October 2, 2011

Dear Friends,

Over the past several weeks, we have received news from so many of you about how you commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11. (The links and news stories we collected are still available at http://www.pluralism.org/pages/events/september-11-2011) It was an important time to reflect on our collective experience, and to imagine how we might continue to build bridges as we look to the future. I participated in a moving candlelight vigil here at Harvard, and was invited to share my reflections with those who gathered. I would like to share them with you, too.

The morning of 9/11/2001 was startlingly beautiful. We had been House Masters at Lowell House for just two years. It was the beginning of term. When we heard a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, we rushed to the TV in the junior common room.  And as we stood there with a growing number of students, the second plane hit.  Our bewilderment and, yes, our fear grew as we learned of other planes, hijacked, in the air. We could not believe our eyes when we saw the towers fall.

By the end of the day, the whole University community gathered here in this Yard. 5000 strong, seated on the grass in the evening light.  As somber a gathering as this space has ever had. This was the beginning of a new era in our lives and would challenge the fabric of our community.

How would a student of religion, like me, even begin to track the depth of questioning, the response, the doubt, the fear?  That became the subject of my teaching that fall.  People of every religious tradition died in the twin towers, in the Pentagon, in a field in Shanksville, Penn.  For weeks, we read their stories: a Chinese restaurant worker, who had put his children through college and contributed to the Buddhist temple; a New York born Hindu stock analyst, a loving Jewish father; a devoted Catholic mother.

I had been studying America’s growing religious diversity for some ten years by that time, tracking the emerging histories of new Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh communities here in America. In the days after 9/11, some of the very communities with whom I had developed relationships, were also under attack

In the early afternoon of September 11, I received an email from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a joint statement from eleven national Muslim organizations condemning the violence as Muslims and expressing their grief and solidarity as Americans.  Their voices were not easily heard in the maelstrom of news coverage. Months later, people were still asking, “Why don’t Muslim leaders say something?”

We had our homemade violence—rifle fire that very night through the dome of the mosque in Toledo, for example. But wait! By the next day, over 2000 citizens of Toledo were holding hands in a circle of protection around the mosque to say “This is not who we are.” And that story of homegrown violence and the rejection of violence would be repeated dozens of times.

Sikhs were also attacked, as we know. Our turbans made us targets, they said. A Sikh advocacy group reported over two hundred incidents: a Sikh attacked with a baseball bat in Queens, beaten unconscious in Seattle, and assaulted at a stop light in San Diego, shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona. In those days after 9/11 the Sikh Coalition was born, to begin to educate the rest of us about their faith, and to stand for the most American of principles, their civil rights.

In that time of real vulnerability, mosques across the country held open houses, including our Islamic Center here in Cambridge. In a letter of invitation to the whole city, they said,  “God willing, we can lend one another strength to find hope in these uncertain times.” More than seven hundred people came, many of them visiting a mosque for the first time.  In Austin, Texas, hundreds showed up for the Sunday open house.  A woman interviewed by the Austin American-Statesman put it plainly for all of us when she said, “The time of not getting to know each other is over.”

I remember the Jewish festival of Sukkoth that fall. The fragile booth, called the sukkah, was built, open to the sky and its sides to the wind, here at Harvard Hillel. The Jewish theologian Arthur Waskow wrote on Sukkoth, 2001: He said, “This year the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah. Even the greatest oceans do not shield us; even the mightiest buildings do not shield us; even the wealthiest balance sheets and the most powerful weapons do not shield us. There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us.”

September 11, 2001, made clear to us the deeper meanings of globalization: that our borders in this world are now but dotted lines at best. There is no strength in brick and steel, but there is strength in the relationships we build.  In the years that followed, we would see Jewish, Muslim, Christian students, students of every faith and none, gather to eat and get to know one another in the sukkah or at the iftar meals of the Islamic society during Ramadan.

This is our task, now: understanding one another and building the relationships that will guide this university, our communities, and the communities of the world into a future of hope, creating a fabric of relationship that will be too strong to rend asunder.

Printed in the Harvard Crimson on September 19, 2011. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/9/19/muslim-communities-even-here/

Follow Diana Eck on Twitter @DianaEck

Staffing Transitions

I am very sorry to have to convey the news that Kathryn Lohre will be leaving the Pluralism Project in mid-October to take up the position of Director of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Kathryn has been Assistant Director of the Project for six years and she has served for ten years as a member of our research team. She will be relocating to Chicago with her family in late October, and will be installed as the President of the National Council of Churches USA in early November. We wish her well in this new chapter of her life and work, and express our gratitude for her leadership at the Pluralism Project over the years. I am enormously proud of her achievements both in the leadership of the Project and in her wider calling to leadership in the ecumenical movement and the Lutheran Church at this critical time.

We are pleased to announce that Whittney Barth will serve as our new assistant director. Whittney recently completed her M.Div. at Harvard Divinity School; her thesis, advised by Diana Eck, explored the intersections of interfaith engagement and ecological awareness as a response to the growing sense of “placelessness” in modern life. We look forward to introducing you to Whittney, and will do so formally at our reception at this year’s AAR.

In July, Ryan Overbey completed his yearlong postdoctoral fellowship with us. We are grateful for his diligent work on improving our website functionality, and initiating the migration of our award-winning CD-ROM to a web-based platform. In September, he began an Assistant Visiting Professorship at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he is teaching courses in Buddhism. We are thrilled that he will continue on as our Webmaster, and will help launch On Common Ground online next year.

Our 2011-2012 student research team is already hard at work. Welcome to Amrita Dani, Jaisy Joseph, Melissa Nozell, April Palo-Winebrenner, and Josh Whitson. To view their bios, click here.

AAR Save the Date

Our annual reception honoring Pluralism Project friends, affiliates, and advisors will be held at AAR 2011 in San Francisco on Friday, November 18 from 9-11 PM in Room 2011 at the Moscone Center. This year’s program will feature a presentation of our pilot project “The Interfaith Infrastructure: Citizenship and Leadership in the Multi-Religious City.” We will also highlight new features and content developed for On Common Ground: World Religions in America 2.0, the online edition of our award-winning publication developed by our 2010-2011 Postdoctoral Fellow Ryan Overbey, set to launch in 2012. Please RSVP to staff@pluralism.org

2011 Pluralism Project Photo Contest Winners

We are pleased to announce the grand prize winners of the 2011 Pluralism Project Photo Contest. Baskar Gopalan of Maple Grove, Minnesota and Yusuke Suzuki of Cambridge, Massachusetts were both selected for their images of the Hindu Temple of Minnesota and the Islamic Society of Greater Boston Cultural Center, respectively. Check out our homepage slideshow or click here to view a select group of finalists. Thank you to all who participated.

Multi-Faith Spaces as Symptoms and Agents of Change

On September 6th, the Pluralism Project hosted a panel at Harvard University featuring Dr. Ralf Brand and his research team from the University of Manchester’s Architecture Research Centre’s project entitled, “Multi-Faith Spaces: Symptoms and Agents of Religious and Social Change.” The panel took place as part of a series of events and visits to multi-faith spaces in Greater Boston and New York City. Dr. Brand and his colleagues Dr. Chris Hewson and Dr. Andrew Crompton presented their most up-to-date findings on multi-faith spaces in the US, Europe, and elsewhere internationally. Since 2010, Elinor Pierce has served as the Pluralism Project’s advisor to the Multi-Faith Spaces project, which is funded by the British Arts and Humanities Council’s Religion and Society Programme.  To visit the research team’s website, click here.

Massachusetts Remembers September 11

The Pluralism Project, along with over forty other non-profit organizations, commemorated the tenth anniversary of September 11th by participating in the Massachusetts Remembers September 11 event at the DCR Hatch Shell on the Charles River Esplanade. The Pluralism Project hosted a table at the service learning pavilion where representatives from local interfaith, Muslim, Sikh, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish service organizations educated event-goers on their core values and efforts. The afternoon culminated in a concert and ceremony featuring religious leaders from the Massachusetts Interfaith Leadership Coalition and performances by the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Boston Pops Brass Ensemble, and Rhythm of the Universe.

Author of Commander of the Faithful Visits the Pluralism Project
John Kiser, author of The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria (the book that inspired much of the film Of Gods and Men), visited the Pluralism Project in September. Kiser shared with senior staff his most recent book Commander of the Faithful: A Story of True Jihad. This book gives account of the life and leadership of Emir Abd el-Kader, known as the “father of modern Algeria,” a 19th century Muslim organizer of Algerian resistance to the French occupation. El-Kader became an inspiration to many around the world—even in the American heartland. Elkader, Iowa is the only city in the United States to be named after an Arab, Kiser claims, a fact that he uses to encourage “Elkaderites” and others to explore through the Abd el-Kader Education Project, which seeks to promote “global civic and cultural awareness, tolerance, respect, and outreach for all people.”

“Muslim Women’s Religious Literacy” Panel, October 2nd at Harvard Divinity School
On October 2, the Pluralism Project co-sponsored “Muslim Women’s Religious Literacy: The Legacy of Nana Asma’u in the Twenty-First Century and Beyond,” a panel discussion at Harvard Divinity School in honor of his Eminence the Sultan of Sokoto’s visit to campus. The Sultan is the religious leader of one of the largest Muslim communities in Africa. Nana Asma’u, a great aunt of the Sultan, was one of the most important Muslim women scholars and educators in nineteenth-century Africa, as well as a poet. Panelists included: Beverly Mack, Director of the University of Kansas African Studies Center; Ousseina Alidou, Director of the African Studies Center, Rutgers University; Zainab Alwani, Howard University and Fiqh Council of North America; Mohamed Elsanousi, Director of Outreach, Islamic Society of North America; and His Eminence Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto. The event was hosted by Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program.

Mississippi University for Women to Screen Fremont, USA on October 25

As part of its fall programming for its 2011-2011 International Series on world religions and interfaith dialogue, the Mississippi University for Women will screen our documentary film, Fremont, USA on October 25. For more information about this and other events in the series, click here. The series is made possible through financial assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Mississippi Humanities Council.

URI Launches “Intolerance Ends With Me” Campaign

On September 1, United Religions Initiative launched “Intolerance Ends with Me,” an on-line pledge campaign to mobilize individuals around the world to put a stop to intolerance in their communities. The campaign is inspired by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Peace, September 21st. Pledge takers promise to take one action each day in the month of September to promote tolerance and respect for diversity in their communities, to speak out against discrimination. The URI, a global grassroots interfaith organization, invites you to take the Pledge and join us in the global movement for peace! Visit www.uri.org for more information about URI, and to take advantage of other great interfaith resources.