Amid rising hate crimes and prejudicial political rhetoric, religious leaders are speaking out against Islamophobia. But these calls to reject anti-Muslim bias aren’t just coming from the Muslim community. Jews, Christians, atheists, and others are taking concrete steps to raise awareness and challenge prejudice in their own communities and around the country.
Speaking Out and Standing Together
In recent months across the country, it has become increasingly common to see a hodgepodge of yarmulkes, priestly collars, and flowing robes huddled around a podium and doused in the light of news cameras. Many of these displays of solidarity with American Muslims in Washington, D.C. have been organized by Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a coalition of religious denominations and groups wants people of faith to see Islamophobia as a “religious freedom” issue. In October 2015, they urged religious leaders and ordinary Americans to sign a pledge to “defend the freedom of conscience and religion of all individuals by rejecting and speaking out, without reservation, against bigotry…”
Shoulder to Shoulder is just one of many religious groups going public about Islamophobia. Sojourners, the Christian organization and magazine, has used its platform to draw attention to the problem of anti-Muslim prejudice (and how Christians can do something about it.) Both Sojourners and Shoulder to Shoulder were behind anti-Islamophobia ad campaigns, too — back when Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer’s group, AFDI, put up their own Islamophobic signs in subways across the U.S.
Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a D.C.-based organization led by Rabbi Chuck Feinberg, sells banners that congregations can display outside their houses of worship. They read “Honor God — say no to anti-Muslim bigotry” and “We stand with our Muslim neighbors.” In Austin, Texas, several churches and synagogues have put these signs up as a visible sign of solidarity.
During the Jewish observant of Hanukkah in 2015—which fell during a surge in anti-Muslim violence in the U.S.—Jewish Voice for Peace launched an anti-Islamophobia initiative and hosted vigils and demonstrations in U.S. cities.
Other shows of support have had a distinctly local flavor. In Nashville, Tennessee, Rev. Josh Graves, the lead pastor at Otter Creek Church, has used his megachurch’s venue to educate his congregation and provide an opportunity for church-goers to meet Muslims. After Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims in December 2015, the interfaith group in St. Louis sent letters of support to every area mosque.
Supporting Legislation and Pushing Politicians
Given that Islamophobia has become a wedge issue in elections — particularly in the 2016 presidential campaign — these interfaith efforts have also gotten political. In 2016, Shoulder to Shoulder called on both the Democratic and Republican National Committees to reject Islamophobia in their party platforms. And in response to Donald Trump’s Muslim ban idea, a broader coalition of faith and non-faith groups pushed for a bill that would make that kind of religious test for immigrants illegal.
Religious leaders — like Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis — have also defied the orders of state governors, who in late 2015 didn’t want their states to resettle Syrian and Muslim refugees. Religious congregations around the country have supported Syrian Muslim families who have fled violence to the U.S.
Another way religious people are combating Islamophobia is through the stomach. Houses of worship and private citizens will hold hundreds of iftars — or fast breaking meals — for Muslims around the country during the Islamic month of Ramadan (this year in June and July.) One platform for organizing these dinners — Se7en Fast — urges participants to also undertake the fast and donate money to charity. Some communities, like one in Nashville, host interfaith meals throughout the year. In a recent interview with Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Pastor Josh Graves said of these meals:
“The stereotypes lose their power because they’re replaced by true, authentic relationships. It’s very hard for people to care about people they don’t know.”
Motivated by Faith, Despite the Opposition
Why do Christians, Jews, and others see fighting Islamophobia as a cause worth undertaking? For many, it stems from their faith in God and their own histories of prejudice.
For Rabbi Jonah Pesner, standing up to Islamophobia in his own community is a “religious duty.” Josh Graves, the Otter Creek Church pastor, says that “it’s almost impossible as a white, educated, affluent Protestant male to understand what it’s like for my Muslim neighbors to hear the rhetoric. What I do know is that I have a responsibility because of my sacred texts, because of the example of Jesus, because I have children, I have a responsibility to speak out.”
Both men have faced opposition in their own congregations for their work to combat Islamophobia. So has Larycia Hawkins, the former professor at Wheaton College whose expression of solidarity with Muslims on Facebook led to a firestorm over the question if Christians and Muslims believe in the same god. Sandra Collins, who hosts an interfaith dinner at her home in Nashville says that “we have friends we know who are exclusive, who would not appreciate this.” Still, they carry on with their activities.
Tom Reese, a Catholic writer and commentator, says that religious people need to do more, especially Catholics in light of America’s history of anti-Catholic prejudice: “…In the 19th century and early 20th centuries, we were the people who were the subjects of discrimination and prejudice from the Know Nothings, from the KKK, from lots of people. So, you know, we should not now be part of the problem when we were the victims in the past.”
These faith leaders want more to get involved. Josh Graves looks forward to the day when Christians combating Islamophobia is not seen as unusual or surprising:
“I long for the day when Christian churches are known for being on the forefront of understanding … and appreciation of our Muslim neighbors out of the conviction that we do not get to decide who is ‘neighbor’ and who is ‘enemy.’”
Do you know of other interfaith efforts to combat Islamophobia that weren’t mentioned here? Contact us on social media (@bridgeinit) and let us know.