Erin Williams is the Media Coordinator at the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international non-profit that builds mutual respect and pluralism among people from different religious and moral traditions by empowering them to work together to serve others. Erin has lived and worked in documentary, media, research, and outreach capacities in Chicago, Barcelona, Boston, D.C., and Johannesburg.
We will not forget, and we will not forgive…
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star…
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
– William Stafford, A Ritual to Read to Each Other
“We will not forget, and we will not forgive,” read the t-shirt of a man who walked into the Chicago subway car where I was sitting one morning. The words were boldly printed in slanted black cursive over an image of the burning Twin Towers, with a large Bald Eagle flying in front of the collapsing buildings.
I was struck by the synchronicity of his entrance; I had been running over notes for a panel I would be sitting on that night with Randall Balmer, author of God in the White House. Our topic: Religion and politics. 9/11 was bound to come up, and it did.
I looked up from my notes at the man’s t-shirt again and thought, “Our new patriotism.”
Later that night, during the panel with Prof. Balmer, a woman in the audience wondered whether there were still open tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States. I brought up the t-shirt from that morning and suggested that we had to keep working on relationships between the two communities, or there would continue to be this kind of blind, suggestive disapproval of a group of people – Muslims and their geographical origins, the Axis of Evil. The t-shirt was important for what it symbolized: patriotism and unforgiving anger. That the two could be linked as virtuous, through the flight of the eagle in front of the burning towers, struck me as worrisome but not surprising. I shared with the audience that my Muslim boss, Eboo Patel, blogs for The Washington Post’s forum on religion, “On Faith”, and that while many of the comments he receives on his blog are thoughtful, many of them are not. Instead, the comments are rife with Islamaphobic language. It doesn’t matter what Eboo has blogged about that particular day; the comments are tirades against Eboo’s faith and his coreligionists.
While we may want to be dismissive of the people who leave these comments as uneducated or prone toward aggressiveness, I think something much larger is at play, and it behooves each of us to look into how we may or may not be speaking the context of these comments into existence.
When faced with the unimaginable horror of the morning of 9/11 in Manhattan, so few non-Muslims in this country had an alternative vision to turn to when it came to Muslims and Islam. There were the Twin Towers, first burning, and then collapsing, and that was all. Muslims, who incidentally have been in the United States since its founding, but who lived largely in immigrant communities, close-by to their families and friends, were suddenly thrown onto the news with a thunderous roar. Without civic and social bonds holding them in respect and fellowship to Muslims, many non-Muslims in the States began to wonder whether by virtue of being Muslim you may become a terrorist. Suspicion grew. It grew into countless iconic photos on covers of various magazines and suspicious characters darting around in dark corners on various television shows. It grew into renewed East vs. West rhetoric, into a clash of civilizations paradigm, into a fear of the unfamiliar without real efforts to challenge that fear. We say images are worth a thousand words, and the moment the first plane struck the first Twin Tower, a thousand words were spoken that gave us endless fodder to fear and permission to suspect a group of billions of people.
The important question to ask ourselves, not unlike the recent “Do you know what you say?” commercials (a part of the Think b4 You Speak Campaign), which advocate for LGBT respect, is, literally: Do we know what we say? When we say we don’t trust Muslims, what narrative are our opinions being drawn from? Do we have Muslim friends? Are we judging a faith group based on sociopolitical problems in the Middle East, on a group of thugs who created a heinous crime on 9/11, on a pitting of good vs. evil in everything from the news media to fiction films and political speeches?
The answer to this question is important. The first man killed of a hate crime after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi was, in fact, a Sikh. The perpetrator of his crime thought he was Muslim because of his turban, and he fashioned himself a patriot for killing Balbir.
Do we know what we say?
There are a host of organizations out there who are trying to portray a different face of Islam in the media. Among them are Muslim Girl Magazine (who, according to its website, “has faced difficult obstacles on its road to continued publication, including an advertising industry that is risk-averse to our name and audience”), Allah Made Me Funny, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and the Hijabi Monologues, to name a few. But the leadership of these organizations is largely Muslim. As non-Muslims, can we help to create a new narrative? Can we help to paint a new picture that will replace the thousand words that were spoken on the morning of 9/11? As Walter Lipmann says, “The way in which the world is imagined will determine at any given moment what [people] will do.”
As non-Muslims, it behooves us to re-imagine our relationship to Muslims in this country, and both narrative and engagement are crucial to that. I think it could be the raison d’être of plurality 2.0. Religious pluralism, or the active engagement of diverse religious communities around shared values (including hospitality, caring for the earth, respect, patriotism) allows us to purge old narratives about religion and our country (the image of 9/11, for one) and allows us to build new ones – together.
Religious pluralism doesn’t ask that we forget or forgive a crime against humanity. But it does ask that we should never see a Sikh man (or any man) die a violent, hate crime death shortly after 9/11 for a plot in which he had no role, that the words “internment camp” should never come up in nervous conversations with my Muslim friends, and that, at the very least, we should meet our Muslim neighbors. Likewise, religious pluralism also doesn’t ask that we drop our differences but instead embrace them, because the choice is clear: although we may believe we go different places when we die, we have a while until we get there, and until then we either exist on this earth through conflict or cooperation.
Call it plurality 2.0, call it religious pluralism, but the task at hand is urgent, and the types of bonds that keep us from fearing and hating one another should be created across all religious and cultural boundaries. Take the case of German citizens post WWII and compare it to the case of Muslims in the United States post 9/11: After six million people were killed in the Holocaust, were Germans treated with the same kind of humiliating suspicion with which Muslims, post 9/11, are faced? Of course, people were prosecuted for war crimes, but was there a general outcry about the people of Germany? Did Germans constantly repeat that theirs was really a peace-loving nation, despite pockets of history that suggested otherwise? Did they have to bring together all their disparate people – their natives and their immigrants, their young and their old, their traditionalists and their progressives – and consolidate them into a picture of one moderate, peaceful, compassionate whole, and then issue press releases in their own favor?
We say history is written by the victors, and at the end of WWII, those who wrote history had a level of familiarity with Germany. With its social and financial systems integrated, for the most part, into the Western world, Germany was a “known” entity – far different from the mysterious “East” and its immigrants that traveled to new lives in the West. So while history’s authors knew something unimaginable had happened in the German community, they were also familiar with Germany and its people, and so, looking back, they saw various types of factors – economic, psychological, technological, and others – leading a country of good people (and certainly not all of them, at that), into a complex and deeply tragic scenario of death and destruction. Perhaps most importantly, they concluded that it was not by virtue of being German that you became a Nazi.
To contrast, after 9/11, history was written by politicians and media makers who had little, if any, familiarity with the region of the world they were condemning or the faith most often associated with it, much less their neighbors who may have immigrated from that region or from countries even further away. Religious pluralism was lacking in the United States, and it has since led to misunderstanding and violence.
It’s crucial that we build religious pluralism, not only in order to ease some of the tensions that have built over the years but also to serve as a preventative bond that keeps the same kinds of distrusts from building again. Religious pluralism builds social cohesion, and our world is all the better for it. We’re infinitely more resourceful as a country when our religious communities are able to tackle social and civic problems together, rather than apart. Working together, we have a chance to speak and act a new United States into existence. Let’s call it plurality 2.0, and let’s go into the work with enough seriousness to see it through and enough light-hearted wisdom to know that we’re fantastically diverse and better for it.
As Walt Whitman says in Songs of Myself:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
At the end of the day, I think Whitman’s nod toward plurality makes for a much cooler t-shirt.