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.

Seth Wenig/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“It’s not a Kumbaya dialogue,” says Mr. Razvi. “We’re working on serious issues, concrete issues, [so] that we can actually have accomplishments.”

Mobilizing youth

In 2002, Eboo Patel, a Muslim then in his mid-20s, founded the Interfaith Youth Core with a Jewish friend. They hired one full-time staff member: an evangelical Christian. Today, the nonprofit employs 31 staffers and operates on a $4 million annual budget.

The group trains college-aged leaders – “interfaith fellows” – who then return to their campuses to organize interfaith events and community service projects. This year, the organization trained leaders on 97 campuses who enlisted around 10,000 participants of various faiths to tackle issues such as homelessness, hunger, and sustainable living.

“We’ve seen an outpouring of interest in our programs,” says Mr. Patel. “There’s a lot of people watching blatant bigotry and saying, ‘We cannot let our country go in that direction.’ ”

Patel and his staff helped the White House develop an initiative that it launched this year, called the “Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.” So far 278 colleges have promised to sponsor interfaith programming and community service projects next year.

9/11’s interfaith casualty list

People often treat interfaith as a tool – religious coalitions that are built to achieve some shared goal, such as education or social justice. But sometimes, interfaith can be an end in itself.

In New York City, the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary offers a two-year interfaith ordination program.

Among One Spirit’s graduates is Reverend Lisa Bellan-Boyer, an interfaith minister who lives in New Jersey and teaches college courses on religions of the East and West.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Bellan-Boyer stood near the Jersey City harbor and scanned the Manhattan skyline for the Twin Towers, only to find rising curls of coal-black smoke. When she turned and saw a young Muslim woman, her head fully covered, Bellan-Boyer had the sudden urge to scream at her.

Instead, she headed to the city, where she volunteered to serve as a Red Cross chaplain. As it turned out, the first person she counseled was a Muslim woman, whose daughter died in the World Trade Center.

“So I learned my lesson right then and there how much of a world disaster and how interfaith the casualty list really was,” she says.

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