Razvi, founder of the Brooklyn nonprofit, known as the Council of Peoples Organization.

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