The violent responses to the Islamophobic film Innocence of Muslims remind us that religious passions can be triggered by hate speech and provoke violent reactions on a global level. While the "trigger" in this case was an amateur film gone viral, other cases include the inflammatory Danish cartoons, a marginal pastor in Florida threatening to burn the Qu'ran, and Jerry Falwell's claim on 60 Minutes that "Muhammad was a terrorist." It is clear that hate speech and attacks on religions will continue by certain segments of the population.
What can we do to limit or stop their occurrence?
One "out of the box" suggestion might be to examine how some experts deal with bullying in our schools and playgrounds. The U.S. government website Stop Bullying Now, a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, states: "Bullying can affect everyone -- those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying." Their research states that the effects on the victims and victimizers are similar, often leading to mental and health disorders, decreased academic achievement, and various forms of anti-social behavior. Without help, victimizers can become abusers of romantic partners, spouses, pets, and even their children. The cycle of violence can be passed on to succeeding generations. Quick action and professional care are recommended to curb this behavior and bring healing to others. Avoidance or hiding the problem will enable it. Bullying must be brought into the light and dealt with responsibly lest it infect the entire social system. These same suggestions may apply to bullying and hate speech in inter-faith relations.
In recent weeks, Albuquerque, N.M., has been a focus of interfaith bullying, a matter that has flown under the radar for too long. It's time to bring the salient issues into the light and limit their potential damage to the community. The problems started in the spring of 2012 when Friends of Sabeel-North America (FOSNA) announced it would hold a conference in Albuquerque on September 28-29, 2012. FOSNA is the North American support organization for Sabeel-Jerusalem, the voice of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. FOSNA has conducted 35 conferences in major cities across North America in the past ten years. Sadly, the proposed Albuquerque conference was denounced by the Jewish Federation of Albuquerque and a few local rabbis who began to spread false rumors claiming Sabeel/FOSNA was an anti-Semitic movement that advocated violence and the destruction of Israel. Church officials were asked to boycott the conference lest they offend Jewish sensibilities, notwithstanding the fact that several of the Albuquerque FOSNA committee members are Jewish.
When the local FOSNA committee asked the New Mexico Conference of Churches to co-sponsor the conference, the Federation stepped up its pressure and the request was rejected. Then the Federation and a local rabbi pressured the Episcopal Cathedral (that had already agreed to host the conference) and the offer was rescinded.
Some Albuquerque clergy have come under similar pressure, such as Msgr. Richard Olona, a respected Roman Catholic priest with a long history of interfaith and ecumenical relations in Albuquerque. In Msgr. Olona's case, he was familiar with Sabeel's Christian theological and moral positions, including its commitment to nonviolence and justice and peace for Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Holy Land. Msgr. Olona understood the legitimacy of FOSNA's mission and the importance of an honest discussion of the issues in the Holy Land. He was also concerned that Palestinian Christians are suffering extensively in Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied territories and believes the churches should be more aware of these issues. He was not bullied into reversing his position by the Federation's intimidating rhetoric and upheld the need for free speech and the conference. The Msgr. described for me the multiple phone calls and intimidating tactics that can only be described as bullying tactics. He recalled how similar pressure was used against his community as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and African Americans in their quest for freedom and civil rights.
We in FOSNA call for a cessation of the bullying, intimidation, and smear campaigns that only bring division and denigration of persons. We offer an open debate on these emotionally charged but vitally important issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We invite the people of Albuquerque to come and hear speakers that include Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and a variety of American clergy and scholars. We are grateful for the support of the growing number of Jews and rabbis who embrace such a learning environment. The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinic Council recently issued a letter of support for the Albuquerque conference, stating:
As rabbis and people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the work of Sabeel. Palestinian Christian liberation theologians such as Canon Naim Ateek of Sabeel challenge Jews and Christians to rethink our relationship to the Holy Land and each other on the basis of a universal standard of human rights grounded in nonviolence. Canon Ateek sees us as equal theological partners in the land we both love -- and Sabeel's partnership model provides a hopeful model for dialogue and action. We encourage the Jewish community to engage the Palestinian Christian faith community with an open heart and mind in order to encounter another version of faithfulness.
We encourage the greater Albuquerque community to come and hear Rev. Ateek and others address these important issues. We also encourage the faith communities of Albuquerque to work toward transcending hate speech and bullying tactics. These divisions should not be allowed to continue. Instead, let us work to transform difficult conversations and potentially divisive issues into vehicles that honor free speech and the dignity of every person as an equal child of God. Let's stop the bullying now -- everywhere.
Rev. Dr. Donald Wagner is the National Program Director of Friends of Sabeel-North America.
This piece was previously published on the Albuquerque Journal Online.