Shortly after the horrific massacres in two mosques in New Zealand, committed by a white nationalist who cites Donald Trump as an inspiration (and who the #Trumpenik has refused to disown – unlike YouTube sensation PewDiePie, also cited by the killer), I heard an interview with a person involved in anti-hate activities on NPR. She emphasized the religious nature of the killings, calling for an end to attacks on religious people. She cited, along with the Christchurch murders, the murders of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue and of African-Americans in Charleston, SC. She even mentioned the bombings in the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in 1963, where four young girls were killed.
I do not know if she truly believes that such attacks are motivated by anti-religious beliefs. My guess is that this was a strategic emphasis, trying to get the attention of those who value and laud religion (usually, in this country, Christians) to share in the horror, to identify with the victims as fellow religious people, rather than the perpetrator, as a white guy. To the extent that this is at all effective, I hope it works. My sense is that religious people – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others – who have any sense of the morality associated with their religion already condemn them, and that those who do not will no more identify with groups that they hate because they are also religious than they will because they are also economically oppressed.
Because, of course, all of these attacks, by white supremacists Dylan Roof in South Carolina, by Robert Bowers in Pittsburgh, by Brenton Tarrant in Christchurch, and all of the others, were not based on opposition to religion. They were based on hatred of groups of other people, and all were committed by white nationalists, the overwhelming majority of domestic terrorists in the US – and in New Zealand, and Norway, and other majority white countries. The fact that they occurred at places of worship were the result of convenience, as they are places where the worthless thugs who committed these crimes knew that those they hated gathered.
Yes, Jews and Muslims are of a different religion than that of these perpetrators, but African-American Christians are not; what the vicious thugs have against them are not that they are Christian but that they are black. And white nationalists hate Muslims and Jews because of their “race”, their identity, not for their religious practice. For Jews, this has long been true. Judaism is a religion, yes, but it is also an ethnicity; one identifies as a Jew – and more important, is identified as a Jew – regardless of one’s level of belief or religious practice. Unlike Christians, a Jew can have no religious beliefs, can be an atheist, can come from generations of atheists, and still be a Jew, just as a person of Italian descent remains Italian even if they no longer practice the Catholicism of their ancestors. We call this the “Hitler definition”: if Hitler would have executed you, because one of your grandparents (or farther back) was Jewish even if you are an atheist or a practicing Christian, you are a Jew.
Muslims are somewhat different when considering the world as a whole. While there are at most 10 million Jews in the world, even counting the secular and atheist, mostly in the US and Israel, and while there are actually ethnic differences among them (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, African, etc.), there are over a billion Muslims, representing many countries and ethnicities. The largest Muslim population is in Indonesia, a country that itself has many ethnic groups, none of which are at all Arab, the ethnicity most associated with Islam among white nationalists and other racists. I don’t know about these countries, I don’t know if one can give up Islam and still be considered “Muslim” in Iran, or Indonesia, or Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, but I doubt it.
However, the important thing in the context we are considering is perception in majority white (European origin) countries among racists. There, Muslims, like Jews, are a minority, and are a target. The sidelocks (payes) of Orthodox Jew, or the hijabs of Muslim women, may make the most religious easier targets, but the hatred is not of the religious practice but – however irrationally – of the people. Racist Muslim haters are not that careful. In 2012, a white supremacist named Wade Page shot ten people in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, killing six. They were, of course, not Muslims, but I don’t think Page would have been sorry; he killed himself, but there is no reason to think it was regret for his mistake. In 2017, Adam Purinton, a white supremacist, shot at two Hindu Indian men in a bar in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, killing one. Also in a Kansas City suburb, Overland Park, a white supremacist named Frazier Miller killed two people at the Kansas City Jewish Center and one at Village Shalom, a Jewish retirement community. Again, targets of probability – these are places that one might expect to find Jews, like a synagogue. In fact, as it turns out, all three victims were Christians.
It is not because of their religious beliefs that Muslims, Jews, and African-Americans are victims of racist white supremacists. It is because they are “other”, a convenient group (or groups) for the hater – often a person who has been victimized him (it is always a “him”) self by the society – not by the people that they victimize but by those with real power, the corporations and billionaires who control society – to take out their frustration on. A recent piece on the Scientific American blog notes that there has been a huge upsurge in gun ownership in the US since the Obama years, but the percent of American households with guns is not increasing; the number of guns in some of those households with guns is increasing. Three percent of US households possess 50% of the guns. Mostly, they are men. Mostly, they are white. Mostly, they are at the economic margins. Most are angry.
It is a dangerous cocktail, bitter angry white men with lots of guns who think something has been taken from them, and blame not the perpetrators but the “other”. It is stoked by people like President Trump, who says white nationalism is not a problem, but that if “my police” and “my bikers” start to attack his enemies it would be “very, very bad” (wink, wink). Who stoke Islamophobia and talk about the “majority of our country” (wink, wink). Ethnic and religious minorities repress and murder and commit genocide upon others all over the world, in Israel and Saudi Arabia and Syria and Myanmar and India, and it is never ok. Not at all. And it is not ok in the US – or in New Zealand, or Norway.
So, although it might be a way to raise the awareness among religious communities of the majority faith (and, in fact, white people with strong religious ties are much less likely to be racists, not to mention potential mass murderers), it is not an anti-religious crusade. It is a racist one, and it needs aggressive action to suppress it, not encouragement of a brownshirt mentality.