Nation & World

Religious diversity explored at local level

6 min read

Documentary focuses on problems, solutions in Fremont, Calif.

Can a diverse religious community unite and heal after a brutal murder in broad daylight, one possibly motivated by religious hatred?

That profound question and others like it, questions of religious diversity and tolerance, are at the heart of the new documentary “Fremont, U.S.A.,” which was developed by Harvard’s Pluralism Project and screened last Thursday afternoon (March 5) at Boylston Hall’s Fong Auditorium.

With the fourth-most-populous city in the San Francisco Bay area as its backdrop, the film examines how Fremont, Calif., a community dramatically transformed by recent immigration, has woven a wide range of new religions and cultures into the fabric of its daily life. The 56-minute work explores how these new patterns are viewed — and to what extent they are accepted — by the city’s residents. The film also looks at how the city responded to hate crimes in the wake of 9/11.

The film’s directors and producers, Harvard Divinity School graduates Rachel Antell M.T.S. ’92 and Elinor J. Pierce M.T.S. ’96, who is a senior researcher with the Pluralism Project, chose Fremont (a location the project had already been studying) largely because of its expanding diversity and its rich cultural and religious heritage. Incorporated in 1956 when five smaller communities united to become one, today the city, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, has large Asian and Hispanic populations and is home to the country’s largest concentration of Afghans. In total, 147 different countries are represented within its boundaries. Included in Fremont’s varied religious landscape are Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Christians, among many others.

To underscore the city’s sense of unity and acceptance, the work’s early scenes show a mosque and Methodist church being built side by side on adjacent parcels of land. Both groups are thoughtful and respectful of one another and even use a shared parking lot. And in an official mark of unity, their access road was given the name “Peace Terrace.”

Throughout the documentary, Fremont officials discuss the importance of the role of city government in fostering relationships among different ethnic and religious groups. Organizations like the city’s Human Relations Commission play an important role in reaching out, engaging the community, and creating a climate of cooperation and mutual respect.

But while there has been acceptance and understanding in Fremont, there has also been tragedy. In 2006 a longtime resident and mother of six, Alia Ansari, was shot in the head at close range as she walked hand in hand with her youngest child along a neighborhood street. She was wearing a headscarf and many speculated the violent act was a hate crime.

Although no motive was determined, the effect of the murder was the same as if it were a hate crime, community leaders noted, as Muslims feared for their safety. The film investigates how Fremont came together in the midst of heartbreak and unrest. Community members reached out to the family and the Muslim community at large, and hosted a public memorial in a local park. When the words “Alia Ansari R.I.P.” were scrawled on the walls of a local church, members of the congregation hung a wreath over the graffiti in a sign of solidarity. When men from an Islamic society arrived and offered to remove the graffiti, a church official explained to them that it should remain as an emblem of solidarity with the angst of the Muslim community. “We talked,” said the official, “about the principle of returning a blessing for the curse.”

A panel discussion including representatives of local secular and religious groups followed the documentary. The film????s narrator, Diana L. Eck, director of the Pluralism Project — a decadelong research project at Harvard that engages students in the study of new religions and religious diversity — moderated the discussion.

Executive Director of the Muslim American Society Boston Chapter M. Bilal Kaleem admitted to getting “more than choked up” at many points during the screening. His current work, which mirrors the film’s message of interconnectedness, focuses on Muslim civic engagement. He called it “the most important priority for the Muslim-American community,” and outlined a threefold approach that includes a heavy emphasis on youth involvement, the need for interfaith and interethnic coalitions, and removing obstacles like “Islamaphobia.”

“One thing that touched me most about the film is it really seemed to exemplify this one verse in the Koran,” said Kaleem, referring to Sura 49:13, a fragment of which is sometimes translated into English thus: “We … have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another.”

The meaning of getting to know one another takes a stronger form in Arabic in the well-known verse than the English translation allows, said Kaleem.

“It’s a form that is very intensive and has a strong connotation of mutuality … that you are engaging very deeply with one another for a larger purpose.”

Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, wondered aloud whether Boston was too insular and competitive a city to allow for real religious crossover.

While Rev. Cheng Imm Tan said she has worked successfully within city departments and among various secular communities as the director of the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians — a group that addresses immigrant issues, she admitted she has had less luck engaging with religious organizations.

“There is definitely a challenge of bringing religious communities on board,” said Tan.

But Alexander Levering Kern offered a different perspective. The executive director of greater Boston’s interfaith social justice network, Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, said he had witnessed many examples of various religious communities uniting for a common purpose during his two and a half years with the organization.

“I’ve seen again and again faith communities fight like cats and dogs over certain issues and then come together over other issues of shared concern,” he said, citing a joint effort to defeat a recent ballot question that would have repealed the state’s income tax and an intercommunity gathering at a Roxbury mosque for a solidarity day.

“So I think that it’s a question of finding those shared interests and working together around issues that we agree on.”