By Beth Katz, Project Interfaith Founder and Executive Director
I graduated from college a year before September 11, 2001. Though I was heavily involved in interfaith activities as an undergraduate student, I dismissed the idea of pursuing it as a career because while fostering greater interaction, understanding and respect among people of diverse faiths and beliefs seemed needed, it didn’t seem urgent. And then the terrorist attacks of September 11th occurred, forcing me to reevaluate my assessment.
It was as much people’s reactions in the tragedy’s aftermath as the terrorist attacks themselves that led me to conclude that we can no longer afford to live in the comfort of our ignorance and assumptions about each other. By then, I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, located only forty miles from one of the largest and most vibrant Muslim communities in the United States, and I remember witnessing in the media and at the community level two contrasting reactions in the days and months following September 11th.
I saw the initial shock of what happened give way to anger, outrage, and suspicion, much of it targeted towards Muslims and Islam or – more accurately – towards individuals assumed to be Muslim: people with brown skin or who fit stereotypes of “looking” or “dressing” Middle Eastern. According to a study by Ball State University, FBI data suggests a 1,600-percent surge in anti-Islamic hate crimes in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks as well as a similar increase in hate crimes against people who may have been perceived as Muslim, Arabs and of Middle Eastern origin. Thus, not only were many innocent Muslim Americans targeted, but Sikh Americans, Hindu Americans, and others received hateful slurs, stares, and worse in the days and months following the terrorist attacks.
Yet, another reaction made a far more powerful impression on me...