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Michelle Voss Roberts: Treat Muslims as the neighbors they are

Michelle Voss Roberts: Treat Muslims as the neighbors they are

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Men pray at the Anoor Center mosque in Clemmons in 2005.

On Feb. 16, a presentation at a Kernersville seafood restaurant on “Islamization of America” led to repeated threats and calls to violence against Muslims. Frank del Valle of Winston-Salem spoke of “killing the hell out of them,” “taking people out,” and “shedding — some blood.” A recording of the meeting is available online.

As a Christian theologian, I have discovered that understanding religious dynamics in other contexts can shed light on my own. My students and I have been studying the religious traditions of India. Out of our shared exploration, I offer a couple of observations.

First, the social and economic effects of globalization have been accompanied by the rise of religious nationalisms that instill antagonism between people who otherwise share much in common. Hindu nationalism, for example, creates an Indian identity that minimizes caste differences between Hindus but excludes Christians and Muslims. After decades of development at the grassroots level, this ideology led to the 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a nationalist leader linked to anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that killed thousands.

Second, violence against religious minorities often has little to do with religion. Religious and other minorities become proxies for unsettling changes in the world. If uncertain times call roles into question, violence against others rebuilds a sense of selfhood. Thus, violent religious rhetoric has consequences beyond fear or physical harm. For the people who participate in the language and rituals of religious violence, these gestures help them to draw clear lines of identity.

How does this work? Chad Bauman, in Constructing Indian Christianities (Routledge, 2014), explains in relation to anti-Christian riots in Odisha how violence against religious minorities reinforces the dominance of the majority group. By expelling religious minorities, traditional elites “purify” sacred spaces and deny all but traditional religious sources of authority. In short, religious violence removes uncertainty about identity created by colonization, modernity, and globalization.

There is a cautionary tale here. The specifics differ in the United States, especially in terms of our greater diversity of race, ethnicity and national origin. Nevertheless, the Triad community can learn from recent history to avoid repeating its patterns.

Our nation has already responded to an economic downturn with an outpouring of middle-class anxiety and to our first African American president with assertions of white Christian superiority. The recent election was fueled by talk of building walls and banning Muslims. And early executive orders have begun to make these things a reality.

However, awareness of global patterns urges us to clarify our religious values. For instance, each religious tradition tells its adherents to be truthful, or not to bear false witness against their neighbors. This means that no one should condone lies about other faiths.

My class has learned that Hindu traditions have beautiful resources for countering the greed, hatred and delusion that fuels religiously-framed violence. Within the Christian tradition, however, I look to Jesus Christ for guidance. He teaches his friends to offer hospitality to others as if they were Jesus himself: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). He shows how neighbor love reaches beyond religious lines, and he holds up a Samaritan as an example for his friends to imitate.

Many religious communities in the Triad have been involved in welcoming refugees. As the United States closes its doors to new refugees, the admonition to welcome the stranger continues to apply to people already here, whom the citizens at the Kernersville meeting would prefer to demonize, make invisible and expunge in order to bolster their own sense of worth.

Islam may be the current favorite and convenient target for Americans who want to feel great again, but actual Muslims are people, and they deserve to be treated as neighbors.

Michelle Voss Roberts is an associate dean for Academic Affairs and associate professor of Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

The Journal welcomes original submissions for guest columns on local, regional and statewide topics.

Essay length should not exceed 750 words. The writer should have some authority for writing about his or her subject.

Our email address is: Letters@ws journal.com. Essays may also be mailed to: The Readers’ Forum, P.O. Box 3159, Winston-Salem, NC 27102. Please include your name and address and a daytime telephone number.

Michelle Voss Roberts is an associate dean for Academic Affairs and associate professor of Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Guest Columns

The Journal welcomes original submissions for guest columns on local, regional and statewide topics. Essay length should not exceed 750 words. The writer should have some authority for writing about his or her subject.

Our email address is: Letters@wsjournal.com. Essays may also be mailed to: The Readers' Forum, P.O. Box 3159, Winston-Salem, NC 27102. Please include your name and address and a daytime telephone number.

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