For some Americans, the response to the religious fears created by 9/11 was increased hatred of difference, particularly of Islam and Muslims. In contrast, others responded by reaching out across lines of religious difference to learn, share, and heal. Interfaith groups formed around the U.S. as venues for people of different faiths to get to know each other more deeply, challenging stereotypes and forging new community connections.
In Syracuse, NY, a group called Women Transcending Boundaries emerged after 9/11 from an initial conversation between Betsy Wiggins, the wife of a Methodist minister, and Danya Wellmon, a white Muslim convert, both seeking to understand the other’s faith and life. The group has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, but it has not been without problems. Laurie Goodstein for The New York Times writes:
But their relationships were soon tested when state and federal agents descended on Muslim homes and businesses in the Syracuse area and questioned 150 people. The raid resulted in the indictments of Dr. Rafil A. Dhafir, a Muslim oncologist who employed Ms. Wellmon, and three others on charges of sending funds to Iraq in violation of the embargo… Some Muslim members of Women Transcending Boundaries say they felt betrayed when the group decided not to co-sponsor Muslim Solidarity Day a few years later on the anniversary of the raid. The women who objected to sponsoring the event said it had become too political and even anti-F.B.I., and by then the group had decided to avoid taking political stands.
The experience of Women Transcending Boundaries is a reminder of the difficulties of interfaith partnerships when members of religious faiths occupy very different social spaces in relation to the state. Christians and Jews occupy spaces of power: their religious identities and practices are rarely seen as threats to national security. If a Christian or Jewish community had been similarly raided, the response of other Christian and Jewish communities may have been very different: few would argue that complaints to politicians and mistrust of the F.B.I. would be unjustified in such a case. In contrast, Muslims are being forced to fight for the right to many religious freedoms other groups enjoy, from public recognition of their holidays to the right to construct houses of worship where they choose to the right to govern membership in their own religious communities. While some argue that the participation of Muslims in the 9/11 attacks required a religiously unequal response in its aftermath, a decade later many of these religious inequalities persist and have arguably even grown.
The end of the Times article describes how far Women Transcending Boundaries has come, as people who once feared or misunderstood each other are now comfortable in each other’s presence. Goodstein writes: “In the middle of an interminable debate over the logo design, Joy Pople, the Syracuse group’s vice president, had an epiphany. ‘I didn’t even look around the room and say to myself, you’re Muslim and you’re Christian,’ she said. ‘I just forgot.’”
The work of groups like Women Transcending Boundaries is an important step in the right direction: creating relationships of trust and mutual concern between people of different religious faiths post-9/11 has built a more perfect union in response to shared tragedy. But just as race scholars have shown how color-blindness in fact upholds white privilege, the danger, however unintentional, of being “religion-blind” is that it has the potential to hide persisting religious inequalities—the difference in privileges that Christians hold compared to Muslims, for instance. As long as religious inequalities remain, the decision of some interfaith groups—indeed, of all of us—to “avoid taking political stands” in regard to the role of Muslims in American public life is itself political. For better or worse, a position of political silence is a position in favor of the political status quo.