Wake Up in a Multi-Religious America
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 14, 2012
Four and a half years ago I got a call from a private investigator who was worried for me. It was a courtesy call, ostensibly. Considered beyond the polite and calm words that were exchanged, it bordered on fear-mongering. The crux of it was that this private investigator had come across my name during his investigation of a Muslim community from Deposit NY. The Muslim community in Deposit had in the spring of 2008 invited me to attend and speak at their first annual parade and rally in downtown Binghamton. I had of course agreed and I was looking forward to the march. And then I got this call.
The PI was worried for me, for my reputation. Did I know these are not the Muslims who meet in town; they are a second group out in Deposit? Yes, I knew that. I also knew that they are Shi’a while the Islamic Center in Johnson City is Sunni. I also knew then that the in-town group was comprised mostly of Arab Americans who were first or second generation immigrants while the Deposit group was predominantly African American. The Private Investigator told me he was investigating the rural, African American, Shi’a group for suspicion of links to domestic terrorism. He had called to give me the heads up before I associated myself too closely.
I thanked the investigator for his call and told him I would consider what he had said. The next call I made for to Dick Antoun, professor emeritus of Anthropology at Binghamton University, author of Understanding Fundamentalism, and member of the congregation. Dick’s focus had been the Middle East and Islam. When I described the call from the investigator and the preceding invitation from the Muslims, Dick was very excited for me. First off, he agreed with my suspicion about the private investigator. Dick wondered who he was investigating for, and suggested the fellow might be self-appointed and thus not a reliable source. Nonetheless, Dick said I should certainly go in with my eyes open.
Dick couldn’t tell me much about the Muslim community in Deposit. They were reclusive back then in 2008. I said they were aware of that and were now trying to step out into the community, to build up some connections and goodwill. Dick was excited about the movement and direction of this Muslim group, and made me promise to tell him about the experience afterward.
I really miss having conversations like that with Dick. For those who may not know, Dick Antoun was murdered in December of 2009, stabbed by a Saudi graduate student. Dick’s focus on Middle East culture and religion was combined with his heart for teaching; the result was his regular presentations here in this congregation any out in the community of interfaith panel discussions that he moderated as well as educational forums on Islam and the Middle East that he offered. People in the local Muslim community appreciated his work and his presence. At his memorial service his wife Roz appointed that a portion of the donations made in his honor be set aside in interfaith fund for the future, to create a program to honor Dick’s legacy. I sat on the Richard Antoun Memorial fund, helped shape the grant we offered. I remained fairly quiet during it except to voice Roz’s original intentions. I remained silent because I knew that another group I was with would be submitting a proposal for the funds.
The Children of Abraham is an interfaith group comprised of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I participate in that group and remained encouraging though quiet as they created the proposal that eventually won the grant money from the Antoun Fund. The result is the wonderful program that will be taking place this afternoon (Sunday, October 14, 2012) at Temple Concord. The event begins at 2pm, doors open at 1:30 pm. All are welcome. Donations toward future events are being accepted but there is no cost to attending this event. The speaker, Zainab Al Suwaij, is cofounder of the American Islamic Congress and a dedicated promoter of interfaith tolerance and the bridging of cultures. Her talk is titled “Multi-religious America: Challenges and Hopes.”
Let me say, in telling you this I am not just advertising the latest project I am involved in. This afternoon’s program is in line with the book we read last year as our congregation’s Common Read: Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith. This afternoon’s program is in line with the work of Religion scholar Karen Armstrong and her Charter of Compassion. This afternoon’s program at Temple Concord goes right to the heart of the desire on the part of the Muslims from Deposit to march back in 2008 and the concerns of the self-appointed private investigator who wanted to stop them.
America is becoming more diverse, ethnically and racially as well as religiously. Census data reveals this to us and much is made about the findings. But we are also becoming more fearful of each other, as witnessed by the Private Investigator’s courtesy warning to me. For some time scholars have recognized that a fearful fundamentalism is both a natural sociological response to the growing diversity as well as a poison to our liberty and freedom as a pluralistic nation.
Do you remember a book from the 90’s titled Bowling Alone? It was by sociologies Robert Putnam (1995) in which he talked about the need for ‘third places’ in our lives. We have home and work and we need a Third Place in our lives where the home and work concerns are not at the top. Third places allow us to broaden our civic concern and social network. Putnam went on to claim that churches and other places of worship were critical for the strengthening of civil society and the creation of what he called “Social Capital.”
Where levels of social capital are higher, children grow up healthier, safer, and better educated, people live longer, happier lives, and democracy and the economy work better. (Putnam, E Pluribus Unum)
But here is the kick. While liberal thinkers like me got a boost from this study, his second study, published in 2007 entitled E Pluribus Unum, Putnam looked more closely at diversity and discovered that the effects he discovered earlier work best among homogenous groups. He discovered that diversity actually reduced social capital. “In more diverse communities, people trust their neighbors less … [and] appear to ‘hunker down’ (ibid)
I admit I have had this very relaxed posture at times when considering diversity and our nation. I figured, diversity is coming, all we have to do is wait a generation or so and the tide will have turned and the Beloved Community will practically slip up on us unbidden! What I missed in that thought is the power of fear in the face of difference.
Harvard University scholar Diana Eck wrote about American’s religious diversity in her 2001 book New Religious America. In her book, Eck made a crucial distinction between diversity and pluralism. Diversity is simply the fact of people of different backgrounds living in close proximity. Pluralism is when people have done this on purpose. Her book came out the summer before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The paperback version released in 2002 included a post 9/11 preface to point out the obvious: diversity is not enough. Diversity is not enough because a fearful fundamentalism is a natural sociological response to diversity. People insulate themselves, and they turn toward those that look like themselves.
And we see stories of violence and attempts to escalate violence. The most recent headline of this sort is the attack on the American embassy in Libya on September 11, initially considered to be the result of spontaneous protests around the Muslim world against the amateurish American film about Muhammad, recent evidence shows it was a planned attack that took the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Alongside the increase of our religious and ethnic diversity as a nation is the parallel increase of violence and debasement against those who are different. Diversity is not enough. Pluralism is needed, pluralism is diversity on purpose. It is the building of bridges and the cross-group networking that people can choose to do to build community in response to diversity. There was a broad study done of villages in India where a significant amount of religious diversity can be found. (This study was done by Brown University professor Ashutosh Varshney, as reported in Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground, p 76) Some villages exploded with inter-religious violence while others remained peaceful. What was the difference? The answer is the obvious one. The villages that had inter-religious organizations and networks that bring people from different religious backgrounds together regularly to do good works are the villages that do not succumb to interreligious violence.
Eboo Patel writes about this sort of thing in his latest book Sacred Ground. His earlier book Acts of Faith, which we used as our Common Read last year, is largely autobiographical. While Patel still uses an abundance of personal story in this new book, it is more of an exploration of Pluralism and American identity. He makes the case that the two things most influential to a person’s attitude about people from different religions are knowledge and relationships. The more accurate knowledge and close relationships a person has with a person from a different faith, the more positive that person’s attitude will be toward all people from different faiths. This works in reverse as well as witnessed by the protest sign that claimed “All I ever needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”
Patel shares a 9/11 story near the beginning of his new book. He begins the story with a reminder of Walt Whitman’s quote “Whoever degrades another degrades me.” Patel goes on to say, “That is the heart of the American Spirit.”
It is a lesson I learned from John Tateishi, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League. One of John’s earliest memories was being released from an internment camp. His father held him by the shoulders and said, “Son, do not forget this moment, and do not let America forget it. This country is too good for what it did to us.”
On the morning of 9/11, John was heading south on I-5 out of Seattle, driving to an early meeting. He was casually turning the radio dial when he caught the news of the first plane hitting the tower. He turned the volume up and listened as the second plane hit, the towers collapsed, and threats directed at Muslims started pouring in. He turned his car around and called his assistant. “Cancel my meetings for the rest of the week,” he said. “And start calling our regional directors. Tell them to cancel their meetings. The focus of our organization has just become about the protection of American Muslims.” When I asked him why he did that, he told me how grateful he was for the people who stood up for Japanese Americans during World War II. Had there been more, he believed, the internment camps would not have happened. When it was his turn to protect another community, it was his responsibility to take it. The most American thing you can do is stand up for someone else.
(Eboo Patel, Sacred Ground, p 18)
Patel also shared the story of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. During the summer of 2010, many people whipped into a frenzy around what was called the “Ground Zero Mosque” which is actually the ‘Islamic community center a few blocks away from ground zero.’ Perhaps you remember this, it was originally called the Cordoba House and it is now known as 51 Park Place. The folks against it said it was a travesty; they said it was a ‘victory mosque’ to honor the Muslim perpetrators of the terrorist attack. But Mayor Bloomberg remained a supporter through the firestorm of lies and fear. And for what it’s worth, the center opened its doors without much fanfare or grief on September 21, 2011 – International Peace Day. Partly Bloomberg supported the Cordoba House because that was the right thing to do, because America has insisted on Religious Freedom as a founding principle. It turns out Bloomberg has a personal reason for supporting it as well; a memory of childhood prejudice that prompted him to act on his conscience.
He remembered a time when his family, because they were Jewish, could not purchase a home outright in the Boston suburb of Medford. They had to ask their lawyer – a Christian – to buy it and sell it back to them. It was a personal thread in the fabric of religious prejudice in America. Some people experience bigotry and respond, “I’m going to help build a world where that never happens to my people again.” Michael Bloomberg experienced it and decided, “I’m going to help build a world where that never happens to anyone again.” (Eboo Patel, Sacred Ground, p21-22)
So what is our role in all this? Unitarian Universalism is practically a Multi-religious group unto itself. This means we know something of pluralism and religious diversity. But our role is the same as that of any religious person – to show up and share our perspective in the mix. When the Muslim community from Deposit asked me to speak at the rally following their march in 2008, they asked specifically if I would talk on the theme of unity. I spoke a little about unity there on the courthouse steps that chilly spring afternoon. I spoke more, however, about diversity – about the intentional diversity that we call pluralism. I mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. and asked them to put their trust in the American dream of unity that says we are one not because we are all the same, but because we are all together in the effort to build a more perfect union. Our different faiths are part of the beautiful mosaic of our country. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, we are one.
In a world without end, may it be so. Shalom, Salaam, Om, and Amen.