Religion in 2001 will be remembered through the prism of war and terrorism, national mourning, and new explorations and reevaluations of Islam prompted by the events of Sept. 11.
But there were other events that may signal new patterns and trends in religion for 2002 and beyond. We will start with these developments and then conclude with some implications for religion stemming from Sept. 11. Because of the high volume of material on topics relating to Sept. 11, we will cite other publications as well as issues of Religion Watch from 2001.
01: The decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to remove the ban on practicing homosexuals in the clergy last year could lead to schism in the 2.5 million member denomination.
The local presbyteries are now deciding whether to approve this decision. But last year’s emergence and growth of a conservative “confessing movement,” which sees the denomination at a crisis point may well be the precursor to an actual split.
02: The election of Gerald Kieschnick as President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod signaled a moderate turn after more than a decade of conservative centralization in the denomination.
Yet recent conflicts in the denomination [such as holding interfaith services after Sept. 11; see below] suggest strong divisions remaining between conservatives and moderates.
03: Faith-based social services received new legitimacy and recognition with the election of U.S. President George W. Bush.
With the events of Sept. 11, as well as attempts to modify charitable choice to abide by anti-discrimination laws, it is not yet evident how these policies will play out. The next few months will be important in discerning the shape faith-based social welfare will take.
04: The events of Sept. 11 will have implications in interfaith relations and public religion.
Stephen Prothero of Boston University argues in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 14) that “Islamic-” has now been grafted on to the “Judeo-Christian” configuration of public religion in the U.S. This new triangle coalition is born of necessity, much in the same way that Judaism was paired with Christianity in the U.S. after the Holocaust, according to Prothero. Already, there are complaints among Hindus and Buddhists that they feel shut out of the partnership.
05: While condemning acts of prejudice against Muslims, conservative Christian groups were more critical of the mushrooming and broadening of interfaith prayer meetings after Sept. 11.
This interfaith mingling proved divisive and controversial in such conservative groups as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention. Conservative critics charged that interfaith prayers give the impression that all the participants worship the same God and that each religion is equally valid, as well as that evangelizing non-Christian groups is unnecessary. These issues will likely remain an obstacle in broadening interfaith efforts beyond liberal and moderate groups.
06: There is also greater public acceptance of and interest in Islam after Sept. 11.
A survey, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, indicated that favorable views of Muslim-Americans rose from 45 percent in March of 2001 to 59 percent in the November after the attacks While there was widespread reports of renewed spiritual interest after September 11, such a renewal was shortlived according to most polls.
What may last longer is the interest in Islam, especially as concern and engagement with militant Islam will outlive the Taliban. This is evident in the sharp increase of sales of Islamic books, and not only in the U.S.
The French newspaper Le Monde (Dec. 1) reports that bookstores in France have sold more copies of the Koran than ever before. Two leading French publishing houses indicate that sales of the Koran in September and October have been three to four times higher when compared to the same period in the previous year.
Some reports have suggested that more seekers are interested in Islam as a religious path since the attacks, although statistics are hard to come by. For instance, the Long Island section of the New York Times (Dec. 9) reports that local imams are “busier then ever helping people interested in their religion, including those interested in converting to it.”
A Nov. 16 report from the Middle East Media Research Institute (http://www.memri.org/sd/SP30101.html), a group monitoring Islamic extremism in the press, says that since Sept. 11 “many articles and reports have appeared in the Arabic press claiming Muslim proselytizing in the U.S. has seen an upsurge in Americans’ converting.
These reports claim messages of tolerance promoted by the U.S. government and local authorities has induced many to convert to Islam.” The chairman of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told the Saudi paper “Ukaz” that “34,000 Americans have converted to Islam following the events of September 11, and this is the highest rate reached in the U.S. since Islam arrived there.” Boston has become a center of Islamic proselytizing aimed at Christians, according to the report.
Dr. Walid A. Fatihi, a Harvard Medical School instructor, reports to an Egyptian weekly that at various interfaith events where Muslim leaders spoke, non-Muslims were often receptive to Islamic teachings. He adds that the “11 days that have passed [since the attacks] are like 11 years in the history of proselytizing in the name of Allah. I write to you the absolute confidence that over the next few years, Islam will spread in America and in the entire world, Allah willing, much more quickly than it has spread in the past, because the entire world is asking `What is Islam!'”
07: The events surrounding Sept. 11 sparked a debate among Muslims concerning intolerance in their own fold.
The Economist (Dec. 22) reports that the position of Muslim moderates and liberals in many Islamic countries were bolstered by the fall of the Taliban. American Muslims, particularly those of the younger generations, are speaking out more, claiming that some mosques have encouraged anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments. Groups such as Muslims Against Terrorism have been formed by young adults in the Islamic community to encourage more moderate views.
(November, December RW)
08: The terrorist attacks have also launched a new battle among academics and religious leaders on the nature of Islamic militancy and Islam itself.
Critics say that Islamic and Middle Eastern scholars and interfaith organizations have ignored or soft-peddled the growth of Islamic extremism at home and abroad. [see New York Times, Nov. 3] Academics charge that their critics are in danger of stigmatizing Muslims and replacing communism with Islam in starting a new cold war.
09: Concerns for the future of religious liberty in the context of the counter-terrorism policy worldwide will likely be a long range trend to emerge from Sept. 11.
Religious freedom advocates are concerned that new allies cultivated by the U.S. in the current conflict may receive less pressure to provide religious freedom for their minorities.
— Jean-Francois Mayer contributed to this review.