Why are places of worship the target of attacks? 5 November 2017

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The government has recently issued its Action Against Hate Crimes (pdf) plan, which provides a valuable overview of existing and future plans for tackling hate crime. It included the interesting and well-received news that 2.5million has been allocated for the protection of places of worship:

Representatives from religious communities have raised concerns about attacks against mosques, gudwaras, churches and temples. These range from graffiti to arson attacks and lead to feelings of vulnerability. In October 2015, the Prime Minister made a renewed commitment to tackling anti-Muslim hate crime and announced that new funding will be made available for the security of all faith establishments, including mosques. In 2016,the Home Office will launch a £2.4m scheme for protective security measures at vulnerable faith institutions.

This is alongside existing funding offered to synagogues through the Community Security Trust: –

 There is a specific and defined threat  to Jewish sites and interests in the UK.  We will  continue our commitment to the security of independent  and state -aided  Jewish  faith  schools, synagogues and other Jewish community sites with £13.4m of  funding in 2016/17.  This funding for Jewish communal l ocations is provided via a  grant from the Home Office which is administered by the Community Security Trust  (CST).

The security of mosques has been a long-standing issue, and not something “post-Brexit” as some newspapers indicated. Perhaps the most significant series of attacks on mosques is when Pavlo Lapshyn detonated three bombs in mosques in the Midlands, after stabbing an elderly pensioner, Mohammed Saleem, to death. That is however only one of countless attacks. Tell MAMA constructed a map of attacks gainst mosques in 2013-2014, which saw a particular spike in attacks following the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Arson attacks against mosques are common, ranging from incidents when entire mosques are destroyed.

For churches, the attack in Normandy highlights another facet of danger faced. The attack that left an elderly Priest dead reflects a new dimension of Isis inspired killings in Europe, and a disturbing one. The murder has led to many churches reconsidering their security in light of potential attacks.

It should be no suprise that places of worship are so often the location of attacks. Sacred spaces are sacred for the meanings they hold, which are usually diverse and contested. It is this meaning, the symbolic nature of places of worship, that makes them targets for violence.

In the case of mosques, they can be viewed by attackers in three ways. The first is as a physical representation of a wider Muslim population. Attacks against Muslim women wearing the headscarf fall into a similar rationalisation. Hatred, anger and distrust of Muslims manifest in violence. The spike of anti-Muslim incidents following terror attacks often includes vandalism or arson at mosques. Second, the mosque can be viewed as “not belonging”. Away from the outward violence against established mosques, proposed mosques are often threatened or desacrated to prevent them being opened. The threat of arson was used to prevent proposed mosque in former Prime Minister David Cameron’s home village of Chipping Norton from being opened. The objection is finds its root in that Muslims do not belong in the West.  Finally, some interpret mosques as part of a process of “Islamification” of space. Objectors to the proposed community  mosque in New York several blocks down from the site of the Twin Towers attack viewed the proposed mosque in much the same way – an indication of “conquest”.

Likewise, the choice of the attackers in France to take hostage worshippers at a church in Normandy no doubt was rationalised by the attackers. The horrifying testimony of one of the nuns present during the Normandy attack said the killer shouted “you Christians, you kill us”. They perhaps viewed the church as symbolic of European military imperialism. “Rome” is often used by members of the Islamic State as a shorthand of referring to the West – representative of both the seat of the former Roman Empire but also the Vatican. The attackers choice of a church perhaps also drew on their interpretation of a contemporary crusade taking place in the Middle-East, thus combining historic and contemporary political and religious identities.

In the light of such horrific killings, the words of Pope Francis following the murder of Father Jacques Hamel remind us that between the pockets of violence, there is a lode of goodwill. “It’s war, we don’t have to be afraid to say this… I am not speaking of a war of religions. Religions don’t want war. The others want war.”

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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