It would sound almost cliché were it not so accurate: On Sept. 11, 2001 our world changed forever, and like it or not, we were forced to change along with it. In a matter of several hours on that fateful Tuesday morning, much of what we knew—or thought we knew—about ourselves, our nation and our place in the world came crashing to the ground in a heap of smoldering ruins, sending shock waves not only through our physical and political landscape but to the very core of our psyches. In the months of healing and self-examination that ensued, which were consumed by feelings of anger and pain, guilt and vengeance, many of us sought solace and comfort in those spiritual institutions that for countless generations have provided answers where none were apparent.
In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, religious attendance at churches, synagogues and mosques spiked considerably (up by as much as 25 percent by one estimate), though by November attendance levels had returned to their normal holiday season level. A report issued Dec. 6 by the Pew Research Center (a branch of the Pew Charitable Trusts) found that “religion now occupies a more important place in American life. Yet this dramatic shift has not been matched by an increase in attendance at religious services—nor is there much evidence that religion is playing a larger role in Americans’ personal lives at this time…The number of Americans who say religion is very important to them personally stands at virtually the same level as [March 2001].”
What, then, do we make of such quixotic findings? If the importance of religion in American life is not gauged by church attendance, prayer, or other overtly religious acts, then what role does it play? This week, Independent writers Ari LeVaux, Dan Laidman and Carlotta Grandstaff looked at a slice of Missoula’s spiritual community and asked: What has changed for you in the six months since Sept. 11?
Help from our Friends
It’s Sunday, Sept. 16. The Missoula Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Missoula Quakers, sit silently on chairs and benches pulled into a circle on the hardwood floor of their meeting house at 861 South 12th Street West. On this day, as on any other Sunday, they turn their mind’s eyes inward and reach with their hearts toward the God that they believe resides within every one of us, Quaker and non-Quaker alike. Everyone, no matter how spiritual or secular, has a sliver of truth in their beliefs and stories. From time to time, the silence is broken by someone who makes contact with that inner light of truth, someone who feels something welling up inside so important that he or she knows that if it isn’t spoken, it will be a loss for everyone. And thus those heartfelt words break the silence.
Today’s American Quakers fall into two general categories. Programmed Quakers, found mainly in the Midwest, adhere more strictly to the Christian biblical roots of Quakerism, including the mandate of missionary work and proselytizing. Non-programmed Quakers, such as many in the Missoula area, don’t necessarily adhere to the notion of a patriarchal Christian God. They believe simply that God—he, she, it, or whoever or whatever God may be—can be found within each one of us. To the Quakers, revelation continues to this day in every individual human pipeline to the One. And they share the determination to never prepare for or make war against others.
Quakers believe that since we are all vessels of God, then we are all ministers, even non-Quakers. So on Sept. 16, the Friends meeting circle was packed with nearly twice the 30 odd ministers who normally show up for Sunday meetings. The words that were spoken, both during the meeting and in the potluck lunch that always follows, were remarkably similar. Both Quaker and Non-Quaker attendees of this meeting, and the meetings in the weeks that followed, echoed a collective fear that our government was going to retaliate with violence. There was talk of where we are as a nation, of our collective evolutionary development as humans, of the futility of retaliation as a sign of our immaturity. Will we take revenge? Or will we reach out and communicate, and help people around the world deal with their anger toward us?
Despite the fear of what would happen, and their profound sadness when the bombs eventually began to fall, Quakers found renewed hope in the realization that their views were shared by many outside of the Quaker community. Regina Windham, co-clerk of the Missoula Friends, says, “It was awesome to realize that Quakers weren’t the only ones who felt that war is not the answer.”
Nationally, the Quaker community has responded to 9/11 in a similar fashion. The Web site of The American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org) launched its “No More Victims” campaign to support those affected by the events of Sept. 11 in the United States, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world, including citizens of countries labeled by President Bush as part of the “Axis of Evil.” In addition to providing humanitarian aid, funds collected through this campaign are being used to increase awareness about the need for peaceful solutions to this and other conflicts. The campaign is centered on the mass circulation of the following letter to President Bush, which has appeared as both an advertisement and as letters to the editor in periodicals nationwide, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Oct. 8 edition of Congressional Roll Call:
Dear President Bush,
We, the undersigned, join the American Friends Service Committee in urging you to look for diplomatic means to bring to justice the people who are responsible for this crime against humanity. Now is the time to break the cycle of violence and retaliation. Do not respond to these terrible acts with further military action. Such action is causing additional deaths and the suffering of many people in the U.S. and abroad.
The DC-based Friends Committee on National Legislation is a Quaker public interest lobby. Its agenda is centered on nonviolent and peaceful solutions to world problems, the creation of a society that is free and equal and just, and the preservation and restoration of the earth’s ecosystems. Its Web site (www.fcnl.org) includes a ten-point plan on how to go about using peaceful means to stop terrorism which reads:
We continue to grieve for the many unique, precious and irreplaceable people who were murdered in the September 11 attacks. Our outrage at those terrible acts of violence is rooted in our profound belief that every human being is a creature of God and has been put here for a very special purpose. Those who helped in planning and carrying out the attacks have violated the most fundamental laws of a civil society. They should be held accountable under those laws.
Yet the terror and grief have not ended with the September 11 atrocities. While the full civilian death toll in Afghanistan has yet to be compiled, it is virtually certain that hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians have been killed or maimed directly by the war, and that hundreds, if not thousands more refugees from the U.S. bombing have died from hidden landmines, hunger, or exposure to the elements. We cannot simply consign these innocent victims to the category of “collateral damage” or an “accident of war.” They, too, were unique and precious human beings who will never be replaced. The U.S. government had no right to sacrifice their lives in its pursuit of justice.
Here in Missoula, a group of Friends gathered after 9/11 to pen a letter to the editor. The letter described the Quaker custom of “queries” or probing questions designed to be answered only after deep reflection and prayer. These queries are at the heart of the Quaker belief in non-violent response:
How does our accumulation of wealth, our lifestyles, business practices and depletion of natural resources contribute to violence, hatred and injustice in our world?
How do we stand together as a nation without standing separate from the world around us?
When we feel our own, and address others’ anger, can we use this energy to motivate us to develop positive and compassionate solutions?
In all our relations with others, are we sensitive to issues of equality, autonomy, and power? How do we challenge destructive patterns in these relationships when they arise? How do we encourage ourselves and other to consider people as individuals rather than as stereotypes?
Asking ourselves questions like these, they believe, opens the door to continued maturation and evolution of human consciousness. Perhaps someday queries such as these will find a place into our political oaths of office.
Muslims in the limelight
While Sept. 11 and its aftermath have driven many Montanans to look inward and embrace their spirituality, Missoula’s Islamic community has had an opposite experience. In the last few months local Muslims have found themselves turning outward in an effort to educate people about their religion.
Missoula’s Muslim community is concentrated almost entirely at the University of Montana. For years there had been unofficial attempts at organizing a student organization, but for the first time this semester students have sought official recognition for a Muslim Students Association (MSA).
“A lot of it probably was because of the 9/11 events,” says Jameel Chaudhry, a UM architect. “There’s been a lot more focus on us to get ourselves organized and put on a more positive face. The damage that 9/11 has caused the Islamic community is absolutely phenomenal. I don’t think we’ll ever recover from it.”
Chaudhry is of South Asian descent but was born and raised in Kenya. He came to work at UM in 1995 after getting his master’s degree in Finland. When he first came to Missoula, the school had a modest number of Islamic students, although their ranks thinned in the late ’90s, in part because of the Asian economic crisis. Their numbers have grown again in recent years, though, and there are now about 20 members of the Muslim Students Association (MSA).
Before the MSA was formed, Chaudhry says, Muslims at UM found personal interaction to be the best way to educate people about their faith and culture.
“We felt that the best way of showing off our own society, our own religion was personal contact,” Chaudhry says.
Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“We were shocked,” says Joynal Abedin, president of the MSA. “Nobody expected those things. Nobody was prepared for these things.”
Unlike some communities around the country, there were no reported incidents of harassment against Muslims in Missoula, MSA members say. Nevertheless, local Muslims met with Missoula police to discuss safety concerns.
“It was discussed at that meeting that Missoula was a liberal oasis,” says Chaudhry. “But if we went outside the city in that current climate we should be more aware of our surroundings and who we deal with and how we deal with them.”
In the midst of the shock there was even some guilt and shame, admits Chaudhry.
“I think we all have suffered both sets of emotions. After that it’s like you almost question your own religion. You’re almost ashamed to call yourself a Muslim,” he says.
Local Muslims soon realized, Chaudhry says, that not only were they not at fault for actions they found abhorrent, but that they needed to stave off people’s misconceptions and prejudices.
“After the mind cleared up, we said the only way we could counter some of this negativity is to open up and not be seen as some kind of secret society that’s dark and mysterious,” Chaudhry says. “And I think the American public now still sees us as a very mysterious religion.”
Abedin, a chemistry graduate student from Bangladesh, soon found himself giving TV, radio, and print interviews to media outlets across the state. He was invited to speak at schools around Missoula, and even at one in Walla Walla, Wash. Abedin has also recited from the Qu’ran at local churches.
“In that way I think our community is organizing,” Abedin says. “I have found that the people in Missoula don’t know much history or other things about Islam, but they are very interested to know about it.”
Interest in Islam has been reflected in sales at some local bookstores. Stephanie Martin, a manager at the Barnes and Noble on North Reserve, reports a big increase in sales of books on Islam (from both the religious and political perspective) particularly sales of the Qu’ran.
That interest is also showing at UM, says Professor Paul Dietrich, director of the Religious Studies program. After Sept. 11, Dietrich put together a last-minute course called the Religion of Islam. It was not advertised because it was a late addition, but word of mouth quickly pushed registration over the limit, and books ordered for the class sold out even before registration was complete. (The department had not offered a course on Islam in nearly a decade.) Dietrich, who has also been asked to give presentations on Islam in cities throughout Montana, attributes the immediate interest to what he calls “bibliotherapy.”
“It is part of a typical academic response to try to read your way out of a crisis,” he says. “To try to understand as far as possible what’s going on you’ve got to go beyond the popular media, even the Internet, to do that. You really need to sit down and try to puzzle out these answers together.”
Americans have been largely ignorant of Islam throughout this country’s history, Dietrich says. It only seems to come to the fore of the national dialogue in the wake of terrorist acts like the Iranian hostage crisis or the destruction of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. “But even those events fade from our consciousness, especially among the students,” he says. “They were barely out of diapers at the time of the hostage crisis in Iran.”
In the meantime, in between crises, Islam has not penetrated the consciousness of students like other world religions have, he says.
“Students have not been interested in Islam the way they have been interested in Zen Buddhism,” Dietrich says. Islam has “fallen through the cracks,” he says, both in individuals’ estimation and in academia. “There’s been indifference in the academy to the second largest religion in the world. Part of that may be a historical hostility between Islam and the West.”
Dietrich cites scholar Edward Said’s pioneering book Orientalism, which stated that culture and scholarship have long served as vital arms of colonialism by manufacturing a stereotypical picture of the East.
“There’s a stereotype about [Islam] being a fanatical religion that has scared people away from having a more personal interest that they don’t have when they think about Buddhism, which they think of as a more pacifistic religion,” Dietrich says.
In fact, the results of a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released just this week confirm how deeply distrustful many Americans are toward the Muslim world. The poll of 863 American adults found that 41 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Islamic countries and 68 percent believe that Muslim countries would be better off if they adopted western values. Twenty-four percent said that Muslim opinions did not matter much to them and 23 percent said they have “no interest at all in Muslim opinions.”
Abedin sees this historical rupture play out when he speaks to local crowds. At one Missoula church, he explained that Islam is a religion of peace that does not support terrorism.
“I remember then one in the audience from the congregation asked, ‘Why then do the Islamic countries not stand up against Osama bin Laden?’” Abedin says. “That’s a question I have actually got in my heart. But no Muslim country actually supported that thing.”
Abedin tries to stress in his speaking engagements that Islam is a flexible religion.
“Even in America I find the rules that are here completely mesh with the Qu’ran,” Abedin says. “The Prophet even said Islam is very flexible.”
Chaudhry and Abedin both have another, more personal reason for wanting to foster understanding of their religion: They are both parents.
“We grew up in Islamic societies and when you come over here you really feel very lost. The American society and culture is very overwhelming,” Chaudhry says. “We know who we are but the rest of the society doesn’t know who we are. The problem will come in my children’s generation. They won’t know who they are.”
Abedin says he likes Missoula’s small town atmosphere, and that he would worry about raising his child amidst all the influences of a big city. It is a tradeoff, however, as Missoula has no established Muslim community, no mosque, and no Islamic clergy.
“Increasingly as a society you always rely on someone else to do the teaching,” Chaudhry says. “But when you’re in a situation like us you realize there is no one else. There’s you and you have to do it yourself. It’s just another challenge.”
Returns to the fold
Faith is a thing felt in the heart, not rationalized by the brain. You cannot talk yourself into becoming a believer anymore that you can talk yourself out of it. You either have faith or you don’t.
Those of religious conviction seek solace from the world’s misery in church. Those without it seek it in family, community or for many here in God’s country, in nature.
But the events of Sept. 11 were so horrific that for some, the casual, well-worn path to spirituality failed to soothe the wounded soul. Some, who had rejected the Christian church years, perhaps decades earlier, were compelled by the events of that dark day to return to their spiritual roots to find communion.
For some, talking about their return to the faith is too personal for casual discussion. One woman who had gone back to the Catholic Church after Sept. 11, and who was contacted by the Independent for her story, found she simply couldn’t discuss it, so profound was her experience.
Barbara Berens of Missoula had gone through a similar, post-Sept. 11 spiritual conversion, and was ready to talk about it. Berens’s church experience was primarily her mother’s: the Unitarian Universalist Church, the smallest denomination in the United States.
The lay-led church is unlike the mainstream Christian church in that members are free to develop their own definition of God, or none at all, focusing instead on the spirit of life and the power within themselves.
Before Sept. 11 Berens had attended the Unitarian Church with her mother, but never on her own. Following Sept. 11 was another story.
“Not only was I not a regular churchgoer, I’d never in my adult life gone to church without my mother wanting me to go,” she says.
The war- and fear-mongering that rose to the surface after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon frightened and sickened Berens who, like millions of her fellow Americans, found herself suddenly unmoored in an unfamiliar sea, unable to grasp meaning in what had happened.
“It was such a sense of feeling totally adrift as to how to respond to this crisis, and I felt I had no real avenue for having any kind of community who felt the same way I did...”
Berens stops herself midstream. What she felt on Sept. 11 and how and why she found her way back to her mother’s church is difficult to put into words, she says. She was compelled to return to the Unitarian Church, she says, because of a deep need to connect with others who felt the same ways she did. What she wasn’t seeking was that which was easy to find throughout America immediately after the attacks: the call for retaliation, the instinct for revenge, the hang ’em high talk that permeated the airwaves, the coffee shops, and the letters to the editor columns.
Instead, she sought a shared experience with others that was grounded in spirituality, not anguish; in reflective thinking, not reflex action.
Berens was horrified by the immediate and popular American response to the attacks—the thirst for blood and revenge—and especially by one letter to the editor that suggested bombing Mecca in retaliation.
“That’s just not where my mind was,” she says. “I had some kind of intuitive sense I would find some like-minded people [at the Unitarian Church].”
The Sunday following the attacks, Berens had read a letter to the editor that put into words what she was feeling. And when she attended that first church service she was gratified to see the letter writer was also a church member.
That first Sunday back in the Unitarian Church brought her some solace. Unitarians weave social and political issues into their fellowship, so naturally Sept. 11 was the topic of the Sept. 16 sermon. Like Berens, other Unitarians found odious the hatred that characterized much of the immediate response.
“I’m of a mind that the United States has a lot to answer for,” she says. Which is not the same as saying we had it coming, which she believes we did not. “But we’re not blameless.”
Recognizing her own despair that there is so little any of us can do to change the world for the better, Berens found some comfort in the Unitarians’ seven principles:
• Every person is worthy and should be treated with dignity.
• People should treat each other with justice, equality and compassion.
• We should accept the differences that tend to separate us.
• Everyone should have the freedom and responsibility to search for the truth.
• We should strive to use democratic processes both within Unitarian Universalist congregations and the world at large.
• We should work for peace, liberty and justice for everyone.
• We should acknowledge and respect how interdependent every one of us is.
Since her first reintroduction to the Unitarian Church, Berens has gone to church every Sunday but one. Though the early sermons focused on Sept. 11, subsequent sermons have dealt with such far-ranging topics as welfare reform and the theology of Tolstoy.
Berens found what she was seeking at the Unitarian Church. The intellectual approach to spirituality and meaning isn’t everyone’s idea of what religion is or should be. But for Berens it answered a need that couldn’t be fulfilled otherwise.
“I think a lot more about…these topics: morality, justice, peace. I’m surprised at myself, and I never would have imagined this would become part of my life. It’s like a dirty little secret,” she says, laughing.
But she suspected all along that the Unitarian Church, previously associated with her mother and her mother’s spiritual needs, would give her what she sought.
“Before Sept. 11 I couldn’t imagine myself going to church regularly,” she says. “and now I can’t imagine not going.”
(Additional reporting for this feature by Susanne Skok.)