Sept. 11 Marked Turning Point For Muslims In Increasingly Diverse America Muslim Americans are more engaged in public life, and interfaith outreach efforts expanded notably after Sept. 11. But terrorism concerns continue to drive anti-Islam and anti-foreigner sentiment.
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Sept. 11 Marked Turning Point For Muslims In Increasingly Diverse America

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Sept. 11 Marked Turning Point For Muslims In Increasingly Diverse America

Sept. 11 Marked Turning Point For Muslims In Increasingly Diverse America

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Every year this happens - at least to me. The anniversary of 9/11 approaches. You think it's finally been long enough that the day won't affect you that much. And then the day arrives, and it does. The country has changed as we approach the 15th anniversary, and that includes a change in our national religious identity. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The United States was changing before 9/11 with immigrants already arriving from distant lands in record numbers. At the Harvard Divinity School, Diana Eck had just published a book titled "A New Religious America: How A Christian Country Has Become The World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation." The changes she highlighted then have continued.

DIANA ECK: Culturally, we are a country of Bollywood and bhangra and tai chi and yoga and salsas and burritos and halal and kosher.

GJELTEN: Growing diversity presents a challenge for our country. America's motto is e pluribus unum - out of many, one. But when there's so much pluribus, what's the unum? Professor Eck says it's a commitment to common principles.

ECK: Then we have those common principles in the United States. They're constitutional principles. They're principles that have more to do with a sort of ethos, a cultural ethos of neighborliness, for example.

GJELTEN: But 9/11 challenged that ethos. The attacks were carried out by Muslims in the name of Islam, and their image has suffered. When the Pew Research Center asked Americans two years ago to rank eight major religious groups, Muslims came in at the very bottom. And Muslim Americans feel it. A majority have said after 9/11 it became harder to be a Muslim in this country. But the lesson that immigrant Muslims in particular took from that is that they needed to become more engaged in America, socially, politically and mentally.

ZAHID BUKHARI: Before September 11, Muslims were - the majority of them, they were living here physically. Mentally, spiritually, they were living back home.

GJELTEN: Zahid Bukhari came from Pakistan in the '80s. He now lives in Frederick, Md. He's held high office in several Muslim organizations and always urges his fellow Muslims, including the most devout, to keep their focus here, like he now does.

BUKHARI: God will not ask them at the day of judgment what they have done in Karachi or Lahore or Istanbul. God will ask me what I have done in Frederick with my family, with my neighbors. Did I become a symbol of goodness or a symbol of badness?

GJELTEN: It does seem the more interaction there is between people of different backgrounds the better their relations. Besheer Mohamed directed that Pew study of Americans' attitudes toward religious minorities.

BESHEER MOHAMED: People who said that they knew a Muslim personally rated Muslims significantly higher than people who said they didn't know Muslims.

GJELTEN: Since 9/11, interfaith efforts in America have expanded, but Islam still has an image problem. Pew researchers have found that the number of people who think Islam encourages violence has grown during the last 15 years. Another change - feelings about Muslims and Islam have become much more partisan in this time. Zahid Bukhari was one of the researchers behind a study of how Muslim Americans voted in the 2000 election.

BUKHARI: Among immigrant Muslims, they supported George Bush because George Bush at that time spoke very much in favor of Arabs.

GJELTEN: And it wasn't just what Bush said about Arabs. Many Muslim Americans liked conservative Republican positions on social issues. But in the years since 9/11, Muslim Americans have almost entirely abandoned the Republican Party, driven away in part by what they hear from Republican politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I think Islam hates us.

GJELTEN: Donald Trump speaking to CNN's Anderson Cooper last March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: There's something there that's a tremendous hatred.

GJELTEN: Besides Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists here are held in relatively lower esteem than Christians and Jews. It's these recent immigrant faith traditions that are struggling to gain acceptance. But 15 years after 9/11, Americans know their country is less white and less Christian than it used to be.

ECK: These movements are not things that are going somehow to be stopped and everyone's going to be sent home. This is part of the natural evolution of who we are as America.

GJELTEN: Diana Eck of Harvard where she teaches comparative religion and reminds us that diversity is now our destiny. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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