The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines persecution as “the act or practice of persecuting especially those who differ in origin, religion, or social outlook.” In today’s society, we are hyper-aware of targeted, systemic racism, oppression, and prejudice thanks to movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #TransRightsAreHumanRights, and #StopAsianHate. But these issues have been woven into society’s fabric long before these movements hit mainstream media in 2020 and 2021. They’ve been around since the beginning of time. And what’s a major part of identity that has driven humans, culture, and history for centuries?
You guessed it: religion.
With the many religions throughout the world (Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, etc), come the differences of belief, practice, and culture. When one of these religions has an advantage over another (through geopolitical means), someone is going to be oppressed. It’s simply how power works.
It happened to the Christians who were persecuted by the Romans for being monotheistic and believing in a king (Christ) other than Caesar. It happened to the Moriscos (also known as the Moors) during the Spanish Inquisition, who were tortured for practicing Islam after the Reconquista prohibited it. It happened to the Jews for simply not being Arian, who were herded by the droves into concentration camps, ovens, and body pits in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
But these are examples from the antiquated, barbaric past, right? Freedom of religion is a no-brainer in a democratic, modern world, right? Certainly, you’d never find a case of religious persecution in the U.S. of all places. Right?
In fact, religiously targeted crimes were the highest percentage of U.S. hate crimes in 2019, most of which were anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim.
"Violent hate crimes targeting religion were the most likely type to occur in religious institutions (12% occurred in religious institutions), while incidents targeting Muslim pop. (28%) were more likely to occur in an open area compared to those targeting Jewish pop. (18%)."
— Nash Mendes (@MrNashMendes) June 7, 2021
As a Catholic, whose faith aligns closely with that of Judaism and Islam both theologically and historically, I can tell you that these crimes are not because of religions hating each other. Today, the vast majority of Christians, Jews, and Muslims don’t view each other as infidels who must convert or perish (unlike say, during the Crusades). As a Catholic, I can tell you that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share the same ideals of compassion, forgiveness, and tolerance. And all three groups believe in the same idea of one God.
So why does religious persecution still happen?
The religious hate crimes we see today are driven by politics or race. For example, when a Mosque in the Netherlands was vandalized with pig’s blood in 2017, the neo-Fascist, anti-Islam group Pegida were the culprits.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes prevailed in the U.S. (and throughout the world) when refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries flooded Europe and North America after I.S.I.S. rose to power in 2014. Because the refugees practiced the same faith as the extremists in Syria, people saw them as inherently dangerous. If all Muslim refugees were terrorists, why would they be fleeing the violence of their home countries? Once again, religious-based xenophobia was on the rise.
So when Pegida attacked that mosque in 2017, it’s worth noting that their doctrine has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the xenophobia in Germany when they saw an influx of Muslim refugees.
The religious hate crimes we see today are driven by politics or race.
With that said, xenophobia itself can oftentimes be traced to fears spurred by other forms of extremism. People often forget that extremism represents political/military fanatics and not religion itself. Perhaps the most recognizable case of religious misconception was the rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. after 9/11. In a country forever changed, many angry Americans equivalated extremism/terrorism with Islam itself. It didn’t matter that Muslims also lost their lives on that day and that they were just as horrified by the attacks as the rest of the world.
When visiting a Washington D.C. mosque shortly after 9/11, President George Bush made it clear that the attacks “violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.” Too many people forgot this crucial truth. This can be attributed in part to the cultural differences that separate Islam from Catholicism, Judaism, or Buddhism, but understanding these differences is what leads us to the heart of one’s faith. Laying beneath the visible differences between Muslims and Christians are the fundamental principles of compassion, kindness, and knowing that we are all creations of the same God. When one recognizes this, they will see that more similarities bind religions instead of separating them.
So if religious oppression can be dated back to the Roman Empire, how do we finally end it?
On Friday 9th April, there was an arson attack on Arrahma mosque in the French city of #Nantes. The fire started from three bins filled with cardboard boxes and positioned just in front of the door.#Islam #Islamophobia pic.twitter.com/Pfot4rdB0i
— DOAM (@doamuslims) April 11, 2021
We don’t. People who have no regard for the law or for morals will continue to commit crimes no matter how many laws, rallies, and marches blaze through a country’s sociopolitical scene. What we can do, however, is bridge the gap between our religions. While our religions may look and sound different, it is the faith (not the institution, which is another story entirely) that connects us. If you yourself are religious, think about the ways in which your religious freedoms are being oppressed in your daily life (if there are any).
People often forget that extremism represents political/military fanatics and not religion itself.
You may not recognize it consciously, but we are surrounded by microaggressions every day. Despite Christianity and Islam being the largest two religions in the world, religion itself has been under attack in recent years. There is a growing mistrust of religion in general, particularly among the younger generation. On social media, there is an unspoken negative stigma against embracing religion. I can’t imagine how Muslims experience these microaggressions when the news constantly pushes misconceptions about their faith almost daily.
And there’s nothing wrong with not being religious! The problem arises when those who don’t believe disdain those who do.
On the surface, these things feel small but they contribute to modern religious persecution on the whole. If the mainstream media reported world news with a balanced angle, and if non-religious people were less disdainful of faith, people might start to feel safer in openly worshipping without fearing ostracism from those with different values, cultures, and beliefs.
Educating ourselves on what makes us alike rather than what separates us will help decrease the spread of stereotypes that pit one group against the other. Watching the biased, politically-driven news doesn’t count; it only perpetuates stigmas and misinformation, particularly about Muslims in the Middle East. Never vilify what you don’t understand. Learn about it before you fear it, or God forbid, hate it.
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