Two weeks ago, New Zealand’s Muslim community suffered a horrific tragedy. A gunman, with intentions rooted in hatred and Islamophobia, opened fire on individuals engaged in prayer. We know the story too well - not only because it was in the news recently, but because it happens here in America.
White supremacy, the original sin of American racism, is the tie that binds together Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, and anti-immigrant rhetoric in America and internationally. While white supremacy has a long history of violence, its cruelty and brutality is made all the more shocking when attacks specifically target those at prayer in houses of worship. In the past four years we have witnessed the Mother Emanuel AME shooting in Charleston (June 2015) the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh (October 2018), and, just this month, the shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques are places where individuals gather to seek sanctuary from daily life. These places of worship are not merely “soft targets” because there is likely to be little armed security. They are “soft targets” because they are the hospitable spaces where ethnic and religious minority communities seek sanctuary from daily life. These are places of retreat and religious expression, where young and old gather to be at home, to share culture, to pray, to worship, and to converse. Hence targeting the sacred spaces of ethnic and religious minorities is an especially heinous act of white supremacist terrorism: one that aims to subvert the safety of sacred spaces, the places where the most vulnerable take refuge and rest in the presence of the divine.
So while it is vital in the aftermath of New Zealand to denounce racist and anti-immigrant hate, we also need to confront the religious bigotry behind the murders, and explore the way religious hatreds shape white supremacy in our current context. Religious, racial, and ethnic identities overlap in complex ways that require careful attention. In American history, most violent white supremacist killers have affirmed some connection with Christian identity, intermingling religious rhetoric with their interreligious and interracial hatred. The shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue drew upon a long history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism when he (mis)quoted the New Testament in his social media profile that “Jews are the children of Satan.” At the same time, both the cowardly perpetrator and the the heroic victims and forgiving families in the Mother Emanuel shooting belonged to Protestant Christian communities, and they reportedly argued about the interpretation of the Christian Bible just before the shooting. While the Christchurch shooter avoids self-identifying as Christian, his manifesto is laced with references to the Christian Crusades and resurrecting Christendom.
So how do we make sense of the ways religion shapes both the shooters and the victims when we talk about Charleston, Pittsburgh, and Christchurch? When white supremacists attack houses of worship, our collective religious illiteracy becomes apparent. The perpetrators of these crimes and their victims utilize religious terms and practices in ways that both the public and the press often fail to understand. As a result, religion is often on the margins of press coverage or goes unnoticed. One of the challenges of our times is to recognize that racial identities and religious identities are not easily separable. The Islamophobia in the Christchurch shooting takes aim at both the religious identity of the victims, as well as their identities as immigrants and racial minorities.
Jews, Muslims, and Black Christians are all perceived to be threats to white supremacy. Today white supremacy has reached nearly all aspects of public discourse and civil society. Whether chanting the “Jews will not replace us” in public, or elected officials stating there’s an “invasion” at the border, white supremacy has become part of the mainstream. Advocates even feel emboldened to openly recruit on college campuses. Once relegated to the margins of society, white supremacists have turned up in American police departments, military, schools, ambulances, and even the highest echelons of our federal government. Violence against religious minorities and non-whites has risen to unsettling levels. We are living in dangerous times. What can we do to blunt the rise of white supremacy?
Step One: Show up. Here in Baltimore thousands of people visited synagogues for “Show Up for Shabbat” services the first Saturday after the Tree of Life shooting. This month, thousands of people visited local mosques to share the Muslim community’s outrage and grief over the Christchurch shootings. The Jewish congregation attacked in Pittsburgh raised more than $40,000 for the families of the victims in the Christchurch attack. These solidarity events display the strength and power of America’s religious diversity and the potential of interfaith friendship to counter white supremacy.
Step Two: Broaden Your Networks and Your Knowledge. Interfaith solidarity is a good thing -- indeed a great thing in the face of such hatred. But if we are going to counter violent white supremacy, we must cultivate relationships that cross religious and racial divides, and we must increase our religious and interreligious literacy. The work of interreligious dialogue needs to begin here. Stereotypes break down in the face of relationships and education.
White supremacy simplifies and weaponizes the differences between communities. It inserts racial animosity and religious hatred into the cracks and fissures within our society. The evils of Islamophobia and Antisemitism become evident to people when they get to know real life Muslims and Jews and learn more about Islam and Judaism.
At the ICJS, we aim to draw together communities of robust dialogue and deep relationships across religious and racial lines, so that our real differences can become places of learning and interreligious respect. We make space for people to bring their complex religious identities into contact with others’ complex religious identities, so that we can dismantle the weaponized stereotypes that abound in popular culture. Please join us in this essential work.