CT mosque fire feels like my own house burning

Published on Wednesday, 15 May 2019 19:40
Written by Elisabeth Becker Topkara

The Washington Post

When we moved from New Haven, Connecticut, last year, we struggled to leave our family home, attached not only to the relationships we had built but also to the leafy green streets, the exceptional Yale University libraries and the Diyanet Mosque where our son spent much of his early life.

Today, the ground is shaking beneath my feet. On Sunday, the very same Diyanet Mosque was purposefully set on fire, according to police. When I see photos of the mosque on fire, it feels like my house is burning. This is an attack not only on a community and the values that I hold dear but on my very own loved ones, so often within its bounds.

I think of how such acts devalue the lives of those close to my heart, from our dear family friends to my own husband and son. I think of how my husband could have been there praying, or my now 4-year-old Sami playing, still believing that all is right and good in the world when he is by his father’s side.

For my husband, a Turkish-German academic, this mosque brought his ancestry into the everyday life of the American city, a place where he not only prayed but spoke in the language of his parents, and where he befriended men like Yacob (a wonderfully honest mechanic) and Osman (an always optimistic entrepreneur). The Diyanet Mosque allowed him, and therefore our family, to feel rooted in New Haven, fostering the feeling that we were home. In fact, I resisted leaving New Haven at all because of this sense of rootedness, and also security, that our multicultural family found in the spaces of the city.

Attacks on places of worship are taking place with great frequency, often targeting days on which religious services occur, such as high holidays. Such attacks are not unique to the United States. On April 21, Easter, 250 people were killed in a set of coordinated bombings of churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. And on March 15, a gunman killed 50 individuals in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Here in the U.S., such attacks shatter our supposedly shared ethics in a country founded on the notion of religious freedom and protection of conscience. Freedom is easily eroded by threat, the peace we feel in our religious sanctuaries quickly displaced by fear. It seems as though no spaces, and no moments, are sacred any longer: They have become opportunities for hate-based violence, a way to target America’s most deeply held beliefs.

While it feels as if a fault line is spreading across the American imagination, these attacks know no geographical bounds, spanning states and institutions alike. A shared characteristic of recent attacks on mosques, synagogues and black churches includes the motivation of violence, an emboldened white supremacy that casts both religious and racial minorities as outsiders, seen as in but not of America.

Last month, in the course of 10 days, three historically black churches in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, were burned, for which a single suspect has recently been charged with hate crimes. This terror tactic harks back to before the Civil War, and it is part of a rising trend as numerous black churches have been burned over the past few years, including those in Greenville, Mississippi (marked with the words “Vote Trump”), Warrenville, South Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

On June 17, 2015, nine parishioners were murdered in Mother Emanuel, a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The leader of the congregation, the Rev. Eric Manning, traveled to Pittsburgh in October 2018 and again just two weeks ago, to show solidarity with the Tree of Life synagogue. On Oct. 27, 2018, 11 congregants were killed during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue by an armed gunman. And on the first day of Passover in 2019, a gunman killed a Chabad Synagogue congregant in Poway, California, wounding three others, including the synagogue’s rabbi.

Such attacks have taken place in a broader atmosphere where hate crimes against Muslims, Jews and racial minorities have risen over the past three years, according to the FBI.

Even though I am not personally Muslim, mosques have been a formative and beautiful part of my family, my intellectual pursuits (as a sociologist studying mosques) and my spiritual life. Today, we live in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I am part of a Jewish community, which also made the headlines less than two years ago, when neo-Nazis chanted “the Jews will not replace us” as they marched past its doors.

These experiences, together and alone, have helped me turn toward, rather than away from the traditions in which I was raised. And they have fortified my belief that we must stand up for the very basic foundation on which our society is built: free exercise of religion not only as a constitutional right but also as a shared belief that unites us in all of our forms. I know that the time is now to not only speak but live a commitment to working across religious and racial boundaries, creating lasting bonds that value and preserve the humanity that we share.

In the face of this unsettling reality, we have to remain grounded and build such solidarity across religious and racial lines, to stand together against the devaluing of our lives. Today, I think of what my friend and colleague Brandy Daniels, who is an activist clergy member, told me after standing on the frontlines of the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville.

“It’s not about being brave,” she said. “Solidarity isn’t the absence of fear; it’s acting in spite of it - for the people with and around you.”

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Becker Topkara is a postdoctoral fellow with the Religion & Its Publics Project and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture Project at the University of Virginia, where she is completing her first academic book on European mosques and a memoir on interfaith marriage.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns on Wednesday, 15 May 2019 19:40. Updated: Wednesday, 15 May 2019 19:42.