Baptist, other religious leaders challenge anti-Muslim rhetoric

August 30, 2010

Against a background of mounting anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence,
Baptist and other religious leaders spoke out Aug. 30 against
Islamophobia and urged federal officials to take a more proactive role
in safeguarding Muslims’ civil rights.

A group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders held a press
conference at a Washington church denouncing the rhetoric and attacks –
including a suspicious Aug. 28 fire
at the construction site of a mosque that has stirred significant
controversy in Murfreesboro, Tenn.; the Aug. 24 attempted murder of a
Muslim taxi driver in New York; and a conservative Florida church’s
plans to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 as an anti-Islamic
protest.

“We’re shifting from fear to fear-mongering, from misunderstanding
to misinformation, from legitimate speech to hate speech to hate
violence,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on
American Islamic Relations, in the conference at Washington’s Western Presbyterian Church.
The church was chosen as the setting for the briefing partially because
its sanctuary hosts Friday prayer services for Muslim students at the
adjacent George Washington University campus.

The anti-Muslim violence comes amid a raging national controversy
over a planned Islamic community center a few blocks from the former
site of the World Trade Center in New York. Polls show about two-thirds
of Americans opposed to the center’s construction, viewing an Islamic
institution near the site of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic
extremists as inappropriate. The same polls also show significant
minorities of Americans questioning whether the Constitution’s
religious-freedom provisions apply to Muslims.

While many of the opponents of the Park51 community center project
in New York claim they do not question the right of Muslims to build
the center but rather question its appropriateness, more blatant
anti-Muslim protests have surfaced around mosque construction projects
in other parts of the country. In particular, many opponents of the
Tennessee mosque have openly asserted their opposition to any sort of
Islamic facility in their community.

Jeffrey Haggray, pastor of Washington’s First Baptist Church,
called the upswing in anti-Muslim rhetoric “truly unacceptable” and
said Christian and other religious leaders have a special
responsibility to speak out against it.

“While we all celebrate freedom of speech in our nation, we would be
engaging in denial if we did not acknowledge forthrightly that the acts
of violence that are now surfacing against Muslims, mosques and other
Islamic symbols are directly linked to the vitriolic and incendiary
rhetoric and actions we have seen in recent weeks,” he said. “We are
duty-bound to publicly condemn these actions both as Americans and as
people of faith.”

The same afternoon, Baptist and other religious-liberty leaders met
with Department of Justice officials to urge them to act quickly,
according to a press advisory about the meeting, “to protect and
preserve religious freedoms and the rights of all Americans, including
millions of Muslims, to live and practice their faith freely, without
fear of violence or intimidation.”

The leaders -- including Brent Walker, executive director of the
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Welton Gaddy, a
Baptist minister who serves as president of the Interfaith Alliance --
are asking Attorney General Eric Holder to lead a coordinated response
to the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment. Their requests include:

  • Asking
    Holder’s Justice Department to lead other federal agencies in offering
    assistance to Muslim individuals and communities around the country
    threatened by violence.
  • Asking the federal government to
    offer assistance to state and local law-enforcement officials to
    investigate anti-Muslim hate crimes according to the terms of the
    Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, passed by Congress and
    signed into law by President Obama last year. Among the law’s
    provisions are additional federal support for investigating and
    prosecuting crimes motivated by the victim’s faith, ethnicity, gender,
    sexual orientation or disability.
  • Asking the Justice
    Department to create a centralized hotline for reporting hate crimes to
    federal officials, overhauling a reporting system the leaders currently
    view as too cumbersome.

At the same time, some organizations that monitor persecution of
Christians around the globe are warning that the heated debates over
Islam in the United States could have deadly repercussions for
Christians living in majority-Muslim countries.

“Obviously, Muslims around the world are paying attention to the
Ground Zero mosque situation and the planned burning of the Quran,”
said Carl Moeller, president of the Christian group Open Doors USA,
in an Aug. 30 press release. “What happens in the U.S. could impact
Christians in those Muslim countries in which they are already
vulnerable.

“The burning of Qurans will only confirm what many Muslims believe
-- that Christians hate Muslims. That is exactly the opposite message
we as Christians want to send. We want to reach out in love to them.”--Associated Baptist Press