United we stand: Unexpected solidarity in face of religious hate crimes

A nun looks at damage caused by a fire in the Church of Loaves and Fishes on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel June 18, 2015 (Reuters / Baz Ratner)
While recent terror attacks in Tunisia are a sobering reminder of the power of blowback – I am heartened to learn of some acts of violence that have had rather unexpected happy endings of late.

Chief amongst them is the story of a Somali Bravanese community in North London, whose centre was burned to the ground in 2013 by what would appear to be a group of English thugs (police are still investigating, but EDL- English Defence League was found scrawled in red near the scene of the crime). It happened shortly after the killing of Lee Rigby and was one of many Islamophobic attacks that occurred across the UK.

While the crime proved initially devastating to the Somalis – most of whom had come as refugees fleeing the civil war and had built the centre from scratch – it soon became a catalyst for interfaith harmony.

This is the third Ramadan in a row that their special evening prayers will be hosted by the Finchley Reform Synagogue. While the Somalis wait for the local council to assign them suitable replacement premises for their many community programs, they have bonded with the local Jewish community over interfaith iftars and shared meals of African and Eastern European cuisine.

“Whenever anyone talks to me about anti-Semitism in the UK,” says Rabbi Mariam Berger, whose congregants include many who fled 1930’s Europe for safety in the UK, “I tell them ‘it’s no picnic being a Muslim in Britain today.”

“When the arson attack happened,” relates Rabbi Berger, who sees Islamophobia and anti-Semitism as opportunities for solidarity, “there was a visceral response from the local Jewish community. It was hard not to think of Kristallnacht.”

I can only imagine that creating solidarity between Jews and Muslims in the UK was hardly the outcome the arsonist/possible EDL supporter was seeking. But like the Wile E Coyote of the fascist world, his crime boomeranged back and created a very different result.

One could say the same thing of white supremacist Dylann Roof – whose hopes of starting a “race war” in the US by killing nine black parishioners at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina seem to have been dashed by examples of unity, love and forgiveness between blacks and whites, even as more black churches burn.

As Hillary Clinton noted, watching the mourning families forgive the young white killer, was like watching Nelson Mandela embrace his former jailers.

Similarly, a recent incident of vandalism of a Catholic Church in Mississauga, Ontario, became a vehicle for Muslim-Christian harmony.

When a mentally disturbed young Muslim man broke into the St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Church and destroyed religious icons, broke the altar and ripped out pages of the bible, a local imam offered assistance.

Imam Hamid Slimi and his congregations raised $5,000 in a single night to help the beleaguered church. Now members of both faiths are getting to know each other in a whole new light.

The historic Church of the Multiplication near the Sea of Galilee, the site many Christians believe to be the place where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, was heavily damaged last week in an arson attack perpetrated by alleged Jewish extremists.

A passage from a Jewish prayer, calling for the elimination of idol worship, was found scrawled in red spray paint on a wall outside the church.

An Israeli conflict resolution group called Mosaica is now raising funds to assist with repairs in conjunction with the Elijah Interfaith Institute. In the online appeal, that has already raised $1,000 of their $12,000 goal- the extremist graffiti is countered with a proverb to the effect of “what is broken can also be repaired.”

Like the lesson of feeding the multitudes with a few fish and a loaf of bread - even small gestures of solidarity and community building can make a big difference in resolving differences between different faiths, cultures, and races.

After the horrific attack on mainly British tourists in Tunisia, it was heartening to see the sense of mutual solidarity grow between tourists and locals. On the BBC, a British woman tourist and frequent visitor spoke of standing with the Tunisians at their time of crisis– who she said were “lovely, hospitable people.” Abandoning Tunisia as a destination, she said, would be “the worst thing we could do right now,” as it would help cripple an already struggling economy and post-Ben Ali fledgling democracy. Locals staged a heartfelt vigil, expressing outrage at the attack and condolences for the victims. Many tourists said they would stay on in spite of everything.

I hope that peace and stability will return quickly to Tunisia.

But I also hope that amidst all the horror stories of “blowback” happening around the world, a new model is emerging. One that promotes forgiveness, harmony and solidarity rather than an endless cycle of hate, violence and revenge.

So as the Somalis take their Ramadan iftar in the North Finchley Reform Synagogue, and blacks and whites pray together in South Carolina, I hope that all faiths will recall their obligations to love and help their neighbors and to “do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

After all, the “golden rule” is the best defense against “blowback.”

Hadani Ditmars for RT

Hadani Ditmars has been reporting from Iraq since 1997 and is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone. Her next book Ancient Heart is a political travelogue of historical sites in Iraq.www.hadaniditmars.com

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.