The news is not good. Even before last November’s elections, threats and attacks on synagogues, Jewish community centers, mosques, Islamic centers, and churches had been steadily increasing. Across the country, news reports recount anonymous bomb threats, hate-crime graffiti with swastikas, mosque burnings, and drive-by harassment (pig heads tossed into masjids and synagogues).
Mosque threats and attacks, which spiked over the past two years, show no sign of abating. Before and after the elections, acts targeting Islamic houses of worship escalated around the country. In October, an Arkansas mosque was defaced with graffiti. Six days after the election, a Kentucky Islamic Center was vandalized for the second time in less than a year. In November and December, a masjid in Washington State was reviled in two separate acts that police are investigating as hate crimes. January and February brought news of more attacks on mosques.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 100 “hate incidents” in the US within 10 days of the elections targeting Jews and their houses of worship. In the past few weeks, the media has carried images of toppled headstones in Jewish cemeteries in New York and Pennsylvania. As I write this, a news story appears about a Seattle synagogue smeared with graffiti: “Holocaust is fake history.”
Churches—often those that have declared themselves sanctuaries for refugees, immigrants, and undocumented aliens—have also been attacked. Meanwhile, Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, has taken the unprecedented step of asking the state legislature to allow it to set up its own private police force.
Hate, anger, and religious intolerance are most often directed at the places where people gather as a faith community to worship and share fellowship. Synagogues, mosques, temples, churches, and community centers become the targets. But they are also places where resistance to these ugly acts can be publicly demonstrated. Shortly after the election, a lone bearded figure in a cowboy hat stood outside a mosque in Irving, Texas, holding up a sign: “You Belong.” Days later, on his Facebook page, 53-year-old Justin Normand explained what caused him to make the sign and drive to the nearest masjid to stand witness: “This was about binding up the wounded. About showing compassion and empathy for the hurting and fearful among us. Or, in some Christian traditions, this was about washing my brother’s feet. This was about my religion, not theirs.”
There are other news reports. In late February, a man with the Twitter handle “The Muslim Marine” volunteered to stand guard in Chicago-area Jewish cemeteries. Then others who identified themselves as Muslims came forward around the country to protect synagogues, community centers, and cemeteries. A mosque in Bellevue, Washington, was completely gutted by fire in mid-January. An online fund quickly raised over a half-million dollars to replace it. Two weeks later in Texas, the Victoria Islamic Center was consumed in flames. Within days, an online fund to rebuild it raised nearly a million dollars from people all over the county.
How should we rebuild? Do we hunker down, fortify our temples, lock up our mosques, militarize our churches? In an interview with Faith & Form several years ago, theologian Harvey Cox suggested another possibility: along with sacred space, public space is where we can best witness the stranger who is also a believer, acting out ritual and engaging in fellowship. For Cox, shared public space plays a critical role in helping us to understand the stranger through proximity. In the civic realm, religious hatred directed at our houses of worship has no place to hide.Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected]