American misunderstanding and hatred is not limited to Muslims or even Middle Easterners. Since 9/11, the New Republic reports, “Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, and Indians have felt the sting of hundreds of hate crimes and thousands of ugly comments. Describing this backlash, the media has increasingly used the label ‘South Asian,’ providing the term a legitimacy it hadn’t enjoyed before.” Many Americans apparently cannot distinguish Muslims from Sikhs and Hindus despite their very different religious beliefs and practices — they are also brown-skinned, after all, and many wear turbans for religious reasons. Less than a week after the terrorist attacks, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was shot to death by a man who believed he was a Muslim because of his turban. In fact, few American Muslims actually wear turbans, often preferring a kufi, or small cylindrical cap. A Hindu temple in Queens, New York, was firebombed the same week.
Near Syracuse, N.Y., three teenagers set fire to an interfaith religious center named Gobind Sadan, where many of Central New York’s Sikhs worship. In a statement after being arrested, one of the youths said, “I thought the place was called Go bin Laden and the people who lived there supported bin Laden and his attacks on America.” The teens had been drinking beer the night of the fire. Ralph Singh, co-founder of Gobind Sadan, said the religious group has forgiven the teens for what they did to the temple. “There is no doubt that the act was terribly wrong, no matter what the motivation,” Singh said. “By forgiving our enemies, we have the opportunity to create peace.”
But Muslims have clearly borne the brunt of anger and hatred in this country. Immediately after the September 11 attacks, a drunk driver smashed his car through a wall of the Greater Cleveland Islamic Center, knocked over three pillars, and landed on top of a fountain in the mosque rotunda. A drive-by shooting also occurred at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo., and many mosques were also attacked
Several days after Christmas 2001, a mosque in Orlando, Florida, was vandalized and desecrated overnight. Water pipes were broken and parts of the mosque were flooded, and copies of the Quran were thrown around the building. But the community rallied in support of the Muslim center. Offers of space and support poured in from community groups including the Congregation Tifereth Israel, the Rotary Club of Columbus, and the First Congregational Church.
Despite the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, these stories of hatred have not stopped, although they do sometimes also show ordinary people countering hatred and ignorance with forgiveness, support, and understanding.
“Truth is one. Sages call it by different names.”
Rig Veda (India, c. 2000 BCE)
For over 200 years, the United States has been strongly identified as a nation with a single spiritual tradition. During that time, everything about the American population could be defined as some variation on a Christian theme. Although Christians here splintered into hundreds of different denominations, often contentiously so, they still have shared a common identity. America has essentially been run by Protestant Christians who are also white and Anglo-Saxon. Sequential waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, the Caribbean, and Latin America were welcomed but assigned to second-class Christian citizenship until they could be more fully assimilated. Jews were connected to Christianity through theological history, and, notwithstanding occasionally virulent anti-Semitism, found more freedom and security here than in any other place on earth, protected by legally established freedom of religion. Even America’s home-grown religions, including the Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have had predominantly Christian identities, albeit idiosyncratic ones. There were Muslims among the African slave population, and Buddhists and Taoists among the Chinese laborers who came here in the 19th century, but until very recently they were all but lost in the swirling melting pot with handfuls of atheists, freethinkers, Theosophists, and other minority believers and non-believers. The native inhabitants of this country and their religious beliefs were shunted aside to make room for the white settlers, and have not since re-emerged into a position of prominence.
But midway through the 20th century, all that began to shift dramatically. Changes in immigration laws in 1965 admitted new waves of immigrants from Asia and Africa until, as Prof. Diana Eck of Harvard’s Pluralism Project has so cogently pointed out, we have gone from being perceived as a Christian country to being “the world’s most religiously diverse nation.” There are now, for example, as many Muslims living in the U.S. as Jews or Episcopalians. Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists have become accepted, indeed respected, members of American communities from the Northwest to the Southeast.
With this new diversity have come problems, but also enormous potential for learning and positive social transformation. In the past, America’s racial antagonisms made it the object of scorn by often hypocritical Europeans who didn’t have to deal with the vast range of racial and ethnic differences that we have faced. Over the last century, America pioneered race relations on a level that the rest of the world is only now beginning to have to cope with, and even our failures have been instructive. Now America is doing much the same for religious diversity. We are undertaking not only an astonishing experiment in spiritual cohabitation, but also one on which the fate of the planet hinges.