By Reverend Chloe Breyer
You don’t have to be Muslim to find good news in a recent study on mosque growth in the United States. Co-sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Hartford Institute on Religion, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), this national survey of mosque leaders in the United States found that more than 900 new mosques have been built in the United States since 2000—a period of increased scrutiny by government officials and increased controversy over mosque building. Of the 2,106 Muslim centres across the United States, a quarter of them were built in the last 10 years.
The first piece of good news in this discovery for non-Muslim Americans is that the First Amendment of the US Constitution—the part stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – is in considerably better working order than it appeared in the summer of 2010. At that time, protests raged against a planned Islamic centre near the site of the World Trade Center and erupted into a national debate; anti-mosque demonstrations stretched from Tennessee to California. The too-commonplace anti-Muslim vitriol on the airwaves and over the internet that summer – similar in content and tone to the anti-Catholic tirades of the early 19th century—was, it now appears, a momentary setback in our 235 year on-going struggle for a more perfect union.
This survey, showing that mosques were being built at a steady clip despite the “mega-mosque fears” being stirred on Fox News talk shows, suggests that the protests were a tempest in a teapot. In other words, as one of earth’s most religiously and otherwise diverse countries, we stumbled forward in fits and starts together more than apart.
The second piece of good news in the survey is the potential it suggests for more interfaith partnership to solve social problems across religious traditions. Working at the Interfaith Center of New York with hundreds of faith leaders from at least 15 religious traditions for the past decade and a half, we have been able to generate and strengthen relationships across faith and civic lines by engaging grassroots religious leaders in addressing shared social concerns – from housing foreclosures to domestic violence. This methodology has also allowed us to teach civic skills to grassroots religious leaders on the one hand and respect for religious diversity to judges, teachers, social workers and local politicians on the other.
There are plenty of faith communities who still believe that being a civic leader (through activities like showing up for jury duty, lobbying city hall, getting out the vote, etc.) means leaving your kippah or clerical collar at the door. Many of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fellow black Baptist ministers thought he should stop meddling in politics. Thus, like churches or temples, mosques are hard to generalise about when it comes to social engagement. One reassuring piece of news is that the study found that 98 per cent of mosque leaders say Muslims should be involved in American institutions and 91 per cent agree that Muslims should be involved in politics.
From a New Yorker’s-eye-view, (given that we boast the largest number of mosques-per-state in America, surpassing California by one) we have some authority on the matter. For over a decade we at the Interfaith Center of New York have seen how Muslim New Yorkers have worked with people of other faith traditions to strengthen our cities’ social fabric and public institutions— from feeding the hungry at halal soup kitchens in the Bronx, to promoting HIV/AIDS awareness at mosques in Harlem, to working in partnership with Roman Catholics doing outreach for the US Census Bureau, to serving on juries, to working as chaplains at public hospitals and with the Red Cross at Ground Zero back in 2001.
Our anecdotal observations are supported by other studies showing that mosques, like churches and synagogues, are associated with a higher level of civic engagement. Muslim Americans who were engaged in their mosques were found to be 53 per cent more involved in civic activities (such as charity organisations, school and/or youth programmes) than those who were not connected to a mosque.
Fighting poverty, homelessness and ignorance is a big job and Muslim New Yorkers have for decades worked side-by-side with people of other faith traditions and of no faith in meeting these great challenges. Far from making non-Muslim Americans fearful, the growth of mosques around the country promises another strengthening thread in the civic fabric of our nation.
The Reverend Chloe Breyer is the Executive Director at the Interfaith Center of New York and Associate Priest at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Harlem, New York.