Shortly after November’s horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, Al-Aqsa mosque in Philadelphia received a phone message stating, “I hope you people are happy about what you did in Paris. I’d like to state for the record that Allah is a piece of pork shit.” A few weeks later, in the early morning hours of December 7, the mosque manager unlocked the front doors for the early morning fajr prayer. As he was about to enter, he noticed the severed head of a pig lying next to the door on the sidewalk. Pork is considered haram or forbidden in Islam and this is rightly understood as an act of desecration. Philadelphia police are investigating both incidents.
The year 2015 has seen a shocking rise in anti-Muslim sentiment not only in Philadelphia, but across the United States. In the aftermath of the shootings at two military installations in Tennessee, the owner of a Florida gun shop declared his store a “Muslim-free zone” and he continues to sell Mohammed targets on his website. In October, a group calling itself the “Global Rally for Humanity” organized protests at dozens of mosques throughout the U.S. Since the attacks in Paris, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has described anti-Muslim sentiment as “unprecedented” and documented dozens of incidents where individual Muslims or Islamic sites have been subjected to intimidation, threats, or violence.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric has reached a fever pitch ever since it was discovered that the two shooters in the San Bernardino tragedy on December 2 were self-radicalized supporters of ISIS. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, said that if more Americans had permits to carry concealed weapons, there could have been a chance to “end those Muslims before they walked in.” GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump wins the award for Islamophobe-in-chief for his statements that he would require Muslims in the U.S. to be registered in a database and stop Muslim immigrants from coming into the United States. Upping the ante on Tuesday, he made comparisons between his policies and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy to place Japanese Americans in internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
All of this rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to the values ensconced in the U.S. Constitution which guarantee legal protections for the free exercise of religion. The nation’s stated commitment to religious liberty was largely inspired by Philadelphia’s founder William Penn. As a Quaker who experienced imprisonment and persecution in Anglican England, Penn established his colony as haven for religious freedom. While colonial authorities in Massachusetts either exiled or put to death those who deviated from Puritan orthodoxy, Pennsylvania became a refuge for Mennonites, Baptists, Quakers, Pietists, Jews, and Catholics. In the 1730s, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was the only place in British North America where it was legal to hold a public mass.
Despite the noble principles of the city’s founder, Philadelphia often struggled with religious diversity. In the 1830s and 40s, Irish Catholics poured into Philadelphia and other American cities. (Patricia Miller just wrote about the anti-Catholic backlash that occurred in Baltimore in the 1830s here on RD.) Prominent civic leaders were suspicious that these new immigrants gave their allegiance not to the president of the United States, but to the pontiff in Rome. They questioned whether or not Catholics could really become Americans.
Lewis C. Levin, a Methodist newspaper editor in Philadelphia, published several anti-Catholic tracts. In May 1844, he led a mob of 3000 supporters of his newly-formed nativist political party to the middle of a Catholic neighborhood to give an anti-immigrant speech. In the days and weeks that followed, nativist rioters burned down several Catholic churches including St. Augustine’s, its rectory, and a library containing thousands of books. By the time it was over, around twenty-five persons were killed, and hundreds were injured. Military troops finally put an end to rioting but few Protestant Christians spoke out against the nativists as their movement grew. For instance, in the archives of a Protestant church right across the street, there is no mention of the burning of St. Augustine’s Church. How could this be? Perhaps the members of that church were among the Nativist rioters? We can’t know for sure, but their silence speaks volumes.
Levin’s leadership in the nativist movement jumpstarted his political career. The following year he was elected to U.S. Congress. Donald Trump’s recent language has done much damage to our nation’s interfaith relations. We can only hope that his rise as a messianic politician will soon come to an end.
Although there are real threats that the Islamic extremists pose, it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of mass shootings in the U.S. have been carried out by non-Muslims. Americans have many misconceptions about Muslims in the U.S. and the public needs to be better educated. However, the key to overcoming suspicion and fear of the other is to build relationships across religious difference.
For the past several years, my family has had the privilege of hosting Muslim students from the Middle East who are in the U.S. to learn English. Many of these students are quite conservative and come from countries with severe restrictions on religious pluralism. Despite this, our students have been remarkably open to new ways of seeing the world. They have attended worship services at our local Mennonite and Methodist churches (both LGBT-friendly, I might add). I have taken them on historical tours of Philadelphia showing them the wide array of churches and synagogues that flourish in the colonial city. And the cultural exchange goes both ways. Our family has developed a much more expansive view of God and we enjoy our rich conversations around the dinner table.
Al Aqsa mosque is a prominent leader in Philadelphia’s interfaith efforts. Each year, their members join the hundreds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, humanists, and others who participate in an interfaith peace walk. This week, several local groups sponsored an interfaith prayer vigil to stand in solidarity with Muslims and particularly Syrian refugees who have been unfairly associated with actions of an extremist minority. Despite the frightening rhetoric spewed by leading presidential candidates, Americans all across the nation are taking a stand against hate.