In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.
Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations. Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 that examined the role of religious actors in responding to hate domestically in the United States and throughout the OSCE region. The hearing, titled “Responding to Hate: The Role of Religious Actors,” focused on how faith-based institutions can promote safe and inclusive societies and reduce violence, hostility, and discrimination.
Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) chaired the hearing and was joined by other commissioners including OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09).
Rep. Moore opened the hearing by stating, “All of us have something to gain from those who look different, pray differently, and may come from a different place. And we must not wait until tragedy strikes, again and again and again, to learn the value of mutual respect. We must seize every opportunity to denounce hate-motivated violence, and in doing so we protect the value of freedom of expression, the hallmark of democracy.”
She also paid homage to six Sikh worshippers killed near her district in Oak Creek, Wisconsin seven years ago.
In his opening remarks, Sen. Cardin recounted his side event at the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA earlier in July, titled, “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future,” where he called on parliamentarians to act now to prevent a repeat of the past where bigotry and violence resulted in the deaths of millions under Nazi rule.
Witnesses at the hearing described how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all, domestically and throughout the OSCE region. Witnesses also shared strategies to prevent and respond to hate, ignorance, and violence targeting our societies, including places of worship.
Father James Martin shared a video testimony about his response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, which at the time was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, taking 49 lives. He noted that the LGBT community received an outpouring of love and support the in the aftermath of the tragedy, with the notable exception of the Catholic church.
Father Martin said, “Why am I bringing this up? Because when it comes to the role that religious actors and organizations can play in combatting hate crimes, the most effective thing they can do is to get their own houses of worship in order. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist in many Christian denominations – my own included.”
He ended his testimony by underlining that “the most important thing that religious actors and organizations can do to combat hate crimes is not only to fight the hatred on the outside, but on the inside as well.”
Imam Gamal Fouda also testified by video and remarked on New Zealand’s response to the tragic shooting that targeted and killed Muslims at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, where he is the imam.
“New Zealand set a good example to the whole world for how to look after your people, how to actually support all your people. And we all stand together against hate, hate speech, and hate crimes,” he said. He said the power of New Zealand was demonstrated in the wake of the Christchurch shooting and called for more education on the strength of diverse and inclusive societies.
“We have to stand together looking at the diversity in our communities as something that is strengthening our community,” he said. “It is the secret of the power of our community to see different colors and different languages.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, victim, witness, and survivor of the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA—the worst attack on a synagogue in the history of the United States—stated, “The metaphor of America as a melting pot, is a beautiful image, but sadly, it is not true, [because …we] do not know our neighbors. We live in silos, with no bridges connecting them. Many choose to live in their own private silos, not wanting ‘others’ to enter their silo.”
He believes that the key to addressing hate—what he referred to as the “H-word”— is to learn to build bridges. “Some people just don’t know how to build a bridge. This is where religious leaders like me make a difference…I’m a bridge builder. When the Muslim community extended an olive branch to me, I responded by offering an olive tree,” he said.
Reverend Aaron Jenkins testified on the power of developing partnerships and relationships across different sectors of society to adequately tackle the issue of hate and hate crimes wherever they occur. He remarked, “Any plan to address hate must engage faith actors within and across their faith traditions in respectful and meaningful ways. We cannot wait until the next hate crime happens.” He stated that partnerships, resources, and relationships were needed to address the problem.
Radia Bakkouch spoke about the situation in France and Coexister’s “belief in the concept of ‘faith for good’ and the practice of interfaith cooperation in empowering young people to address violence and exclusion.”
She stressed the importance of defending pluralistic societies and highlighted the importance of building coalitions to address the rise in hate-based violence taking place in France and elsewhere in Europe.
Usra Ghazi detailed federal hate crimes statistics, highlighting that hate crimes historically and consistently are underreported. This, she said, is partly due to a lack of a standardized reporting processes and “strained relationships between bigotry-impacted communities and law enforcement entities.”
Ghazi shared that many members of the Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities affected by anti-Muslim discrimination, hate, and violence in the United States have opted to keep low profiles rather than report these events. She stressed, “Due to the rise of hate crimes and hate speech against Muslim and Sikh Americans, these communities by necessity have had to organize outreach efforts to humanize themselves while raising cultural and religious literacy among their neighbors and governments.”
Ghazi also shared positive examples of how discriminated communities are building their civic health, getting more involved in elections, and running for office at record rates. “We now have Muslim and Sikh mayors of American cities, as well as officials from these faiths in a range of governmental positions. These efforts help to ensure that our cities, counties and states are truly representative of the rich diversity of American communities.”
Alina Bricman’s video testimony concluded the hearing. She presented an overview of the first-ever report of Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism, released July 4, 2019.
Findings included that “44 percent of young Jewish Europeans have faced anti-Semitic harassment, that’s almost 1 in 2 Jews; […] and 25 percent identified as too scared to display Jewish-affiliated ornaments or accessories.”
To address the problem, Bricman recommended investing in education (such as anti-racist and anti-bias training) that emphasizes the importance and strength of diversity and diverse communities, supporting civil society, and depoliticizing anti-Semitism and racism by having leaders engage responsibly in the public arena where it is not viewed as a left or right issue.