The intellectual enterprise of talking about multiculturalism and pluralist co-existence carries an inherent tension. On the one hand, the gap between theorizing and empirical research points to the need to embed ourselves in a dialectical understanding of both spheres. On the other hand, the field carries the exciting and yet traumatizing effects of a dynamically changing landscape, rendering long-term analysis difficult. The public debate often becomes overly focused on the day-to-day developments and makes co-imbricated realities all the more complex. Having experienced this difficulty during my fieldwork within the Muslim communities in Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area, where I spent considerable time among six Muslim communities, I wanted my research in Los Angeles to focus more exclusively on the wider narratives that defined the public conversation on religion in Southern California.
Faced with this challenge I travelled to the Los Angeles metropolitan area in June 2013 to observe how Muslim, Catholic and secular communities interacted not only with each other but also within themselves, and how they perceived the deep pluralities of the modern age in an increasingly cosmopolitan, diverse landscape. It soon became clear that this city with 13 million residents stands out as a not-too-small laboratory for the national debates in the U.S., from immigration reform to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College decisions in 2014, to more recent national conversations on sexual identities, racial discrimination, criminal justice reform, and the challenge of ISIS. In many ways Los Angeles is a microcosm for the many difficult conversations that haunt academics, policy-makers and lay citizens alike.
The full-scale representation of the nation’s most pressing conversations in Los Angeles becomes all the more important when its religious roots are considered. Los Angeles has been a major center of Catholic immigration and institutionalization from the early 17th century onwards; it witnessed the birth of the Pentecostal tradition in early 20th century; and has been home to one of the most diverse populations of American Muslims.
“The full-scale representation of the nation’s most pressing conversations in Los Angeles becomes all the more important when its religious roots are considered. Los Angeles has been a major center of Catholic immigration and institutionalization from the early 17th century onwards; it witnessed the birth of the Pentecostal tradition in early 20th century; and has been home to one of the most diverse populations of American Muslims.”From West Hollywood’s famous celebrity-sighting spot Urth Caffé, a product of the cooperation between an interfaith couple and their ecumenical-Christian-new-age religious networks, to the role of inner-city religious congregations in healing the city after the 1992 Rodney King riots, religious identities and actors are markedly important in constituting the city’s moral economy even as Los Angeles continues to lead the production of materialist/secular ethos that shapes not only local and national, but also global perceptions of the contemporary world.
Global challenges, local dynamics and securitization
The illustrative debates in Los Angeles indicate the need for urgency in unpacking what liberal citizenship can—and fails to—offer to help make sense of “deep plurality” in both the theoretical and the everyday realms. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, President Obama argued that what went wrong in the Arab Spring and the Muslim world, in general, was the failure to bring together multiple political, ethnic, and religious identities in a pluralist ethics. Several months later, in a statement in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo attacks, Obama also argued that unlike in the case of America’s Muslim immigrants, Western European countries failed to develop inclusive policies of integration toward their Muslim populations. While Obama’s earlier reference was directed towards the dynamics between Democrats and the Republicans, and American Muslims feel they are advantaged compared to most European Muslims, it is imperative to take this problem seriously and realize that despite the political and cultural legitimacy attained by most religious minorities in the United States, American civil religion is not free of challenges.
My Muslim interlocutors in California increasingly recognize that while part of the country and the political elite grant them a public role and legitimacy, there are others who have found ample public space to delegitimize and securitize Muslim Americans. Even optimists are quick to criticize Obama, who enjoys overwhelming support among American Muslims. They argue that while the Federal government has invested a lot in optics when it comes to engaging with American Muslims, the President has carefully avoided stepping his foot in a mosque in the United States due to fear of electoral politics. They also point to the FBI’s continuous surveillance of mosques and use of informants to argue that meaningful engagement with Muslim Americans has not found adequate attention on the part of the Federal government, and that often times Muslims are treated “publicly as partners and privately as suspects.” While several meetings in the White House over the last year have started to address this problem, a long-term perspective underlines that not only federal but also local dynamics and partnerships will be a crucial component in overcoming anti-Muslim populist bias.
And yet, the exploitation of populist fears and discourses have become only more pronounced in the aftermath of the November 13, 2015 Paris and December 2, 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attacks. The fallout from both attacks has further increased the already unprecedented spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes and sentiment, creating historic levels of anxiety across American Muslim landscape. More promising developments, however, have also been seen. Building on earlier relationships developed in interfaith and civic settings, numerous nationally prominent Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Evangelical leaders have condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric, in addition to public statements and displays of support from local civic and faith leaders, including many in Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco. As Muslim Americans claim a greater space in the public sphere and adopt the language and practice of civil rights activism and political lobbying at the local and national scene, these developments have also highlighted efforts of local organizations such as Sahaba Initiative who have been addressing social problems in the economically challenged landscape of San Bernardino over the past 5 years.
Even as most politicians condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric, recent polls suggest that public fear of refugees/immigrants and Muslims seems to have coalesced around partisan lines, much in line with America’s culture wars. Muslim American leaders face the challenging multiple tasks of defending their faith against organizations such as ISIS, combating Islamophobia, and responding to demands to root out extremism—a demand many rightfully argue is not burdened on followers of other faith traditions. Additionally, post-San Bernardino conversations have shed light on some government policies that have come to be perceived as normal in the securitized atmosphere of post 9/11 era.
“There is an understandable concern that the challenge of ISIS may result in further government involvement in the management of American religious life despite constitutional safeguards, and that public perception of Islam will be shaped mainly around questions of terrorism and radicalization.”There is an understandable concern that the challenge of ISIS may result in further government involvement in the management of American religious life despite constitutional safeguards, and that public perception of Islam will be shaped mainly around questions of terrorism and radicalization.
Ever since the US Attorney’s office designated Los Angeles in September 2014 as one of the three pilot cities – along with Boston and Minneapolis – where authorities have started to engage Muslim communities to counter violent extremism (CVE) in light of ISIS’s perceived reach among Western Muslims, these perceptions and dynamics have become all the more crucial. The CVE Summit in Washington last year created a flurry of positive and critical commentary, public posturing, and heated debate on the potential negative implications of a CVE-specific engagement with Muslim communities. Even though the White House has refused charges of singling out and securitizing Muslim communities and President Obama gave a reassuring speech at the summit, many observers, including some who were part of the meetings, point out that the political scene may soon change, rendering these programs potentially problematic in the long-run, much like their failed precedents in Britain. A telling example of the securitization of muslim communities was the September 2015 arrest of Sudanese-American high-school student Ahmed Mohamed of Irving, Texas. The 14-year old Ahmed brought to his school an alarm clock he built at home, hoping to get accolades from his teachers. Instead, he was arrested after a teacher found the home-made clock suspicious. Whereas the public outpouring of support from high-tech giants to President Obama seem to have made up for the mistake, opponents of CVE initiatives point out that the Muslim teen’s teachers were indeed merely following a CVE approach and that it is the federal government to be blamed for their programs that treat its Muslim citizens as “usual suspects.”
As epitomized in recent remarks from some presidential hopefuls, anti-Muslim sensationalism coupled with anti-immigration sentiments seems poised to rise in the upcoming election year. Although voices from many sectors of the American socio-political spectrum have provided a strong defense of religious freedom and underlined the non-discrimination and no religious test for political office principles, American Muslims continue to be rightly concerned about a nativist reaction to Islam that frequently resorts to a vaguely defined threat of “radical Islam” and distortive anti-Shariʻa discourses in an effort to justify anti-Muslim rhetoric.
It is crucial therefore to note that while America’s politico-historical narrative on secularism and state-church relations, and its wider ethico-philosophical approaches to a public role for religion, are conducive to vitalizing pluralist coexistence, religious congregations and local policy-makers in the United States are increasingly arguing that the country may soon find itself closer to the crises that mark the debates in Western Europe and Quebec. The negotiations across and within Muslim and Catholic traditions—traditions that are dynamic rather than fixed, normatively heterogeneous rather than homogeneous, and increasingly individualistic—provide a good starting point to contemplate how we can envision pluralist co-existence as social responsibility, without transforming it into an authoritarian discourse.
Conversations across and within faith traditions
In Los Angeles these negotiations manifest themselves in terms of inter-faith and intra-faith dialogues—as a perpetual arbitration between the meta-narratives of religious traditions and their lived realities. During my fieldwork, the primary recurring theme that I encountered was the need for meaningful dialogue across and within ethico-religious traditions. Many of my interlocutors emphasized that pluralist coexistence requires diverse religious traditions to remain in constant dialogue, not only with other traditions, but also within their own faith. They reiterated that while many faith leaders reflected on the evolution of their own religious communities in the United States, they avidly kept an eye on the experiences of other faith traditions. The constant dynamic of inter and intra religious dialogue becomes all the more important in the context of Muslim and Catholic communities in Los Angeles and Orange County, as they make up one of the largest and most diverse communities across the U.S. The diversity within the communities themselves, including variations in socio-economic status, and variety the urban/suburban settings inhabited within each community are matched in the ethnic, theological, and sociological diversity manifested in each traditions respective historical evolutions.
In the vibrant civic landscape of the greater Los Angeles area, both American Catholics and American Muslims are still trying to carve out a dignified presence, even when they have established themselves as integral elements of the city’s civic life. The religious congregations hold considerable sway over the mayoral and sheriff elections, and, while wary of the role of religion in public sphere, the local authorities constantly seek engagement with Muslim and Catholic communities. Yet, their struggle for the acceptance of their “religious being” in the United States continues. This struggle takes on multiple colors as conversations move across generations, across immigrant and indigenous communities, socio-economic classes, ethnic communities, and across the urban and suburban landscapes.
From daily practice to religious garb, to sexual identities, and mixed faith marriages, the variables are plural, the solutions are often elusive and interpretive plurality is on the rise. On the other hand, a number of focal incidents that fall under the categories of education, sexual identities, interfaith relations, civic-political engagement, and institutional transformation continue to mark the dialogues within and across Muslim and Catholic communities.
“From daily practice to religious garb, to sexual identities, and mixed faith marriages, the variables are plural, the solutions are often elusive and interpretive plurality is on the rise. On the other hand, a number of focal incidents that fall under the categories of education, sexual identities, interfaith relations, civic-political engagement, and institutional transformation continue to mark the dialogues within and across Muslim and Catholic communities.”
The Los Angeles Archdiocese’s major masses in the Cathedral of the Our Lady of Angels, located across from the City Hall, invariably start with an emphasis on the multicultural nature of the Archdiocese. That the Archdiocese is the most multicultural in the nation and that the Sunday mass is offered in 42 languages across the Catholic parishes in Los Angeles is emphasized. In Orange County, the recently acquired Crystal Cathedral speaks to the needs of a flourishing Catholic community with its Vietnamese, Hispanic, and Korean communities. In the Muslim community there is an equally dramatic diversity. From the Iranian and Arab Shi’a communities to Sunni Arab and South Asian communities, to African-American, Latino and Cham Muslims originating from Cambodia, over 130 mosques and community centers organize under the umbrella of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California since 1994, in addition to the recently formed Shi’a Muslim Council of Southern California. In the urban and suburban jungle of Los Angeles multi-million dollar mega cathedrals and mega mosques with professional staff co-exist with struggling parishes and mosques, highly trained clergy serve Muslim and Catholic Angelenos along with part-time, loosely educated individuals. And yet, neither the loosely structured Shura Council nor the formal, highly structured Archdiocese hold fundamental control over how these communities engage with the experiences and exigencies of their daily lives. Improving and instilling theological and sociological literacy, particularly customized for American public life, is a mutual challenge for clergy and community leaders in both Muslim and Catholic communities.
Keeping the youth within the fold of respective Muslim and Catholic identities and the continuity of religio-ethical perspectives as they play out in the fields of mosque/parish life, clergy/imam education, pastoral care, youth programs, and formal education are shared concerns especially in the face of moral dilemmas posed by the dominant secular ethos. From daily practice to religious garb, to sexual identities, and mixed faith marriages, the variables are plural, the solutions are often elusive and interpretive plurality is on the rise. On the other hand, a number of focal incidents that fall under the categories of education, sexual identities, interfaith relations, civic-political engagement, and institutional transformation continue to mark the dialogues within and across Muslim and Catholic communities.