Commentary
By Catherine Orsborn 3-20-2019

I looked at the faces and read the stories of the people killed in New Zealand last Friday. I saw my own toddler in the face of the 3-year-old boy. I felt the anguish his family must be going through losing such joy from their lives. I thought about the children who no longer have a mother or a father, and the people who lost a brother, a sister, a best friend. It’s moments like this, when I see the human impact of hate, that I am called back to the “why?” of my own work.

As executive director of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, my professional life is concentrated on counteracting anti-Muslim discrimination and violence. When I started this work, there were many from my white Christian community of origin that wondered if I had converted to Islam — as if that’s why I started doing this work.

I understood where the people asking this question were coming from, but the assumption behind it bothered me. They assumed the only reason Christians would care about anti-Muslim hate in the United States is if they had converted to Islam themselves. The assumption caused me to dig deeper into why I would care enough about this issue to devote myself to it not in spite of my Christian identity but because of it.

The theological reasons for working in this space are clear. Christians are explicitly called to love our neighbors, those who are like us and those who are not. Jesus’ example prioritizes the margins of society and reaching out to those who are deeply hurting. Christians are to not bear false witness against another, which should prompt us to stand against falsehoods being spread about a group of people.

This theological grounding is a major part of why I started and stay involved in this work. But there’s something else that should be pulling white Christians into addressing Islamophobia: it’s our problem.

Anti-Muslim hate is deeply intertwined with white supremacy and racial bias. The work to dismantle the root causes of this hate falls heavily on white Christian communities. I’m not involved in this work to do good for people who are hurting as if their pain has nothing to do with me or my community. I’m involved because if white Christians don’t take responsibility for un-fertilizing the ground that breeds hate and violence, then we will not see change. It’s on us to confess how white Christians have contributed to Islamophobia and transform our repentance into collective action.

White Protestants (and white evangelicals in particular) in the United States hold the most negative views about Islam and Muslims, according to recent Pew survey data. Politicians know this and play on these negative feelings in order to win political support by scapegoating Muslims for all sorts of social ills. While running anti-Muslim campaigns may be a losing strategy since most Americans believe that Muslims deserve the same rights and dignity as any other community, the rhetoric that politicians use has deep and lasting effects.

When mainstream media gives seven times more coverage to acts of violence committed by people self-identifying as Muslim compared to similar acts perpetrated by people of other backgrounds, we have a recipe for hate and violence against Muslims as a group. Those on the fringe of our society who harbor extreme anti-Muslim views are emboldened to proudly wave the flag of hate in the public square, and even to commit horrific acts of violence like the New Zealand tragedy or like the numerous hate crimes committed in the United States against Muslims in the last couple of years.

White Christians must recognize our responsibility to be at the forefront of fighting anti-Muslim discrimination and violence. It’s our communities that hold the most alarming anti-Muslim views. Those of us who wield influence must use it at this critical time. If we want to roll back the tide of hate, we can start right now in our own communities.

Catherine Orsborn is the Executive Director of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, a national coalition-based campaign of religious denominations and faith-based organizations and communities that are committed to ending discrimination and violence against Muslims in the United States. 

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