Berkley Forum

Fifteen Years Later: Even as Xenophobia Rises, Religious Literacy is Slowly Improving

Responding to 9/11 15 Years Later: Where Are We Now?

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a young politics reporter awakened by a phone call from a friend, informing me that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I was scheduled to cover the St. Paul, Minnesota mayoral primary that night, but I was immediately summoned to my newsroom at the St. Paul Pioneer Press to help put together a mid-morning edition of the 9/11 attacks.

In the weeks after the attacks, I covered the backlash faced by folks in the Muslim community and those thought to be Muslim, including Hindus, Sikhs, and Arab Americans (the majority of whom are Christian). As a devout Hindu, I became acutely aware of the umbrella of otherness that was quickly developing in the country. Over the next decade, American social and political discourse began to be shaped by balkanization, outgrouping, xenophobia, and debates over how pluralistic of a country we ought to be.

Today, these same factors have continued to shape the American social fabric. Anti-Muslim sentiment has increased, as noted by meticulous tracking by Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative and other groups. Xenophobia and the fear of religious others is on the rise, and Islamophobia is now turning into an umbrella term to describe a wide expanse of religious, racial, and cultural groups deemed outsiders to the American public sphere.

As such, religion has been racialized significantly in recent years, with groups such as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs facing growing pressures to prove their “Americanness.” When I joined the Hindu American Foundation three years ago as education director (following five years as a professor), I saw firsthand the racial outgrouping that continues to shape the Hindu American experience in the United States. In that regard, the expanse of groups who continue to face social alienation, marginalization, and vilification in this country is a massive challenge to America’s pluralistic ideal.

Yet, despite these issues, attempts to spread religious literacy has also grown. The work of groups like the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute, as well as committed scholars and educators, has proved invaluable in increasing American public awareness about the diversity of who we are, what we believe, and how we fit into the country’s ever-changing social tapestry.

The idea that Americans, particularly younger ones, are trending towards becoming more religiously literate and culturally competent might seem like a contradiction to the rising tide of intolerance in the country, but it actually makes more sense. Americans are more likely now to know someone of a different faith than they were over 10 years ago, and among college-aged students, they are more likely than not to have had experiences with people of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. Does that mean that all these experiences are positive? Not necessarily. However, it is likely that more communities across the country are becoming heterogeneous.

Heterogeneity and cultural diversity cannot by themselves compel pluralism. In fact, as our social history has shown, demographic changes can often trigger backlash. In this regard, minority religious communities are becoming more proactive in raising awareness about who they are, and in some cases, working in tandem with local education institutions to facilitate religious literacy. Muslims having interfaith iftars, Sikhs working on combating hate crimes, and Hindus performing community service projects in low-income neighborhoods are just a few of the examples in which religious minority groups are becoming more visible.

Some of that increased visibility is, to a certain degree, a result of a generational shift. Second-generation Americans from immigrant communities are more likely to be acclimated and acculturated to their environments than their parents’ generation. As such, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, among others, are now becoming engaged in pluralistic discourse because that’s what they know.

As much work as there is to do in becoming a more pluralistic and equal society, I’ve become more optimistic that we are moving slowly in that direction. We might still be in throes of turbulence caused 15 years ago when the four hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania field, but I’ve never been more confident that we have better days ahead.
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