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Visible & Consequential Difference
Visible and Consequential Religious Diversity
Between 1983 and 2009, over 16,000 Somali Muslim refugees resettled in Minnesota, the majority of whom came since 1999. Minnesota is home to an estimated 60-70,000 Hmong. The Ethiopian population in Minnesota is one of the largest to live outside of Ethiopia. A long-standing policy of welcoming refugees has transformed Minnesota’s cultural makeup time and again. In addition to refugee populations, Minnesota, like the rest of the United States, has been transformed since 1965 by the immigration of Asian communities. South Asians have brought with them their own versions of Islam as well as of Hinduism, evidenced most notably by the presence of the largest Hindu Temple in North America, which stands aside corn fields and wetlands of the outer ring suburb of Maple Grove. As a weekend destination for Hindus from throughout the Upper Midwest, the Hindu temple’s presence alone has raised civic and theological questions for local pastors, city councils, law enforcement officials, and school-teachers.
And while Lake Wobegon stereotypes have often failed to recognize Minnesota’s long history of diversity—the oldest narrative in America’s story and the continued presence of Dakota and Ojibwe communities need to stand as only one reminder—the realities of immigration, dispossession, dislocation, economics, and technology have made religious diversity not only more visible today but also more pressing in its importance and implications for contemporary civic and cultural life. Indeed, both on reservations and in urban centers, Dakota and Ojibwe communities face newly configured tensions in light of recent assertions of treaty rights and other claims for religious freedoms. Recent events of religious diversity have brought Minnesota into public, national, and global eyes more than ever before. Journalists have covered the transnational involvement of Minnesota Somali Muslims in the wars back in Africa. School administrators, MN Department of Education officials, and attorneys have all tried to negotiate the oft-contested questions over the separation between church and state in local charter schools. Teachers have sought to create classroom environments conducive to the new and ever-shifting multicultural contexts of the schools. School cafeteria workers have found themselves at the center of controversies in which pepperoni pizza became a centerpiece and symbol of religious difference in debates about the changing demographics of a rural town and the country as a whole. Police officers and judges have found themselves mediating and adjudicating new religious matters—such as the symbolic and economic valuation of Hindu ritual images in the case of vandalism, or the rights of Muslim taxi drivers or grocery cashiers to observe their traditions in the workplace.
It is in this context that we have launched the Religious Diversity in Minnesota Initiative. The goals of this initiative are manifold but they are all focused on the increased importance of cultivating a complex and nuanced religious literacy among public leaders in a broad range of fields. By religious literacy, we mean more than a shared vocabulary, but also a facility with speaking fruitfully in public about and across religious difference, not simply as a function of interfaith dialogue but as communities and publics addressing common problems. As noted by the work of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, religious literacy, along with the ability to make, and articulate, critical decisions on issues that emerge in a multi-religious society are now essential requirements for effective civic, cultural, and religious leadership. With attempts to rescind DACA, efforts to legislate antipathy toward immigrants through travel bans, the rise of white supremacist movements, and civic debate raging over whose histories and values will be honored in the public square or determine the use of natural resources, we need more than ever to find ways to understand one another and bridge our differences in ways that promote understanding and civil discourse.
Minnesotans can rightly claim extraordinary traditions of neighborliness and interfaith activism. Still, religious diversity has presented deep challenges to those shared values and even belied Minnesota nice. St. Cloud has, just recently, erupted with anti-Islamic sentiment and propaganda directed towards the Somali Muslim community, whose difference is marked not only by their religion but also their race. In December of 2009, numerous obscene cartoons depicting, among other things, the Prophet Muhammad naked, defecating, and engaged in sex acts were posted outside the mosque, Somali Cultural Center, and in front of Muslim owned businesses. Only a few months later, a local pastor took out a large add in the St. Cloud Times in which he identified, what he believed was, the profound Muslim threat to America and the need for Christians to bring Jesus to the Muslims, saving them and our country. Every leader in St. Cloud—from civic, political, media, legal, educational, cultural and religious arenas—has had to respond to these issues. Yet for many, knowledge of Muslim and Somali traditions is profoundly limited.
Lack of religious knowledge has presented challenges in other contexts as well. For example, hospitals and health-care professionals have had to rethink their practices and policies when faced with Hmong patients who only consent to medical treatment when provided under the approving presence of their shamans. While Minnesota has been a model for others who have confronted demands for religious and cultural sensitivity when providing care for Hmong families, health-care professionals here require on-going support to develop religious and cultural understanding of the diverse traditions of their patients when trying to care for a whole person.
Particularly at a time when anti-Muslim expression, and anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and racist sentiments are on the rise, and rhetoric from extremist circles is entering the mainstream, work on interreligious and civic engagement in a multi-religious society has never been more urgent. Today, Minnesota is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and now, truly, multi-religious as never before. There is wide awareness about the impact of immigration on Minnesota, yet policymakers and civic leaders are often not aware of the religious dimensions to this change. For civic leaders, educators, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and city planners, religion is often overlooked as a factor of analysis. We must ask ourselves what does it mean that Somali Muslim, Hmong practitioners of Shamanism, Hindu, Jewish, Tibetan Buddhist, and Ethiopian communities are now embedded in the landscape of Minnesota? In this way, we seek to both listen and respond to diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives, and to contribute rigorous scholarly resources, and fair and dispassionate knowledge to public discussions, encouraging civil discourse in which Minnesotans can address complicated religious and cultural issues with increased respect and care.