Mosque Attacks and the Delegitimization of Islam

Stripping Muslims of their fundamental human right to religious freedom means taking away their right to exercise their faith publicly and in peace.

50 dead, 50 wounded. All of them attacked while worshipping.

Last week, an attacker ambushed two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing anyone in sight. The attacker filmed the whole episode and posted it on social media, as a type of trophy.

As Muslims — and believers of all religions — recoiled around the world that their sacred, safe spaces had once again been made unsafe, at least one lawmaker said the victims were the true perpetrators here. The “real cause of bloodshed,” said right-wing Australian senator Fraser Anning, was Muslims. He wrote: “The truth is that Islam is not like any other faith … It is the religious equivalent of fascism. And just because the followers of this savage belief were not the killers in this instance, does not make them blameless.”

Or, restated in terms we’ve been hearing in the U.S. more and more frequently, “Islam is not a religion” and Muslims have no right to respect, protection or dignity.

In my forthcoming book, I track the prevalence of false claims that “Islam is not a religion” in American politics and social discourse and detail their effects. As I explain in “When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom,” the argument at its core dehumanizes Muslims. It tells them that they don’t have access to human rights because they are not fully human. Stripping Muslims of their fundamental human right to religious freedom means taking away their right to exercise their faith publicly and in peace; it means they cannot build religious cemeteries or houses of worship, or as we saw in New Zealand, worship without fear in those houses of worship.

In America, the hate has been manifesting in mosque attacks for years. On Aug. 5, 2017, morning prayers in a mosque in Bloomington, Minn., were interrupted by an explosion. The perpetrators said they were trying to “scare” Muslims “out of this country.” This wasn’t the only mosque bombing, actual or attempted — in 2016, three men in Garden City, Kansas conspired to bomb an apartment complex that serves as a mosque for Somali refugees. Bombs were thrown at mosque officials near their mosque in Glendale, Ariz.; another one detonated outside a mosque in Cincinnati.

Mosques face arson, too. In 2017, five mosques were set afire in the span of 10 weeks. First a mosque in Austin, Texas was burned to the ground. A week later, the inside of a Bellevue, Wash., mosque was scorched. Hours after President Trump signed his first travel ban, the Islamic Center in Victoria, Texas was consumed in flames. Soon, another fire, this one at a Florida mosque. Then a Michigan mosque went up in fire. And a year after its inside was destroyed, the Bellevue mosque’s façade was blackened.

There has been a tsunami of mosque attacks, but Muslims aren’t the only religious group in America being attacked in their most sacred spaces. Memories of the Tree of Life shootings in October still haunt me. The killer stormed the synagogue and murdered 11 worshippers in the span of 20 minutes. In November 2017, a murderer killed 26 and wounded 20 at the First Baptist Church in Texas. In 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine worshippers during services at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. And in 2012, a shooter killed six and wounded four inside a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc. All of these horrific massacres have at their roots a dehumanization of the people being attacked.

When it comes to Muslims, the newest tool for that dehumanization is the delegitimization of Islam itself. The false and dangerous claim that “Islam is not a religion” is taking hold and the results of that discourse are apparent.

Asma T. Uddin is senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Her email address is: auddin@freedomforum.org.

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