Why Protecting U.S. Mosques Should Be A Priority


As a Muslim with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, as well as a committed bridge-builder involved in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), I am personally invested in the success of multi-faith partnerships like the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council that was formed last month (“Muslim-Jewish Council Forms Amid Spike In Hate Crime,” Nov. 18).

The council is made up of religious, business, and thought leaders from the American Muslim and Jewish and promises to combat anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism and ensure that Muslims and Jews can “practices their faiths in full freedom and security.”

Its creation is timely, especially because of the increasing reports of anti-Muslim harassment and neo-Nazi vandalism occurring across the country.

The council has a lot of work ahead for its foreseeable future. Hate crimes against individuals, bullying in schools, and combating narratives of hate and extremism in the public square are among the items that demand immediate attention.

One additional area the council should pursue is the protection of mosques and Muslim community centers. Muslim institutions are especially vulnerable because they often lack the familiarity, training, and years of experience with security procedures and practices that other congregations have had. They also frequently lack the funds needed to repair buildings after hate crimes and install security upgrades to prevent further attacks. This is an opportunity to model themselves after the Jewish community’s experience and successes in this area.

As an academic researcher dedicated to combating hate, extremism, and violence, I can list three reasons why this should be an immediate priority for the council.

First, anti-Muslim bigotry is a threat to all Americans, including Jews. In a 2014 study on anti-Muslim bigotry, “Manufacturing Bigotry,” co-authored with Saeed Khan, we examined restrictive state legislation that had disproportionate impact on various groups based upon race, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender, labor union membership, immigration status and religion. 

We researched more than 1,600 pieces of passed and proposed legislation across six issue areas in all 50 U.S. states, and found that some legislators who proposed and/or passed anti-Muslim legislation also sponsored or co-sponsored rights-restricting legislation that disproportionately harms African-Americans, Latinos, women and others. As a result, our evidence led us to conclude that anti-Muslim bigotry “is part of a broader trend of exclusion that various minority communities have experienced and continue to experience.”

Second, there is a real threat of violence against mosques, including from domestic violent extremists. For example, in May 2015, the FBI issued an intelligence bulletin, noting that “Militia extremists are expanding their target sets to include Muslims and Islamic religious institutions in the United States.” Indeed, in the period immediately preceding the bulletin and since then, there have been a series of attempts by violent far-right extremists to attack and intimidate gatherings of Muslims around the country.

How is this relevant for Jewish communities and leaders? My father never fails to remind me that whenever there is heightened discrimination against other minorities, anti-Semitism is never far behind. Jews and Muslims share moral concerns and vested interests in combating anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish prejudices. Unfortunately much of the resurgent alt-right rhetoric that has emerged in this election is anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic. This has contributed to an ongoing national climate of hate that has fueled vandalism and violence.

The current mass-casualty threats facing vulnerable Muslim institutions are only the tip of a larger and often less-visible “iceberg” of far-right hate and violence that harms more than one community. These high-profile plots should serve as red flags for others to take note of, including Jews. Muslims are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine.

Finally, protection of mosques and other Muslim community institutions should be an immediate priority for the Council because it is a relatively easy and measurable item to address and demonstrate success. Given the palpable sense of urgency felt by many, the Council needs to demonstrate tangible results quickly to show communities across both faiths that it is more than a symbol.

Hate and violence divert financial (and mental) resources away from other important community development priorities, including leadership training, creating more socially inclusive spaces of worship, and programs encouraging social and civic engagement with within neighborhoods.

Beyond the issues of relevance and measurement, making protection of Muslim institutions a near-term priority is also a way of quickly building trust between communities. To be candid: relationships between Muslims and Jews are strained over Israel-Palestine. There should be no illusions this issue will become less important to both communities, even in this time of perceived crisis, or that through engagement one party or the other may radically alter its deeply-held narratives.

Instead, as my MLI colleague Amanda Quraishi insightfully points out, “the way forward for us (and other marginalized people) is together, but it will require an enormous amount of patience and humility from leaders who are committed to working with one another despite points of deep and passionate disagreement.”

Houses of worship and institutions are meant to be spaces of comfort and community building. As Americans and as spiritual cousins now more than ever we must work toward a future where we can all live, work, play, and pray without fear of hate and violence. 

Alejandro J. Beutel is a researcher for countering violent extremism at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. He is also a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative and a researcher affiliated with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, where he spearheaded its “Islamophobia: A Threat to All” project.