If the American Muslim community has a tendency to isolate itself, to retreat from the rest of American society, Zaytuna College is where that insularity comes to die. At the only accredited Muslim college in the United States, students spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be American.
Zaytuna is located on ‘‘Holy Hill’’ in Berkeley, just around the corner from the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of Christian seminaries affiliated with University of California, Berkeley. The college emerged from the Zaytuna Institute, an Islamic educational organization founded in nearby Hayward in 1996. The college admitted its first class in 2010 and was accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges earlier this year.
The school has sixty students, split roughly equally between men and women. About half are from California, and the rest are from other parts of the United States. Students don’t take out loans and graduate debt-free, although most of them receive financial assistance from the school, which is supported by individual American Muslim donors.
Zaytuna offers only one bachelor’s degree, in Islamic law and theology, but the curriculum combines Islamic and Western teachings. If students are going to be Muslims in the United States, Zaytuna believes they need to understand the country’s history and founding principles.
Religious study isn’t enough at this college. Islam may be the world’s second-largest religion, but in the United States, it is the subject of much misunderstanding and even hatred, and its adherents are often maligned. At Zaytuna, young Muslims are asked to figure out the future of their faith in America.
‘‘I’m an American and I’m a Muslim and those things can go together,’’ says Nirav Bhardwaj, a twenty-five-year-old sophomore at Zaytuna. ‘‘Unfortunately, people think being Muslim means hiding in a little pocket,’’ says Bhardwaj. ‘‘That’s not what it’s about.’’
Bhardwaj is a convert to Islam. He was raised Hindu. Both of his parents are from Rajasthan in northern India.
Bhardwaj says he was ‘‘Islamaphobic’’ in college. But after graduating from University of California, Irvine, with a degree in business administration, Bhardwaj got what he describes as his ‘‘dream job,’’ working for a major league baseball team doing statistics for scouting and player development. While traveling with the team, he became disillusioned. ‘‘We had players who were married,’’ he says, ‘‘and that just went out the window when they were out at the clubs. It was all about seeking immediate satisfaction. I started asking myself, ‘What are you doing? What benefit does baseball provide society anyway? What is the purpose of life?’’’
Around that time, a Muslim friend shared some Islamic lectures with Bhardwaj. ‘‘I opened a Koran and started reading it, and it worked,’’ he says. Bhardwaj decided to travel in the Muslim world and quit his job. He and his friend went to Egypt. It was there that Bhardwaj converted, while studying with a local sheik in 6th of October City outside Cairo.
There was tension when he returned home. ‘‘I don’t think I’ve ever made my mom cry except for two times,’’ he says, ‘‘and one of those times was when I told her I converted.’’
Bhardwaj says his mother has become supportive after seeing how he has found his place at Zaytuna. Bhardwaj was drawn to the college to study Islamic principles of economics and transactional law.
‘‘I thinkMuslims have a lot to offer in the field of finance,’’ he says, especially given ‘‘the corruption on Wall Street.’’
Zaytuna’s coordinator of learning outside the classroom, Dawood Yasin, says the college wants students ‘‘to think outside the masjid,’’ using the Arabic word for mosque. ‘‘How are we going to engage the broader community if we’re only working within our own community?’’ he asks.
Yasin is also a convert. He was raised Catholic and is a fourth-generation native of Nantucket, Massachusetts. So it’s pretty ironic, he says, ‘‘when people give me the finger and say, ‘Go back to your country!’’’
Yasin worked as a fashion model in the 1990s in New York, Paris, and South Africa. It was while working in South Africa that he converted.
‘‘A lot of times conversion stories are about hitting rock bottom, but I was doing quite well in South Africa, doing TV, and print, and runway,’’ he says. ‘‘But I was asking myself, ‘What does this all mean?’’’
After converting, Yasin backpacked around the Muslim world and studied at an Islamic seminary in Damascus, eventually coming back to the United States, working as an Arabic teaching assistant at Yale and later studying at Dartmouth.
At Zaytuna, he leads service education trips with students, in which they work with non-Muslims through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and with state forestry departments. He also sets up volunteer experiences for students at places such as domestic violence shelters.
Some students traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, last year after the death of Michael Brown, to work as community organizers.
Yasin’s focus with the students is not a ‘‘feel-good Islam,’’ he says. Yasin wants students to think about their faith in the context of issues such as poverty and the environment.
‘‘How do I buy that pint of strawberries that I know is being picked by people who don’t have access to healthcare or education?’’ he asks students, when ‘‘the Koran is telling me to eat that which is pure.’’
‘‘The Koran talks to you through the natural world,’’ Yasin says. ‘‘It’s talking about the mountains and the sky and the rivers and the stars.’’
He adds: ‘‘The Koran serves as a reminder to you to be mindful of your responsibility.’’
Sophomore Iman Hamze is a nineteen-year-old Bay Area native. A first-generation American, her mother is South African and her father is Lebanese. She was raised Muslim. Part of what attracted Hamze to Zaytuna was the chance to study Arabic intensively. She eventually wants to teach the language, ‘‘so that more people can know what the religion is really about. If you can read the Koran, you can figure out the religion for yourself, so it’s not just people feeding it to you.’’
Hamze has three older sisters, but she’s the only one of the children in her family to wear the hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women, which is not required at Zaytuna. ‘‘My mom wore the hijab and really wanted me to,’’ she says. ‘‘And I never really cared what people thought.’’
For Hamze, wearing the hijab hasn’t been isolating. On the contrary, it’s been a way for her to connect with non-Muslims. ‘‘I guess people have this idea of women in Islam, that they’re oppressed,’’ Hamze says. ‘‘For me the hijab is empowering. I like that it makes me stand out. People ask me about it. Or they ask me about the way I live my life. And I can talk to them and they can see that we’re just like everyone else.’’
‘‘Things are really bleak in the Muslim world,’’ says Colleen Keyes, the dean of students at Zaytuna. ‘‘There’s so much suffering.’’
Keyes believes these ‘‘miserable conditions’’ draw people to extremist Islamic groups. But, she says, those radical views reflect ignorance of Muslim traditions, and ‘‘people around the world are hungry for solid scholarship and thought that makes sense.’’
Originally from New Haven, Connecticut, Keyes was raised Catholic. She converted to Islam in the late 1980s. She was teaching English at a community college and had several Muslim students. She wanted to learn more about Islam and in the process realized that the religion resonated with her in ways that Catholicism hadn’t.
Her family was taken aback, especially when she began praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan. ‘‘My mom said, ‘Can’t you find an easier religion?’’’ says Keyes. ‘‘And my sister said, ‘I give her six months.’’’
Keyes taught at an Islamic university in the United Arab Emirates in the 1990s, before returning to the United States to work in community college administration. Keyes is the first woman in administration at Zaytuna. ‘‘Some of the women wish there were more female scholars,’’ she says. ‘‘I tell them that when they get their Ph.D. they can come back and be those female scholars. We’re waiting.’’
She adds: ‘‘American Muslim women have high goals. As they pursue those goals, there will be change. Change has always been part of the Islamic tradition. Wherever it has gone, it has adapted to its environment. I don’t know how there could be anything but change.’’
One Friday my Christian girlfriend joined me for prayers at the mosque and asked me why she found a watering can in her bathroom stall. The Prophet Muhammed instructed us to clean our anuses with water, I told her. To me, growing up around Muslim families in Southern California, a watering can evokes a bidet, not plants. The conversation led me to consider all those objects that I, and other Muslims in California, have repurposed for shari’a—which literally means ‘‘the path to water’’ (although is usually translated as ‘‘Islamic Law’’).
Gym towels can become prayer rugs in a pinch. Clippers keep my pubic hair trimmed as the Prophet Muhammad commanded me. Usually worn on trips to the beach, flip-flops take on a new meaning in my mosque bathroom where they are used for ritual cleanliness. While stuck in traffic I’ve seen drivers pull over, unfurl spare yoga mats kept in the trunk, and lay prostrate on the shoulder of the highway right before the distant sun sets into the Pacific. Each of these objects takes on different meanings through a Muslim lens.
Capturing shari’a in California was both challenging and illuminating. First came the realization of habit. Do I even know why I perform the rituals I do? Second was the difficulty of locating masader, religious sources, for those everyday practices. Finally, I worried how ancient religious texts or practices might look or sound—archaic, cryptic, crude?—to Western sensibilities, both Muslim and non-Muslim. This discomfort, however, underscored the need I felt to locate Quranic verses or hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) for each photograph, each practice in my life.
The objects depicted here, and by extension my faith, give me comfort. To represent their rawness and sanctity, the photographs are not adjusted for white balance or effect. These things symbolize the practices of my faith. The materials may be mundane, but they have come to inhabit sacred spaces. This photographic essay was produced for Shari’a Revoiced, a project of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, led by Mark Fathi Massoud and Kathleen M. Moore, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.
‘‘O ye who believe! Celebrate the praises of Allah, and do this often.’’ (Quran 33:41)
‘‘O ye who believe! When ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles. If ye are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body. But if ye are ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from offices of nature, or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands, Allah doth not wish to place you in a difficulty, but to make you clean, and to complete his favour to you, that ye may be grateful.’’ (Quran 5:6)
‘‘Never stand thou forth therein. The mosque whose foundation was laid from the first day on piety is more worthy of the standing forth (for prayer) therein. In it are men who love to be purified; and Allah loveth those who make themselves pure.’’ (Quran 9:108)
‘‘O you who believe! when the call is made for prayer on Friday, then hasten to the remembrance of Allah and leave off trading; that is better for you, if you know.’’ (Quran 62:9)
‘‘And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live.’’ (Quran 19:31)
‘‘Prophet Muhammad said: Cleanliness is half of faith.’’ (Narrated by Muslim 2:432)
Mustafa Rony Zenois a filmmaker, photographer, cultural anthropologist, and educator reared in Syria and living in his birthplace, Los Angeles. His work focuses on fringes and the spaces between culture and in religion.
‘‘Really?’’ Khadija, an elderly Muslim woman in Los Angeles, looked up at us when she heard that California may have more Muslims than any other American state.1 We were interviewing Khadija for a research project documenting American Muslims’ experiences of shari’a—roughly translated as ‘‘Islamic law.’’ Unconvinced, she probed, ‘‘Even more Muslims than in Michigan?’’ We nodded in reply. Khadija paused, her eyes relaxed, and her lips parted to reveal a smile.
Muslims are the world’s fastest growing religious group, and thousands of American Muslims have chosen to make California home.2 But the Golden State is not always a welcoming place. After all, anti-mosque rally organizers in Temecula recently brought dozens of dogs to a Muslim prayer center—behavior considered insulting—and declared that California’s Muslims ‘‘are trained to kill’’ and will ‘‘impose shari’a’’ over a ‘‘Christian’’ state.3
But California is home to a growing number of Islamic faith-based groups. Both of America’s leading Muslim civil rights organizations have Californian roots. The Muslim Public Affairs Council is based in Los Angeles and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, while headquartered in the East, opened its first chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Another prominent organization is the Los Angeles–based Muslims for Progressive Values, which runs its own lecture series at the United Nations. Its Grammy award-winning cofounder, Ani Zonneveld, recently celebrated iftar—breaking the day’s fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan—at the White House. America’s first accredited Muslim liberal arts college, Zaytuna College, was founded in Berkeley.4 An Islamic graduate school, Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, opened its doors outside of Los Angeles in 2011.
California also marks an important place in Islamic historical records. According to Karen Leonard, an anthropologist and historian of Muslims in America, Muslim immigration to the United States has early twentieth-century roots in California, when Muslim and non-Muslim Punjabi farmers moved to the state from South Asia.5 Bi-ethnic marriages generated descendants with names such as John Mohammed and Ricardo Khan.6 (Immigrant farmers in California were not the first Muslims in the North America. Muslim slaves were brought to the East Coast as early as the eighteenth century.7)
Today, California is arguably the epicenter of a revolution in Islamic political and legal thinking. What we might call a ‘‘California spring’’ flows not from ulama, Islamic scholars and intellectuals, nor from street protests, but from the collective lived experiences of Californian Muslims. California’s Muslims come from many political, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and those who shared their stories with us are actively rethinking justice, unpacking identities, and navigating porous boundaries between culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
Californian Muslims are putting into action a remarkable fusion of diversity and optimism, both for California and for Islam. This diversity and optimism can be found in the same unlikely spaces where Californians have always innovated—at work, at school, at the beach, and in the car stuck in traffic between work, school, and the beach, or simply at home in the living room or in the garage.
With a University of California–based research team, we have spent the last two years talking confidentially with Muslim women and men in at least ten counties across northern and southern California, including younger and older Californian Muslims, married couples (together and separately), divorced Californian Muslims (some with multiple divorces behind them), and Californian Muslims of African American, Arab, European, Latino, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and mixed ancestry, among many others. We have met those born into the faith and those who converted, those who lead Friday prayers at mosques, those who attend Friday prayers, and those whom scholars would label as the ‘‘unmosqued.’’
We knew that the voices and experiences of California’s diverse Muslim communities were rarely considered in academic literature. So we began each of the more than one hundred interviews we conducted by asking people to tell us about how they faced moments of change in their lives and whether and how religion came up in the process of overcoming life’s challenges. Interviewees also discussed how they understood shari’a and their hopes for the future. The interviews were semi-structured and lasted from forty-five minutes to three hours, with most about ninety minutes long.
What follows are three composite sketches of Californian Muslims who have used shari’a to inform their decisions about local politics, social justice, and daily life. These stories illustrate a contemporary Islam that is as diverse and hopeful as California is, and a contemporary California that is as diverse and hopeful as California’s Muslim communities are.
The sketches are largely direct or paraphrased quotes from multiple interview transcripts, with transitions added for context and flow. They reflect a preliminary synthesis of several themes emerging from the interviews. For confidentiality, and because of the composite nature of the characters, names and other identifying characteristics have been changed.
The vignettes, below, cannot purport to represent the full panoply of individuals, experiences, and practices in California’s Muslim communities, or even any permanent change in Islam that may be taking place.8 But change begins with everyday stories. These stories of Muslims in California give meaning to shari’a and an insight into the struggles of faith, powers of discernment, and small and large breakthroughs in Islam.
Three photographs from The Most Beautiful Names by Shireen Alihaji, which examines the transition of Muslim names across immigration and socio-political events within the U.S.
Noura: Finding Justice in the Qur’an
What is shari’a to me? It is healthy living. It is caring for the environment and others. It is peace, justice, equality, and freedom. That is what shari’a stands for, and eventually people in California are going to see that.
But some people here do not yet understand Islam, let alone shari’a. Let me give you an example. I was with my father when he was in the hospital before he died. He had come to settle in Los Angeles thirty years earlier with my mother as immigrants from Iran. They started a business here together. It’s now a decades-old family business not far from Griffith Park. So there I was with my father at the hospital and, at one point, I asked the hospital staff if they could lend me a copy of the Qur’an so that I may pray. They only had Christian books, they said. ‘‘No one has donated any copies of the Qur’an to our hospital.’’ So I went back home and returned to the hospital with my personal copy so that I could pray at my father’s bedside. After he died, I left my copy of the Qur’an with the hospital staff. I hope to purchase and donate ten more copies to them.
My parents are actually secular Iranians and never wanted any of their daughters to wear the veil. But two years after I took my shahada, I began to wear the veil. At that time my mother asked me, ‘‘Can’t you be Christian, Jewish, or something else?’’ She and my father had escaped the mullahs of Iran in search of freedom, she told me. To think, I used to be an atheist. She worried I would become like the mullah in their household. I wore the veil because Muslims are misrepresented in the media and I was motivated by my hope that Californians would perceive my niceness and not just my hijab.
In addition to my father’s death, there’s another moment that shaped how I came to understand the power of shari’a. Back in 2008, California voters were deciding whether or not to repeal the law that allowed same-sex marriage. It was called Proposition 8. I was planning to vote yes, which would have repealed that law and banned gay marriage. But I realized that, before I vote, I should educate myself on what my religion says I should do. So I looked more into shari’a. After much study, I realized that, no, ‘‘Islamically,’’ voting yes is not the right thing to do.
I reread parts of the Qur’an and I listened to online sheikhs who spoke about justice. I prayed and thought about it in the car on my way to and from work. I had a lot of time, you know, sitting in traffic on the long commute on the 405 jammed with cars between Long Beach and Orange County. My imam, too, has spoken of the importance of living out principles of justice and equality that are central to shari’a. And I thought, hey, that’s what shari’a is.
Back in 2008 I did not agree with gay marriage. But I still voted no on Prop. 8. It wasn’t an easy decision for me. I felt like I was doing something that was too ‘‘liberal.’’ But my views on gay marriage have changed because of my knowledge of shari’a.
Aisha: Super-Powered in a T-Shirt
I don’t think that God hates me for choosing not to wear a hijab. But some people sure seem like they hate me for it. Last week I went to masjid wearing a T-shirt. A nice, modest, loosely fitting T-shirt. Then some girl, Mona—I don’t know her—said to me, ‘‘Sister, you have to wear a hijab in the mosque or you are going to hell.’’
‘‘Sister, I’m sorry,’’ I replied. ‘‘You can’t say shit about what I’m wearing. That’s between me and God.’’
That’s not quite what I said. Actually, I stopped after the word ‘‘sorry.’’ But I wanted to say the rest.
I wanted to remind my sister Mona that I don’t look like a whore just because I wear a T-shirt. I dress modestly, just like every other girl in my huge, extended South Asian family. My clothing is not considered weird on the streets of Santa Monica, and people don’t sexualize me simply because I’m wearing short sleeves. But as soon as I cross that sidewalk or driveway into the masjid, I become hyperaware of my clothing. Why? Because people in the masjid worry I might be sexualized.
But, guess what, sister? People sexualize me whether I’m wearing the hijab or not. I know what whistling sounds like and what it connotes. I know what those men are doing to women when they whistle at us on the street. So I understand the values of wearing the hijab. At the same time, I don’t wear the hijab because it, too, draws attention. It says, ‘‘Look at me. I’m wearing a hijab. Look at my body.’’ I don’t want attention like that on the streets, but that’s how I’d feel if I wore a hijab. So I wear T-shirts.
Maybe Mona is one of those girls who covers herself on Huntington Beach while her husband soaks in the sunshine in shorts and flip-flops. He doesn’t even have to wear a T-shirt. Does that make it a shari’a-compliant beach?
Why is it that some people tell me I’m going to hell for not wearing the hijab? In my heart of hearts, I know God would not do that to me. Muslims, especially young ones growing up here in California, need to stop thinking of Islam as all the things that we cannot do. Instead, we need to start thinking of all of the things that Islam encourages us to do.
How is our Islam going to inspire us to fight for economic and social justice, to fight for racial equality, to fight against the various forms of inequity we see in our society and our surrounding communities? I’m invested in helping young people like me to make that switch, to see shari’a as more than just words that we use like ma’sha Allah. I want us to see shari’a as a personal and collective fight against injustice. Islamic teachings themselves are my fuel in this process. Shari’a adds passion to my fight to help the underdog.
You know, I’ve spent the last year educating myself about my faith. Actually, I’ve been super-powering my Islamic self. I’ve also been exploring what Islam says about women, from the perspective of women scholars. My friends ask me how I’ve learned so much about Islam. I have read books, watched videos on YouTube, and done a lot of internal studying and reflecting. I have been looking—like, digging and digging—and trying to find spiritual realities to this tradition. It moves my soul to learn about Islam from learned scholars and sheikhs, or simply listening to Surat Baqara on my sound system at home or in the car. I even tweet Hadith, prophetic teachings, to my followers.
One day, I want to have a husband who also has a strong Islamic sense of being, and I want to be able to pass that message of faith on to my kids. And one day in a perfect California, I want to be part of an Islamic enlightenment. This Islamic enlightenment is long overdue.
Ali: Open Source Shari’a
Shari’a is different. It’s like open source coding, where each engineer adds line after line, layer after layer, of code. Each person makes the code stronger and more integrated. We strengthen shari’a in California by being better people to our loved ones, to our coworkers, and to our neighbors, one person at a time.
Shari’a is also finding a smooth flow between the layers of my religious values and the various aspects of my identity, as an Arab Muslim, a father to an adopted child, a professional engineer, and a civic activist speaking in school classrooms about Islamic faith.
Islam is a religion I love. But it’s being hijacked, even here in California. If I don’t stand up and define myself and my religion, then somebody else will do it for me. When the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, practiced the shari’a, you know, it was not the excessively legalistic codes and punishment laws that you hear about in the media. Ninety-nine percent of the shari’a was about personal kindness, generosity, and caring for people. Politically, shari’a was about how to make peace and limit war between adversaries.
Shari’a is about how to do business ethically, how to raise your family morally, how to treat your family with love, and how to treat your neighbors with kindness. That is the example of shari’a that I share with Californians. It’s like a legal system, but it’s so much more personal. It’s an ethical code for living.
Shari’a is not just the five pillars and eating halal meat and refraining from alcohol and going to masjid on Fridays. Shari’a is also not just reeducating my neighbor who once said to me, ‘‘I know you and your wife and your kids are nice people. But are you the exceptions in Islam? Are you Americanized Muslims? Has California tamed you?’’ Shari’a is more than all that.
My advocacy work on behalf of Islam and the example I set in my life urges people—even decent people who are either misinformed or uninformed—to rethink what is shari’a. Islamic values of contributing to society and caring for others help to shape the American system. At the same time, I’m learning about myself. As an American, I do not have to lose my Muslim identity. To be an American, for me, is to be Muslim.
Mark Fathi Massoudis associate professor of politics and legal studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, and visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Program in Law and Public Affairs. He is the author of Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan.
Kathleen M. Mooreis professor and chair of religious studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on the regulation of religious self-determination in secular-democratic societies, emergent forms of Muslim legality and political engagement, and Islam and gender in diaspora. She is the author of The Unfamiliar Abode: Islamic Law in the United States and Britain.
Photographs from The Most Beautiful Names by Shireen Alihaji, which examines the transition of Muslim names across immigration and socio-political events within the U.S.
This essay is part of Shari’a Revoiced (www.shariarevoiced.org), a project of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, led by Mark Fathi Massoud and Kathleen M. Moore, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation. We thank Shahab Malik, who provided valuable research assistance, and Maria Ebrahimji, who provided helpful feedback. Transliterations are our own; simple apostrophes are used to represent diacritical marks. This work would not have been possible without the kindness of many respondents in California.
1 All names have been changed to preserve confidentiality. In 2000, the Association of Religion Data Archives listed approximately 260,000 Muslims in California, more than in any other US state. In 2014, the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life estimated that California and New York each had approximately 400,000 Muslims (1% of Californians and 2% of New Yorkers). See Association of Religion Data Archives, ‘‘ARDA State Membership Report-California,’’ (http://www.thearda.com/mapsReports/reports/state/06_2000.asp) and Pew Research Center, ‘‘America’s Changing Religious Landscape,’’(http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americaschanging-religious-landscape/).
2 Pew Research Center, ‘‘The Future of World Religions: Population Growth, Projections, 2010–2050 – Why Muslims are Rising Fastest and the Unaffiliated are Shrinking as a Share of the World’s Population,’’ 2 April 2015.
3 Phil Whillon, ‘‘California: Facing Off Over Temecula Mosque,’’ Los Angeles Times. 31 July 2010, A3.
5 Karen I. Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).
6 Ibid., 6.
7 Edward E. Curtis IV, The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014). According to historian Michael Gomez, ‘‘Of the estimated 481,000 Africans imported into British North America during the slave trade, nearly 255,000 came from areas influenced by Islam. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Muslims arrived in North America by the thousands, if not tens of thousands.’’ See Michael A. Gomez, Black Crescent: the Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 166.
8 While many people agreed to share their experiences with us, some declined to participate. In one case, a South Asian man known to be socially conservative in his mosque claimed his perspective would not be suitable for academic study, despite our requests to hear from him.
The Vatican’s Man in Paris Is a California Scientist
Editor’s note: Veerabhadran Ramanathan—everyone calls him “Ram”—was home for a few days over Thanksgiving. He was between a trip to the Vatican and the Paris climate summit when we caught up with him at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. His office is high up on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A long, curving swell broke gently on the beach far below. A sea breeze blew in through an open window. Ram spoke softly, deliberately, as if in the eye of a hurricane, a storm of historic proportions that has blown him around the world with an increasing sense of urgency. A climate scientist—he discovered that chloroflourcarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration were greenhouse gases—Ram recently led an interdisciplinary group of fifty researchers and scholars from around the University of California who produced a report for the Paris climate summit entitled “Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability.” The report was embraced by Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano, who has pledged that the University of California will become carbon neutral by 2025. Ram is taking the report, which draws on lessons learned in California, to the Paris summit, as a member of Pope Francis’s delegation from the Holy See. Between preparations, emails, and phone calls with the governor’s office and the Vatican, Ram sat down to talk with Boom editor Jon Christensen, who was also senior editor on “Bending the Curve,” about climate change, science, and religion; the road to Paris; and what comes next.
Boom: How did an engineer end up on the Holy See’s delegation to the Paris climate summit?
Ramanathan: That’s a long story. And nobody has asked me that particular question, so let me reconstruct it.
I got my undergraduate degree in engineering in India. Then I worked a few years in the refrigeration industry. I didn’t know that six years from the time I left India, that work experience was going to have a huge impact on what I did and would be what eventually took me to the Vatican.
My job was to figure out why these refrigerants—later we came to know them as freons—were escaping so quickly from refrigeration units. In India, these units would come back within six months, and they had lost all their refrigerants.
At the time, I didn’t see the wisdom of what was happening there, so I hated my job and I hated engineering. I also didn’t have too much confidence that I was good for anything. I mainly went to small-town schools because my father was a traveling salesman, selling Goodyear tires. So my education to high school was primarily in the local regional language, Tamil. And then, in high school I moved to Bangalore. That was the city the British used for their military, so school was in English. And I quickly dropped from the top of the class to the bottom of the class. I didn’t know what they were talking about. But that had a profound impact on me, which still carries with me to this day. I stopped learning from others. I stopped listening to my teachers because I didn’t understand what they were saying, so I had to figure out things on my own.
I struggled through high school, and my grades weren’t good enough. So I couldn’t get into good engineering schools, and I went to a second-tier engineering school. I already knew engineering was not my calling. The two years in the refrigeration industry made it clear to me that I was not going to be an engineer. And it turned out I had a good break. The Indian Institute of Science admitted me to do a master’s degree. The primary reason I applied for the master’s degree is that I thought it would be a ticket to come to the U.S.
Because my father was a tire salesman, he used to bring home these beautiful brochures of Impala cars. They were selling Goodyear tires, and, of course, there were beautiful people, beautiful women in the cars. I was too young to notice the women, but I noticed the cars. So I got hooked. I thought, “I need to go to the U.S. and own one of these cars, and enjoy the good American life.” I think the story in my head was that milk and honey would be dropping out of the trees.
But, at the Indian Institute of Science, which was, for me, a ticket to the U.S., my grades were not good enough. So they didn’t put me through a degree program where you have to attend courses, because I was very bad at listening to others and spitting out information. That was what education in India was—just memorizing. So they asked me to go into the research track and build an interferometer, a high-precision optical instrument to study turbulence. The interferometer measures very accurate fluctuations in temperature. In retrospect, that’s an impossible project to do, but I took it. It took me three years, but we did build an interferometer, for the first time in India. And I learned what I am good at, which is research, and doing things which others give up as not possible. So, I finally had this confidence back in me.
So then I came to the U.S. to study engineering and get a job in a tire company. Goodyear was my ambition because my father worked there. But my adviser, the day I walked into his office, said he was tired of engineering. I liked him for that. I could relate to that. He switched to studying the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. So that’s where my work was—reconstructing the greenhouse effects on Mars and Venus, where they have pure carbon dioxide atmospheres
Boom: Did this mode of learning on your own, and having to do things yourself, continue through your graduate degrees and into your research on climate change?
Ramanathan: Yes, right through, because I still never believe anything I read or what others tell me unless I can try it out myself, either through a thought experiment or designing an experiment to do that.
When I finished my Ph.D., I couldn’t get a job studying planetary atmospheres, but NASA took me in their reentry physics section. They wanted me to build a model of the atmosphere. And since I’d worked on the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, I started reading papers on that. There was a famous report from Swedish Academy of Science that said, in terms of man’s impact, carbon dioxide is the only thing you need to worry about—and, of course, I didn’t believe that. And this was 1974, and I saw this paper by Mario Molina and Sherman Rowland talking about CFCs causing damage to the ozone layer. And it was the CFCs that I was trying to prevent from escaping in my job in India.
Boom: From the refrigerators?
Ramanathan: Yes. I could immediately relate to that. I said, this must have a strong greenhouse effect. And, in fact, my former adviser, Bob Cess, said, “Oh, you are wasting your time. Carbon dioxide is obviously the greenhouse gas.” So I did that work, and, of course, it showed CFCs were 10,000 times more potent. The CFC work was a breakthrough. That paper got me into the climate field. Paul Crutzen read it—he’s a Nobel Laureate—Ralph Cicerone, who is the President of the National Academy of Sciences, read it. He was the one who reviewed it. So it got me from being an obscure guy from India into the mainstream of climate and atmospheric science.
Boom: Now you’re very much in the mainstream. You’re going to the Paris climate summit as part of the Holy See’s delegation. How did you begin to work with the Vatican and the Pope?
Ramanathan: In the 1990s, one thing led to another. I did a major field study in the Indian Ocean with six aircraft and two ships. There were over two hundred scientists from around the world—the U.S., Europe, and India. And we discovered this vast pollution cloud. I remember the last day. We used to fly mainly in the Arabian Sea because of the pollution coming from India over the Arabian Sea. But on the last flight, I wanted to go to the other side and fly over the Bay of Bengal. That’s where my hometown is on the east coast. And I saw it buried under this massive, thick pollution cloud. I think that did something to me. I said, “Now I cannot leave these billion people to deal with this. I have to do something.”
So this was on my mind when I turned sixty in 2004. I looked at my life’s work. There was a big celebration. Three Nobel laureates were here, and they were talking about my work. And I felt in my gut that all I’ve done is bring one piece of bad news after another about what’s happening to the planet. That celebration made me happy, but it really made me sad and depressed about how my life’s work was such a huge, you know, waste. I thought I should work on solutions.
About that time, I got an invitation from the new U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to come to the General Assembly and address a bunch of high school kids. That was the first meeting he organized—not world leaders but high school kids from around the world. He asked us to talk to them about the environment and climate change, so I talked about this brown cloud from India. And at that meeting a girl from Ethiopia came up to me and said, “Look, you made us cry, but tell me what you are doing?” I couldn’t tell her anything. I was just still carrying on my life. Not being able to answer her was a major thing for me.
And then within six months, I get this email from the Vatican, inviting me to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which was, of course, a huge honor. Paul Crutzen, whom I had met after the CFC work, was a member and he promoted me as a member. Four or five years into the academy, I proposed to organize a meeting myself. Our meetings were mainly on science, but this was about what we are doing to the environment and how do we become better stewards of the planet. We talked about larger issues. So it was at that meeting in 2011 that I realized, my goodness, this church could be used as an agent of change.
I teamed up with the social scientists—the Vatican has two academies, an Academy of Sciences and an Academy of Social Sciences—so that we could organize a meeting on sustainability. I came up with a title, “Sustainability of Nature.” And an economist from the Academy of Social Sciences added “Sustainability of Humanity.” We submitted this. And the church had somebody co-organize these conferences with us. They had Archbishop Roland Minnerath from France, and he added a third third title, “Our Responsibility.” So that’s how the church was slowly working with religion and was slowly changing me. I never thought about this before. But you cannot find a single scientific paper that says “our responsibility.” They all talk about sustainability, global warming, this and that, but not our responsibility.
We proposed that meeting in 2012, and the church reviewed it in 2013, after which the Pope has to agree to it. I briefed Pope Benedict. He was very supportive, but by the time we got to organizing it, he had stepped down, and then Pope Francis got really very supportive. He wrote the cover letter for the invitation, so we could get anybody we wanted. And we assembled the top thirty leaders from various disciplines in May 2014.
And I said, “I need to find out who’s responsible for this.” Looking at available data showed most of the pollution was coming from the top one billion. I then realized this is not a problem of population. It’s a problem of overconsumption. Population is a huge issue—I don’t want to discount it—for climate change. But the bottom three billion, their contribution is less than 5 percent. We have left behind 40 percent of the population. They don’t get enough energy. So I talked about that. That meeting, for me, was really a defining meeting. Our conclusion was that the solution to the problem of sustainability requires a fundamental change in our attitude towards each other and towards nature.
Normally at these meetings, we have a chance to talk to the Pope. But this pope had become a superhero. He was on the front pages. Time magazine was considering him for the “man of the year.” There was a huge demand on his time. So just three hours before we were to close the meeting a note was passed to me that Pope Francis would see you. We quickly closed the meeting and rushed to see him.
Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Pope Francis in 2014. Photograph by Gabriella Marino/Vatican.
Normally, we have an audience with the Pope in the most breathtaking hall in the Basilica. So we were waiting just outside the Basilica, and suddenly I see someone getting out of a small Fiat. It was Pope Francis, right in the parking lot in front of us. And I was told, “The Pope is very busy. You have three sentences to summarize this meeting to him.”
So I think the first one I told him was something like, “We are members of your Academy, we are here on your behalf, and we are all worried about climate change.”
Then the second sentence I told him was that most of the pollution comes from the wealthy one billion on the planet, whereas the poorest three billion are going to suffer the worst consequences. Of course, that would have come like music to his ears. That’s what the Pope was primarily thinking: the poor are going to suffer the worst. So then he asked me, in that picture where he’s looking at me, he asked what he can do about it. But I’m looking at Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the Chancellor of the Academy, because he translated what the Pope said.
Marcelo said, “The Holy Father wants to know what he can do about it.” So I told him, “You are so well-known. In your speeches, if you say people should be better stewards of the planet, that will be enough.” And that was it.
Ten days later he was with the Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Orthodox Church, and they made a decision to work on climate change. So I thought, after meeting with him, “My God, we now have science and religion working together.” Now it has become accepted that climate change is a moral issue.
Boom: And that came out in the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, which I remember you saying, when we first met, had done more to communicate the importance of climate change and the importance of solving this problem for people and for the planet than scientists had done in decades.
Ramanathan: It’s not to put down what the scientists have done.
Boom: No, no.
Ramanathan: You need the science, but I would go beyond that. I think this Pope, in less than a year, has done more for climate change and more to stop this disastrous experiment we are doing than all the leaders I know. In my view, he has certainly had more impact than Al Gore on our thinking. Gore had a huge impact, but nothing like this Pope’s influence.
Boom: What is that core connection between religion and climate change?
Ramanathan: There’s a core connection, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The core connection is, first of all, what are scientists trying to tell us? That nature has limited capacity to deal with our pollution. We are past that capacity. That we have to take care of nature. But that’s what all religions say: protect nature. We call it Mother Earth. So there is a convergence with what religion says—all the religions. I think that’s the beauty of it. This issue can unite all the religions, unlike any other issue, right? We are divided by our skin color, we are divided by our language, and we are divided by our religion. But environment unites all of that. And there is also this tussle between science and religions, when you talk about evolution, when you talk about genomes, but not environment. So that’s the part I feel we can exploit or capture, to stop this disastrous experiment on climate.
The symbiotic relationship, now that I’ve gone on this path it is very clear to me, is that climate change is a moral issue, on many dimensions. You know, nature was given to us to protect. Okay, we can enjoy it, but not abuse it. The abusing part is only justifiable if nature has infinite capacity. Then we can cut all the trees we want. There will be more trees. We know that’s not the case. We know that’s not the case with air pollution. When you see that we are changing the color of the sky, it’s clear. We have a limit, so that’s a moral issue. The second moral issue is intra-generational morality—one billion people finishing up the carbon in the planet, not worrying about what it does to the others. And the third moral issue is that climate change lasts tens of thousands of years, so we are condemning generations unborn to our unsustainable ways.
As a scientist, I can’t talk about that. I wonder even if our political leaders can. But faith leaders can. That’s what we go to the church, our temples, for—morality and moral behavior. So that’s symbiotic. Science provides the evidence, and religion can pick it up.
The Dalai Lama accepts a framed image of a Sirsoe dalailamai, a deep-sea worm named after him in honor of his 80th birthday. He is photographed with Scripps geophysicist Walter Munk and climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
Boom: And the Dalai Lama is involved as well?
Ramanathan: Yes. I was lucky to be involved with the Dalai Lama when he came here four years ago for a major public event. And then his eightieth birthday celebration was held in July 2015, and I was in the event with him. He talked about climate change. And he, of course, translated beautifully that the way to solve the problem is to have compassion without borders. If what we are doing is affecting somebody else or is affecting Greenland glaciers, we have to have compassion for that. So we have the Pope and we have the Dalai Lama.
Boom: That’s pretty good.
Ramanathan: It’s a great start.
Boom: Do you consider yourself a religious man?
Ramanathan: I would say I’m not an atheist. I’m like most people—I don’t know how to define myself. I’m certainly spiritual. And I honestly don’t know. The reason I hesitate to say I’m religious is that I find religions are dividing us. It’s supposed to unite us, right? Because if there is a God, there has to be only one God. We can’t have competition up there!
So, I’m thinking, why are we all fighting about this? It doesn’t matter what name we call that God, if you agree that God is monotheism. So that’s why I hesitate. I don’t know any more what religion means. Religion looks like it’s a source for killing each other or separating ourselves. It’s one more thing which divides us, whereas spirituality…. See, that’s the thing I think of Pope Francis as—as a moral leader for the world. I have to go back to Gandhi in India. He led a moral fight against the British and won that battle. No big armies could beat the British, but this guy, a topless Indian. I think of Pope Francis like that.
Boom: But a single man can’t solve climate change, right? Everybody has to do something. And how do you communicate that? So far, for many of us, climate change has seemed like this big, huge problem that’s out there. It’s a global problem. Governments need to deal with it. I can’t do anything about it. I’ve got other stuff to worry about.
Ramanathan: I agree with you. I’m not an expert in this field, but something like 45 percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, or at least they don’t believe you have to do anything about it. That is a catastrophic failure of communication. It’s not a failure of those 45 percent. So then you ask, where have we failed? I don’t know, but listening to the Pope, and listening to what they did to the title of my meeting, “Our Responsibility,” I think we have not brought it to a personal level. We pointed to Exxon and Chevron as the villains.
I was looking for a villain for forty years. Then I found there are two worlds—my world and this bottom three billion world. When I lived in India, I used to go back and forth every five or six days. It was then that I found I was the villain I was looking for. I can’t blame Exxon. I made that choice, right?
So I’m wondering, if people realize they are responsible, whether they will be more amenable to change, because if you are responsible, you can change. And the other thing I’m thinking is that my driving an SUV here could make some villagers in Africa or India homeless, because global warming causes drought. And we know Americans, as a nation, are generous, right? You have earthquakes. You have disasters. American kids are sent there to help, and we send our money, and our clothes. So I’m wondering whether we can tap into that generosity of Americans, if we make it, “Hey, be careful. If you do something, your great-grandchildren, who we have not seen, are going to suffer for it, or somebody sitting in a small village in Kenya, or Rajasthan in India, they’re going to lose their homes because of us.”
I don’t know if that will work or not. I certainly like Pope Francis’s approach, making it our responsibility.
Boom: That’s interesting. It reminds me of the recent poll that showed that the great majority of Americans believe climate change is real, that it’s caused by people, and that they can’t do anything about it. So it’s the third part that we need to change.
Ramanathan: That we can do something about it. But the key first step is we feel responsible for it. I think that’s what the Pope did. See, he made you responsible for it, you and I.
Boom: What do we need to do to succeed in what you have called bending the curve of climate change?
Ramanathan: It’s a technology problem. But my feeling is, having worked with researchers from across the UC system on our report on the top ten solutions, that the technology is there, by and large, to get us halfway there. But I think the first thing it requires, is changing our attitude towards nature. We discussed this last week at the Vatican during a meeting on education for sustainability. We have to start teaching this, from kindergarten on.
We need to educate our kids right now. And the reason is, no matter what we do, we’re still going to face a two-degree warming that many of us think in itself would be quite disastrous. They have to face it, so we have to prepare. We have to prepare them with how to cope with it and how not to repeat our stupid mistakes. And everyone has to know that nature is limited. It has boundaries. That work has to be done immediately in our educational institutions.
I am sad to say, even outstanding universities like UC have not caught on. We don’t see the urgency. I admire what our president did, in pledging carbon neutrality by 2025, but I don’t see that in our education. If I was the chancellor, no undergraduate could graduate without taking one or two courses on the environment. It has to be like literature, part of a broad education. So that has to change.
And I think the second thing is we’ve got to work with the religions. Each one of us, we all go to our church, and I said I’m not religious, but I’m willing to go to church and temple for this. And the third is we have to educate our neighbors, our relatives. Those of us who know it’s a problem, it’s on us. We have to do that. It’s not enough to write our papers anymore. We have to write our papers. But I think people working on environment and climate change have a responsibility beyond writing papers.
This societal transformation, to me, would be the top of my agenda. The rest will follow.
Boom: What do you hope to accomplish in Paris?
Ramanathan: Well, you see, until about three or four days ago my role was more peripheral. I was going to be participating in side events. But I was told that I’m one of the official member delegates of the Holy See now, so I’ve been going back and forth on what exactly is my role. They send a science advisor to help them with their proposals and negotiations, so what I’m hoping, I don’t know if I have that authority, what I’d like to see happen is the Vatican, as a nation, push for a big part of climate financing to go to the bottom three billion, to give them clean energy access, for a number of reasons. They can bypass us and go to renewable energy because they don’t have the infrastructure. They don’t have huge coal-fired power plants to dismantle. They have nothing. So it’s easy to construct distributed power plants. I am going there with a mission, to raise consciousness of the three billion, to help them, and so they can become climate warriors for us.
Boom: And is that what you hope for the summit to accomplish as well?
Ramanathan: The summit first has to persuade the top one billion to de-carbonize. That has to come first, and then comes giving energy access to the more than three billion. It will be demoralizing without having some agreement, but I’m pretty hopeful it’s going to happen. If we have a piece of paper that everyone signed, that states that it is an important problem, we are causing it, and we are going to reduce it by so much, even if it is 10 percent, I’ll be happy. Because my own work suggests that in ten years the changes are going to be so large that the dissenters will go into the minority. There will be a huge cry for doing something about it. Then we have this piece of paper. If you said in the piece of paper 10 percent, just changing the 1 to 4 will be a lot easier than starting with a blank piece of papers. Let’s not get stuck on 10 percent or 80 percent. First, we need that paper, that protocol, saying that we are going to cut emissions.
Boom: That’s interesting because that’s what California has done, isn’t it? Starting with a number—10, 20, 30 percent—and then ratcheting it up every few years to ratchet down on carbon emissions. What do you see as the role of California in all of this?
Ramanathan: Huge. I think we show them how to do it, from technology, from policy, and governance. Those are the three key things. And hopefully, we can do that on education, too. On the education front, that’s what I’m trying to push. Let’s take our report and turn it into a textbook and then teach that course jointly on a minimum of five campuses. If we just enrolled, say, sixty students, about twelve from each campus, but use the best technology, to seamlessly go from one campus to another, each lecture taught by three lecturers from three different campuses. Hopefully, after a couple of years it will become a major online course, reaching tens of thousands, and the message is very simple. It’s a solvable problem. The technology is there. We now have religion working with us. So, let’s talk about that multidimensional aspect of the climate change.
Honestly, if you think a little bit, this climate change problem could impact our evolution, how, as a society, we work together to keep going forward. It will set the stage—if we can do it.
Governor Jerry Brown with Scripps Oceanography climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan and UC San Diego Vice Chancellor of Research Sandra Brown at the UC Carbon Neutrality Summit.
Boom: I hear some echoes in what you are saying of the kinds of things that Jerry Brown is saying—that this is an existential crisis. How has he done in communicating and leading on this issue?
Ramanathan: He personally has had a huge impact on me.
Boom: How so?
Ramanathan: Well, he opened my eyes that we need to see the worst possible consequences, that you can’t be completely constrained by your science because your science is not complete. You don’t understand the system. Each of us understands one part. I understand the atmosphere. I don’t understand how it’s going to impact the oceans. He said, given the limitations of science, without compromising your scientific vigor, you need to think about the worst possible consequences, which is what is going to guide policy. That was number one, coming from him.
The second is, I saw him putting that into policy. He said, “I know there’s still some scientific debate going on, but I want to do everything I can to reduce that probability of worst disasters.” So, yeah, he’s now the right person for California. He’s going to put us on a path. I think Schwarzenegger started us on that—we should thank him for that—but this governor, I don’t think anyone I have met realizes the urgency of the situation as much as he does, with the possible exception of Pope Francis. I don’t think any world leaders do, because I’ve not heard them say as much. This man does. And that fact that he is in California, where people are willing to support it—if you have Jerry Brown sitting in the middle of Oklahoma, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But here we can use his support from the top to do a tremendous amount of bottom-up things and then propagate it to the rest of the planet.
Boom: What’s interesting to me about Jerry Brown, and the way that he’s talked about all of this, is that he has put the worst possible scenario in front of the people and said you have to face this. He’s called it an apocalypse. And I’ve always thought that an apocalyptic vision is disempowering. It’s demoralizing. You think if it’s going to be apocalypse, there’s nothing I can do about it. Let me go home and spend time with my family or whatever. He has changed my mind about that, with the caveat that if you talk about the apocalypse you’ve got to talk, at the same time, about what we can do to avoid it. So you put in front of people the worst case scenario, and then you say what we can do to make that not come true. And he’s done that by connecting it to the drought, which some people think is controversial, by connecting it to forest fires, which some people think is premature, because the scientific connections are not super robust. And then he’s said: And here’s what you can do about it. You can conserve water. You can reduce your emissions. We can all work together. So that, I think, is the genius of it, putting those two things together.
Ramanathan: Exactly. It doesn’t make it look hopeless because he has a solution at hand, how we can avoid that. And the environment has pushed him to this road, because he was left fighting the worst drought we have seen. I know some scientists who say, “Oh, we are not clear if this drought is due to climate change.” I look at them and say they have such a limited understanding of science because they think they are going to be able to take an event and say convincingly it’s due to this. We know they will never do that because nature is highly complex. What we can work with is probability and basic physics. Thermodynamics says if you have warming in a region like this, that will promote drought because you are evaporating water crazily from your lakes, from your rivers.
Boom: From the earth itself.
Ramanathan: Yeah. And you’re melting your snowpack. And then water is evaporating from the trees. They dry out. They become fuel. But they are looking for something else. I think what they are looking for is an unscientific rigor. It’s never going to happen. But climate change does cause droughts. I can’t say this particular drought was caused by climate change. What I will argue is that climate change made this drought worse. It would not have been as bad without warming. So Jerry Brown is able to sift through scientific advice. That’s his genius.
Boom: Here in California I understand we’ve cut particulates that cause smog by something like 90 percent.
Ramanathan: The black carbon.
Boom: Yes. And I know we still have air quality problems in the Central Valley and in Los Angeles. But I remember when I was a kid and would come out to visit my grandparents in Pasadena and you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains from their house. Now that’s very rare here. But you can look at air quality monitors worldwide online now and see that there are many, many places in Asia and South Asia where the smog and the black carbon problem is horrendous. Is California’s experience relevant to the rest of the world?
Ramanathan: The air pollution issue is also multidimensional. It has public health consequences—four million deaths a year are related to air pollution. Some air pollutants cause global warming—black carbon, ozone, methane—and they destroy crops, too. So for many, many reasons, you need to get rid of them. And I think this is where the California experience is relevant to India and China. We are starting a program, with Governor Jerry Brown’s help, between India and California.
The general prejudice is, oh, you clean up air pollution and you’re going to destroy your economy. California is saying, no, not necessarily. We have the largest GDP in the U.S. That generates a huge number of jobs. Our population is growing. Our economy is growing. So what California did is a myth buster. For sure, cleaning air pollution costs. It’s not free. But the benefit you get is ten to thirty times more than the money you put into clean up. We have to get that message across. We are trying, but not succeeding so far. When I see that China’s actual coal consumption was 30 percent more than they admitted, I feel sad.
Boom: You researched air pollution in India, but growing up you also experienced it intimately with your grandmother cooking with firewood in the house and suffering some of the consequences. How has that shaped your work?
Ramanathan: At the time it was happening, when I was at my grandmother’s house and she used to cook, it didn’t have any impact on me. It didn’t register. What I did recall later was that after every cooking session, she would be coughing, a really nerve-wracking cough, for an hour or so. It’s not something I watched my watch to see how long it lasted, but it would go on forever. I never related that to the cooking smoke in the kitchen.
When I talked about the Indian Ocean experiment—that was where this brown cloud was discovered—it took one or two years of research to link that to cooking as the major source of pollution. Then I thought, this is a problem I can solve because we all figured out how to cook without producing smog, right? So this is an easy problem I can solve. And I can go back to that Ethiopian girl and tell her, “Yeah, I did something.”
So we started this project, but as a scientist I had to collect data. Remember, I don’t believe anything anybody said. I had to collect the data in the village to convince myself the smoke I am seeing outside is coming from the cooking. That took several years to really pin down. Now there’s no doubt that it’s coming from the firewood. And we are now distributing better stoves. But it’s a very complex problem. It was not as simple of a problem as I thought.
But anyway, I was last there early this year. Every time I go into the kitchen I would always see my grandmother there, so that memory got really implanted. But at the time she was doing it, I didn’t link her cough to this cooking.
Boom: How would you answer that Ethiopian girl today?
Ramanathan: Well, I have a long list of things. I would tell her first about what I did to my house. My house is completely solar. My car is an electric car.
That girl—for four years after—I mean, she had such a horrible impact on me. I started taking the bus. But I live on top of a hill, and the bus doesn’t go to the top of the hill. So I had to walk up. Then I had my second heart attack and I had stents, so I couldn’t walk up the hill. I begged my wife to drop me at the bus stop so I could get the bus.
Then I bought an electric car—it’s charged with solar—so at least I travel guilt-free. But it’s not the Impala. It’s a smart car.
I think of all the things I would say if somebody gave me one minute to talk about the things I’m really proud of. I would say it’s the work in the village to change the cooking fuels, and then my affiliation with the church, and seeing the power of science, religion, and policy working together to solve this problem. So I would now have a message of hope for that girl.
During the holiday season of late November and December a traveler exiting Interstate 5 onto La Paz Road toward Mission Viejo, between Los Angeles and San Diego, is soon greeted with a religious display unlike that found in most American cities. What makes it unusual is the diversity of peaceful messages from Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Bahá’i, and, for the first time this past year, Hindu traditions. Located at the intersection of La Paz and Chrisanta Drive—the so-called Four Corners, itself symbolic of many paths—the display reminds us that there is more to this country religiously than the Judeo-Christian heritage, and that globally diverse faith communities can and must coexist. Despite the media’s violent images of religious populations clashing with one another around the globe, here there are neither swords nor the sounds of battle.
But this display is far more unusual than initially meets the eye. Mission Viejo’s residents offer the vision of—or better, experiment with—the possibility of an amicable religious pluralism and have gone further than most other communities to implement it. Decades ago the Four Corners was host to Christmas trees and Santa Claus, but as this upscale, planned residential community grew into a city of roughly 100,000 residents and became more ethnically and religiously diverse, the situation changed. What had been largely an unquestioned Christian space became a contested public site with religious groups vying with one another for a spot to make public their presence within the community.
This occurred in part because of demographics. The city’s religiously affiliated population is reported as 45 percent, less than California’s overall 54 percent. In California generally, Catholics account for 61 percent of the religious population; evangelical Christians 18 percent; mainline Protestants 9 percent; and “other” religious constituencies—mainly Jews, Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus—amount to 12 percent. Compared with the country as a whole, Catholics and members of eastern religions have a greater representation both in Mission Viejo and in California as a whole; evangelical Christians and mainline Protestants somewhat less. Plus, a large unaffiliated sector includes varieties of agnostics, atheists, privatized believers, nature lovers, and those who identify themselves as spiritual but nonreligious. Overall, the mix is that of an emerging “new religious America” of increased diversity, as Harvard’s Diana Eck describes it.1 California, it is said, stretches the definition of what constitutes the religious and the spiritual, and there is certainly some truth in this claim in Mission Viejo.
Pluralism—that is, a culture that embraces diversity—requires not just believing, but doing: cultivating a spirit of acceptance that moves beyond mere tolerance. Faith groups vary in the ways and degrees to which they buy into a pluralist ideology: exclusivists resist recognition of the truth claims of others; moderates respect others; and the most inclusive celebrate the religious other as contributing to their own spiritual well-being and growth. Of course, always looming in the background of any consideration of the practice of religious pluralism are thorny issues: What are its limits? What defines a group as religious? Where do the nonreligious fit into the scheme of things?
The experiment at Mission Viejo has had its share of challenges. In 2000, city officials decided to allow, for the first time, an Islamic display to accompany Jewish and Christian displays. The following year, there were complaints about including the Muslim decorations (no doubt connected with feelings about the then-recent September 11 terrorist attack) and the planners feared that too many additional groups might demand a presence in the limited space at the Four Corners, so the multifaith display was called off. The city council voted to return to the earlier plan of showcasing Santa Claus, American flags, and a winter scene—all deemed secular and noncontroversial. But they misread the sentiment of the community, and after a week of complaints the city reversed its decision: it would permit religious groups to have displays, but only at a nearby park. But even this was not enough to satisfy the residents. In 2002, pressure from them led to the return of the multifaith celebration to the Four Corners.
Over the years concerns have arisen from all sides. “Why should the city recognize these religions?” asks an evangelical Christian pastor. “We are a Christian nation. Why are we embarrassed to proclaim it?” Exclusivists find shared space problematic. Secularists and strict interpreters of the legal separation of church and state question why city property is used to showcase religious exhibits of any kind, and still others have wondered if atheists should be allowed to have a display—some saying yes, because their voice should be heard, but most adamantly opposing the idea. Nor has it gone unnoticed that the timing of the holiday celebrations fit Christian and Jewish calendars far better than those of other traditions. (This led the Hindu community in 2010 to put up and take down their exhibit before Thanksgiving.) There have also been acts of vandalism: once the Baby Jesus was stolen and a year ago the Muslim display was defaced, which led to complaints by Muslim organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union about the city’s failure to patrol the exhibits at night.
But despite setbacks, complaints, and vandalism progress has been made. Over the years, as a Bahá’i told me, “dealing with one another became a public matter, pressure was on us to do something that would be as open as possible to all religions.” Public discussion brought forward practical questions about how to be open to all groups, given the limited space at the Four Corners. In effect, how would the city choose which groups could set up holiday exhibits?
The solution: “Religion by Lottery!” Mission Viejo decided to try to accommodate the growing number of religious groups while retaining the Four Corners as the location of the event. Faith groups desiring a presence on this spot would have to apply for one of eight available spaces. In doing so, they agreed to exhibit seasonal messages within a cooperative multifaith event. The spaces would be assigned by a double lottery system in which numbers identifying spaces were drawn at random from one container and matched with applicant groups drawn at random from another container. If there were more applicants than spaces, those unsuccessful in getting a space at the Four Corners would be selected, again by lottery, to exhibit at a nearby park. Minority religious spokespersons played a big part in pushing for the lottery. Hamid Bahadori, an Iranian-American Muslim resident, was reported to say in 2001, “If we want to celebrate our sense of community, then let’s be as inclusive as possible.”2
Asked recently about how well the system is working, David Cendejas, in the city’s Office of Community Development, responds, “Pretty well. People like the fairness of it, although so far it really hasn’t been all that tested since we haven’t had more than eight groups applying in any year.” If that were to occur, the present relaxed tone of the process might not endure. Imagine a December religious holiday display in Mission Viejo without a Nativity scene. This might well occur, should the number of applicants continue to increase. Based upon what both city officials and clergy have told me, this eventuality would most definitely challenge the lottery system.
Yet the mood of the nation may be working in Mission Viejo’s favor. Despite the tensions created this past year with the proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan, not far from the site where the Twin Towers once stood, and threats to burn the Qur’an in several places across the country, a recent Pew Forum survey documents a general tendency among Americans not to assert that “my religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.”3 This is a shift in mood we might expect in diverse, well-educated communities like Mission Viejo. National surveys point as well to greater openness to gaining spiritual truth from religions of all kinds—perhaps just a matter of curiosity for many, yet for some a genuine interest in learning from other traditions.
Both the city’s effort to embrace religious diversity and the willingness of most religious groups to play by the rules for this holiday celebration signal that a civic-minded culture is widely shared. Despite the unpredictable nature of a lottery—or perhaps because the luck of the draw is perceived as fair to all in the long run—the system appears to be favored by many in the community.
Of course, pluralism is always a fragile culture, easily disrupted by those hostile to it. Yet every year in Mission Viejo, when these rules are followed, when this public experiment is carried out, thousands of citizens and visitors affirm fundamental democratic principles. More than simply trying to avoid conflict, as was the original intention, religion by lottery is a positive force, providing a procedure that reinforces notions of religious equality and freedom; by bringing order and fairness to the process of choosing religious groups to represent the community it also neutralizes fears of Christian dominance and discrimination against other faiths. “I ride up La Paz during the holidays,” says one of the electricians helping to set up the lights at the intersection, “and even though I’m not so religious myself it helps that people here get along pretty well. In fact, I think they are beginning to really like the event.” B
1. Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001).
2. The remark was made in the comments to a newspaper article, “Santa In, Religious Symbols Out at Season’s Exhibit; Mission Viejo: Muslim leaders question decision to end three-decade holiday display tradition,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2001, online at http://articles.latimes.com/2001/oct/31/local/me-63863.