When we moved from New Haven last year, we struggled to leave our family home, attached not only to the relationships we had built but also to the leafy green streets, the exceptional Yale University libraries and the Diyanet Mosque where our son spent much of his early life.
Today the ground is shaking beneath my feet. On Sunday, the very same Diyanet Mosque was purposefully set on fire, according to police. When I see photos of the mosque on fire, it feels as though my house is burning. This is an attack not only on a community and the values that I hold dear, but also on my very own loved ones, so often within its bounds.
I think of how such acts devalue the lives of those close to my heart, from our dear family friends to my own husband and son. I think of how my husband could have been there praying, or my now 4-year-old Sami playing, still believing that all is right and good in the world when he is by his father’s side.
For my husband, a Turkish German academic, this mosque brought his ancestry into the everyday life of the American city, a place where he not only prayed but spoke in the language of his parents, and where he befriended men like Yacob (a wonderfully honest mechanic) and Osman (an always optimistic entrepreneur). The Diyanet Mosque allowed him, and therefore our family, to feel rooted in New Haven, fostering the feeling that we were home. In fact, I resisted leaving New Haven at all because of this sense of rootedness, and also security, that our multicultural family found in the spaces of the city.
Attacks on places of worship are taking place with great frequency, often targeting days on which religious services occur, such as high holidays. Such attacks are not unique to the United States. On April 21, Easter Day, more than 250 people were killed in a set of coordinated bombings of churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. And a gunman killed 51 people in a March 15 shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Here in the United States, such attacks shatter our supposedly shared ethics in a country founded on the notion of religious freedom and protection of conscience. Freedom is easily eroded by threat, the peace we feel in our religious sanctuaries quickly displaced by fear. It seems as though no spaces and no moments are sacred any longer; they have become opportunities for hate-based violence, a way to target America’s most deeply held beliefs.
While it feels as if a fault line is spreading across the American imagination, these attacks know no geographical bounds, spanning states and institutions alike. A shared characteristic of recent attacks on mosques, synagogues and black churches includes the motivation of violence, an emboldened white supremacy that casts both religious and racial minorities as outsiders, seen as in but not of America.
Within a span of 10 days in March and April, three historically black churches in St. Landry Parish, La., were burned, for which a single suspect has recently been charged with hate crimes. This terrorist tactic harks back to before the Civil War, and it is part of a rising trend, as numerous black churches have been burned over the past few years, including those in Greenville, Miss. (spray-painted with the words “Vote Trump”), Warrenville, S.C., and Knoxville, Tenn.
On June 17, 2015, nine parishioners were murdered in Mother Emanuel, a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. The leader of the congregation, the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, traveled to Pittsburgh in October 2018 and again just two weeks ago, to show solidarity with Tree of Life synagogue. On Oct. 27, 2018, 11 congregants were gunned down during Shabbat services at Tree of Life synagogue. And in April, on the last day of Passover, a gunman killed a Chabad synagogue congregant in Poway, Calif., wounding three others, including the synagogue’s rabbi.
Such attacks have taken place in a broader atmosphere in which hate crimes against Muslims, Jews and racial minorities have risen over the past three years, according to the FBI.
Even though I am not Muslim, mosques have been a formative and beautiful part of my family, my intellectual pursuits (as a sociologist studying mosques) and my spiritual life. Today, we live in Charlottesville, where I am part of a Jewish community that also made the headlines less than two years ago, when neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us” as they marched past its doors.
These experiences, together and alone, have helped me turn toward, rather than away from the traditions in which I was raised. And they have fortified my belief that we must stand up for the very basic foundation on which our society is built: free exercise of religion not only as a constitutional right but also as a shared belief that unites us in all of our forms. I know that the time is now to not only speak but also live a commitment to working across religious and racial boundaries, creating lasting bonds that value and preserve the humanity that we share.
In the face of this unsettling reality, we have to remain grounded and build such solidarity across religious and racial lines, to stand together against the devaluing of our lives. Today, I think of what my friend and colleague Brandy Daniels, who is an activist clergy member, told me after standing on the front lines against the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville.
“It’s not about being brave,” she said. “Solidarity isn’t the absence of fear; it’s acting in spite of it — for the people with and around you.”
Elisabeth Becker Topkara is a postdoctoral fellow with the Religion & Its Publics Project and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture Project at the University of Virginia, where she is completing her first academic book on European mosques and a memoir on interfaith marriage.