Houses of worship are supposed to be open to all — to the congregation, to its neighbors, to the stranger. This is what I was taught as a kid in South Brunswick, N.J., attending Temple Beth Shalom, and it’s what I have heard from religious leaders of other denominations,whether, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and so on. We all share the same central ethical obligation: all are welcome.
But houses of worship have been forced to reconsider their openness, the Associated Press reports, with some “question(ing) whether houses of worship have turned into soft targets, losing some of their sense of sacredness.” Should they be as open as they’ve historically been?
This was brought home in a stark way on Friday, when a white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The massacre — at least 50 have died — led law enforcement around the globe to beef up patrols and security at mosques, with South Brunswick being no exception. Within hours of the attack, the South Brunswick police announced they had “enhanced their presence” as a precaution at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, the mosque on Route 1.
Police issued a Nixle alert on Friday announcing the ramped up protection. Police Chief Raymond Hayducka said in the Nixle that police have “no information of any concerns or threats related to our community,” and that the department would “continue to work with our law enforcement partners at the federal, State, and county levels to address any issues.”
According to the Associated Press, more than 49 people were killed and 48 others injured at two separate mosques “during midday prayers Friday — most if not all of them gunned down by an immigrant-hating white supremacist who apparently used a helmet-mounted camera to broadcast live video of the slaughter on Facebook.” The 28-year-old shooter apparently issued a rambling, “jumbled, 74-page manifesto on social media,” and saying he “was out to avenge attacks in Europe perpetrated by Muslims.”
Muslims around the world are rightly on edge. They have once again been made the target of hate-based violence, and they are calling for tolerance and understanding.
A statement on the Facebook page for the ISCJ called the “deaths of innocents” in Christchurch shocking and made it clear that we cannot stand by as these events unfold.
“Humanity and Muslims cannot be silent when faced with such violence,” the post said. “The foundation of society is to protect every life. If we can save one life, than we have saved all lives. The taking of one life is tantamount to taking all lives. Together we must uphold the sanctity of life — every life and in action to work for justice.”
The statement called for the violence to “be addressed in a serious manner.”
“We must join together united on a strong message of justice, fairness, gun safety and an end to systematic racism.”
The language used by the apparent shooter echoes the arguments made by President Donald Trump to defend his “Muslim ban.” He has repeatedly made blanket statements about Muslims and, even as he offered support for New Zealand (without once mentioning that the victims were Muslim), once again described the growth in refugees at our southern border as an “invasion.”
He also dismissed “white nationalism as a rising threat around the world” by saying “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
He guesses? The Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of hate groups are on the rise in the United States, and the Times reports that white supremacist ideology has spread around the globe via internet sites like 4chan and 8chan, while “extremist discourse and tropes have seeped into mainstream politics and media.”
Trump and Fox News, along with numerous Republican members of Congress, refer to immigration as an invasion and have questioned the loyalty of American Muslims. Earlier this month, West Virginia Republicans displayed a poster linking U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar — one of the first two women to serve in Congress and the first to wear a headscarf — to the 9/11 attacks, which is perhaps the most egregious example, but certainly not the only one.
In fact, Trump’s defense of borders — “if we don’t have a border, we can’t have a country” — carries an echo of the Christchurch gunman’s argument.
The 28-year-old Australian charged in the shooting — I am not naming him because his personal identity is irrelevant — had as his goal the prevention of “Muslims and non-whites from taking over Western society, calling on white-majority countries to ‘crush immigration,’ deport non-whites and have more children to stop the decline of white populations.” It is the border argument stripped of its seemingly rational underpinning.
Trump has, at different times, allowed us to hear the racist logic that is the foundation of his own logic, calling places like Haiti “shithole countries,” claiming we need more immigration from Scandinavian counties, and proclaiming that Europe is losing itself to an immigrant horde.
Trump, as the Times makes clear, is part of a current class of political leaders who have made this white supremacism respectable. The shooter’s goals, the Times writes, “find echoes in the angry rhetoric of several mainstream politicians in Europe, including the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary.”
Orban, in particular, “has condemned the concept of a multiethnic society, repeatedly presented himself as a defender of Christian Europe against perceived Islamic invaders, and implemented policies that encourage Hungarian mothers to have more children.” He is anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-Islam, and anti-Jew, and he is not shy about saying it.
“Without Christian culture, there will be no freedom in Europe,” he said on Friday. “If we don’t protect our Christian culture, we lose Europe.”
Trump has said as much, himself, as have politicians like Steve King, the white supremacist Republican congressman from Iowa, and much of the 2016 Republican presidential field.
This is why the shooting Friday in New Zealand, which is horrifying, was not unexpected. New York Times opinion columnist Wjaharat Ali wrote Saturday that the “attacks are the latest manifestation of a growing and globalized ideology of white nationalism that must be addressed at its source — which includes the mainstream politicians and media personalities who nurture, promote and excuse it.”
That’s why local police have been forced to increase security at the Islamic Center of Central Jersey — and police elsewhere are doing the same with their own local mosques. That we need police to protect what are supposed to be sacred spaces says a lot about the fissures in our culture, and it’s why it would be foolish for us to assume that yesterday’s shooting was isolated — or that Muslims are the only targets. The language used by the shooter in Pittsburgh mirrored many parts of the New Zealand manifesto quoted by the media, and the New Zealand shooter specifically referenced Dylann Roof, who killed nine in an attack on an African American church in South Carolina several years ago. This violence is of a piece, and the victims share a common thread — a definition of citizenship that is narrowly cast to include only straight white Christians. This was Steve King’s greatest crime. King is not just a garden variety racist, but rather a white supremacist who sees the other — black, brown, Muslim, Jew — as a threat to his definition of Western Civilization.
Ali, in his column, makes the connections between the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the Christchurch attacks fairly explicit. It is about much more than hate. It is about a systemic form of it that infects policy and rips at the core of what it means to be American.
“Among white nationalists’ major motivators,” Ali says,
is “the great replacement” conspiracy theory. They fear that Jews, blacks and Muslims will replace white people and eventually subordinate them. Jews are often viewed as the diabolical head of the cabal, the nerve center, who use their infinite wealth and power to reduce and weaken the white man.
This is straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-Semitic tract that has long been debunked but that continues to bubble just below the surface. We heard it from the Charlottesville marchers who shouted “Jews will not replace us,” and we heard it from the Pittsburgh shooter who accused Jewish refugee agencies and George Soros of funding refugee caravans then making their way north from Central America as part of a plot to eliminate white Christians.
All of this sounds so fantastic, and it may be easy to dismiss as paranoia — except that nine black worshippers were slaughtered in a South Carolina church, 11 Jews were killed during Sabbath services, 49 Muslims were killed during Friday prayers, and black men and women continue to die at the hands of police around the country.
This has to stop. It is about more than tolerance. It is about equality. It is about removing the long-standing obstacles to full citizenship white America has placed in front of anyone who is not straight, white and Christian.