The events of 9/11 had a profound and complex effect on American views of religion. While the media have highlighted an apparent rise in intolerance, particularly as directed against Muslims, it appears that this is primarily the identification of a new enemy in the ongoing culture wars. Islam and Muslims were simply added to the existing list of supposed threats to America and the American way of life, displacing momentarily political progressives, mainline Christianity, gays, and Latinos among others. After a decade, however, Muslims are no longer a hot center of conservative fear and it appears that intolerance as a political tool may be on the wane. Still, widespread ignorance of the meaning and nature of “Shari’a Law” continues to provide individual legislators at the state and national levels an opportunity to score points with some members of their constituencies.
At the same time American curiosity about Islam has vastly increased. It has been met with a wide array of books, websites, and media commentary that ranges from the bigoted and inflammatory to the well-informed and carefully considered. I continue to respond daily to requests for lectures on Islam from church groups, academics, and civic organizations. Virtually all, including those who are politically conservative, are conscious that the cable news networks in general and Fox news specifically have served them poorly in terms of factual accounts of Islam and Muslims. They are anxious for information that comes without a political agenda but are uncertain where to find it.
The events of 9/11, the wars that followed, the growing awareness of so-called “political Islam” have at least temporarily destroyed American naiveté regarding the political dimension of all religions. These accomplished more in this regard than progressive Christians with liberation theology and the evangelical Christian right were able to do over several decades. And this has had several related if nearly contradictory effects. For many Americans it has made the promotion of religious tolerance a greater priority than it has been for decades, with a shift of focus from addressing the problem of bigotry against Jews to the problem of bigotry against Muslims. Attacks on Islam by the Christian right have given radical atheists a whole new armory for attacks on religion in general, allowing them to lump all religious “fundamentalists” together as a threat to rationality, tolerance, and freedom of thought. And however they approach religion, from populist intolerance of non-Christian religions to the formation of offices to manage cultural and religious diversity, local and state governments have found it necessary to recognize a religious dimension to the politics of everything from the sale of alcohol to the approval of building permits.
Finally, 9/11 and the events following have spurred both a new interest in dialogue, and have changed its character. Most of the new interest in promoting inter-religious dialogue has come from Muslim groups, who obviously have a great deal at stake in presenting themselves to non-Muslims in a positive light. This in turn has shifted the focus of inter-religious dialogue from finding the spiritual commonalities implicit in older pluralist approaches to identifying and accepting religious difference both between and within religions. Increasingly dialogue has shifted from being a path for spiritual seekers to a tool for achieving social cohesion and building civil society.
Whether any, or all of these trends continue remains in question. The latter half of the 20th century was widely characterized as a time of religious resurgence, but in reality America institutional religion continues to wane, with evangelicals following rather than resisting mainline Christian trends. Recent surveys suggest that the growth of Islam will not change this significantly. It is primarily growing through higher birth rates and in-migration. As Muslims assimilate to American and European society current evidence suggests that Islam may well follow the same path as Christianity and Judaism.