Hate crimes hurt everyone

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

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Rutherford police monitor the Montross Avenue temple in Rutherford, NJ that was firebombed.

I am deeply troubled by the recent rash of hate and bias attacks on individuals and religious institutions in New York and in New Jersey. Homes and places of worship were the subjects of firebombing, graffiti and other types of damage. Such escalation of deplorable acts is a cause for concern to the Muslim community. They should also be a concern to people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

Our condemnation of these attacks must be categorical and unconditional.

These bias acts must never be tolerated or justified and we ask all our law enforcement agencies to vigorously pursue all leads to track down these perpetrators and bring them to justice. Houses of worship are sacred places and no one has the right to violate the sanctity and peace of these institutions.

I spoke to Imam Mohammad Qatanani, spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, who stated, “Whether it is a temple, a mosque, or a church, such heinous attacks must never be treated as passing events. History has taught us that when a place of worship is marked for vandalism, or worse, potentially-life threatening acts such as firebombing, the
very soul of the community is violated and a sense of great personal insult begins to seep in.”

He further added, “We stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters who have also suffered recently at the hands of hate mongers and we say loudly to our friends and neighbors that we are with you, hand in hand against all acts of bigotry and anti-Semitism.” He further added, ‘It is in these times of great duress, that all decent and law abiding citizens from all faiths must show their total and unequivocal condemnation of all expressions of violence, all acts of desecration, all manifestations of unkindness towards fellow man.”

Interestingly enough, Imam Qatanani was a keynote speaker at a recent interfaith gathering in Rockaway, New Jersey. Billed as the Abrahamic Table Faith dinner, more than a hundred people gathered in the sanctuary of the old First Presbyterian Church and listened to speakers from the three monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism reflect on the concept of neighborly love in their respective faiths.

Imam Qatanani related how integral to a Muslim’s fulfillment of his/her faith is the love, kindness, and respect for their neighbor. He quoted many a verse from the Holy Koran and also sayings from Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) that implore the faithful to treat with great graciousness and respect their neighbors irrespective of their faith or ethnic background. When I spoke to the Imam today, he recalled these words and affirmed the need to live up to these moral expectations. He expressed his sadness at what is befalling our community at the hands of misguided people who are filled not with love but with much ignorance and hate. And the Imam offered a prayer for them.

In the past year, mosques or mosque construction sites in Massachusetts, Oregon, Ohio, New York, Iowa, Maine, Georgia, Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, California, and Michigan have been targeted by arson, vandalism, or threats, and in May 2010, a bomb exploded at a Florida mosque. A recent fire at a Kansas mosque is still under investigation.

We pray that the scourge of religiously motivated violence and hatred be finally brought to an end.

And as we prepare to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day, we are reminded of his prayer for the day when “all of God’s children… would be able to join hands…” We should move away from accentuating the evil deeds of some in our midst to the important work of interfaith dialogues and greater interactions between people of different faiths. It is only through such personal interactions that we may begin to feel for our neighbors and ensure the safety and peace of our homes, streets, and towns.

Acts of bigotry have been expressed in words and in deeds. While a physical attack on a place of worship is most abominable, and I pray that the criminals are apprehended and justice is served, I still feel that cyber-hate is more dangerous and must be similarly confronted. While we so cherish free speech as the right of every American, the Internet-based hate industry has gained new ground and impacted the public discourse. We have seen recently how a Florida-based hate group was able to ‘convince’ Lowe’s Home Improvement store to cancel its ads on a TV reality show about American Muslims. Conversely, we are ever steadfast and reassured by the recent decision of a federal court that repealed the Oklahoma law banning religious considerations in the resolution of personal matters. In the case of the latter, the collective efforts by people of all faiths were harnessed to arrive at this powerful rejection of religious discrimination.

When we people of faith, people of a clear moral compass, stand together, the forces of evil are defeated.

Dr. Aref Assaf, president, American Arab Forum, a think tank based in Paterson that specializes in Arab and Muslim American affairs.

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