Every Friday, Muslim Life at Georgetown University runs weekly Jum’ah prayer services at 1:30 p.m. in Bulldog Alley. At the March 22 service, attendees grappled with responding to a devastating massacre.
A week earlier, a gunman stormed two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 worshippers and injuring 50 others. The attack, a manifestation of persistent and intensifying Islamophobic violence, rocked Muslim communities across the world and at Georgetown.
At Jum’ah following the shooting, Imam Yahya Hendi, Georgetown’s Muslim chaplain since 1999, emphasized cross-cultural exposure to diverse religious experiences as the best way for the Georgetown community to combat Islamophobia.
“We need to share with them the beauty of our faith, the beauty of our culture and what we have and can contribute to world peace,” Hendi said in his sermon after the Christchurch shooting. “We cannot hide away.”
University President John J. DeGioia, who attended the service, addressed the congregation, offering a message of support and hope to the Muslim community.
“This is our work today, to build and sustain a sense of community, a sense of welcome, a sense of belonging,” DeGioia said at the service. “We recognize in these moments the responsibilities that we have to one another.”
Student representatives from the Jewish Student Association presented a poster to Imam Hendi with messages of support from the Jewish community on campus.
The Jum’ah service captured how Muslim and Jewish students and faculty remain supportive and resilient amid intensifying hatred against both religious minority groups. In light of such attacks, members of these communities are making renewed calls for action against bigotry on and off campus.
In recent years, hate crime reports against both Muslim and Jewish communities have risen throughout the United States.
Islamophobic hate crimes increased by 77 percent in the United States between 2014 and 2017, and antisemitic hate crimes increased by 54 percent in the same time period, according to the FBI. Both religious communities have recently suffered deadly shootings, including the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October and the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch.
The national uptick in hate crimes has also manifested at Georgetown, particularly in the form of antisemitism. In May 2017, antisemitic graffiti was found in restrooms outside Makóm, the Jewish prayer space. In September of that year, swastikas were also found spray painted in bathrooms in LXR Hall. Overall, the number of hate crimes on Georgetown’s campus rose by 275 percent in 2017.
Recent social and political unrest has contributed to the rise in antisemitic hate crimes, according to Rabbi Benjamin Barer, a Jewish chaplain on campus.
“Antisemitism is one of the oldest hatreds, because it’s not really about Jews,” Barer said in an interview with The Hoya. “It’s a way to pigeonhole us when people are unhappy for all sorts of reasons — economic, social [or] religious.”
Although many attacks, such as the March 22 shooting in Christchurch, take place abroad, their consequences resonate with students and faculty on campus. The anti-Muslim attack sparked feelings of anger and anxiety, according to Muslim Chaplain Umbreen Akram.
“As humans, you know, it hits you,” Akram said in an interview with The Hoya. “It made me angry a little bit too, ‘Why again, why again, when it is gonna end, when is it gonna stop, we are not safe anywhere.’”
For some Muslim students, the Christchurch attack was a reminder of their community’s vulnerability, according to Sajjad Alvee (SFS ’22), an active member of the Muslim Student Association.
“The first thing that I thought of was the family members of the people that passed, because they look like people from my country,” Alvee said. “Even the ones that don’t, these are the kinds of faces I see at the mosque back home.”
In response to the rising number of hate crimes and mass attacks across the country, members of Muslim and Jewish communities at Georgetown have attempted to move past the violence.
For Abdulrahman Gabriel (COL ’22), dismantling negative perceptions of Islam is an everyday process.
“It’s definitely in my mind, but it doesn’t really affect my day-to-day issues or how I deal with people,” Gabriel said. “I always try to remain the same. I always try to be as good as I can be to anybody else, to put the right image of Islam, at least, if the person knows I’m Muslim or considers that aspect of me.”
JSA Co-President Aviv Lis (COL ’19) maintained a sense of normalcy in the wake of antisemitic attacks.
“When there’s a hate crime in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, yes I feel for it and it’s really sad, and I don’t like that it happened at all, but it doesn’t affect my daily life,” Lis said.
Maintaining daily routines within the Jewish community is also an important part of triumphing over hate, according to Barer.
“Doing what we do every day despite, or because of, the challenges that we face, just continuing on as normal is one of the strengthening things that we can do,” Barer said. “We’re still gonna get together to proudly be Jews in this Catholic space. That’s what people need.”
The Muslim and Jewish communities on campus have supported each other through solidarity events in response to antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks.
After the Pittsburgh shooting, for example, MSA delivered handwritten letters of support to Jewish students and faculty, according to Lis.
Alvee feels supported by fellow Muslims on campus in the wake of tragedy.
“There’s more sense of solidarity,” Alvee said. “It’s just nice to know that there are other people that are going through the same emotions.”
Members of the Jewish community responded in solidarity after events in Pittsburgh, according to Benjamin Smith (COL ’20), a Jewish student from Massachusetts.
“We responded by chalking positive messages in Red Square,” Smith wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The Jewish adage, ‘Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened,’ guided our response: We defeat bigotry by sharing our best selves with others.”
Support beyond the immediate community members has proven vital for students and faculty in trying to deal with instances of hate, according to Alvee.
“I think a good way of processing it is just seeing the outreach we have from other communities,” Alvee said. “I don’t know how it helps me process it, but something about it that just helps me feel at ease or just cope with it better is when I see that people do care.”
Messages of support proved invaluable to the Jewish community recovering after Pittsburgh, Barer said.
“To the extent that you can, know that every single person that reached out to us, to the Jewish students after Pittsburgh, meant the world,” Barer said. “There aren’t the right words to say.”
For students and members of campus ministry, preventing violent acts of hatred begins with education and interreligious outreach.
Breaking down the misconceptions that prop up hatred and enable violence requires proactive dialogue, according to Hendi. Barer agreed that education is critical to tackle hate.
“We need to build bridges,” Hendi said in his March 22 sermon. “We need to educate our fellow neighbors about who we are.”
“It always comes down to education,” Barer said. “It’s being out there publicly expressing Judaism, not just in this kind of monolithic way.”
For Alvee, however, dismantling hatred begins with dismantling fear.
“I think the biggest thing is just eliminating fear and fostering understanding,” Alvee said. “For me, that’s through social interaction and just normalizing interactions with Muslims or any group that you’re afraid of.”
Student organizations and Campus Ministry have spearheaded efforts to cultivate dialogue and host discussions, interfaith events and vigils.
On Oct. 29, for example, Campus Ministry hosted an interfaith service of mourning and solidarity in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting. JSA also hosted a discussion about antisemitism in Congress and at Georgetown on April 4 with GU Jewish Life and Resetting the Table, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bridging political divides through dialogue.
As an additional step, Barer hopes to bring university chaplains as guest lecturers to mandatory theology courses such as “The Problem of God,” which would help expose more students to religious leaders at Georgetown.
“It would be amazing if we had the capacity to bring a chaplain into each of those classes as a guest lecturer,” Barer said, “Just to have the opportunity to have face time with every student instead of just with the students who seek us out.”
Diverse faith communities must cooperate in response to rising bigotry, according to John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs and the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
“The rise of white supremacism and nationalism and the significant increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia rhetoric and violence globally threaten the very fabric of our societies,” Esposito wrote in an email to The Hoya. “In an increasingly multicultural and multi-religious world, it is critical that followers of all faiths and none are challenged to acknowledge our shared values and religious & cultural pluralism.”
*An earlier version of this article inaccurately reflected Rabbi Benjamin Barer’s comments on bringing university chaplains to mandatory theology courses, contained a quote from a student at an event who had not chosen to speak on the record and referred to Jack Thorman (COL ’19) as a member of JSA; Thorman is co-president of JSA alongside Aviv Lis. The article has been updated to remove the quote and better reflect Barer’s comments as well as Lis’s position.