*Editor’s note: The article originally stated the protests gathered during Friday prayers, it has been corrected below.
Among the more sinister aspects of the American civil religious tradition is when nationalistic fervor combines with religious persecution. Such a menacing combination was visible last week in Arizona when hundreds of armed anti-Muslim protestors gathered outside a mosque on Friday during prayer.
Anti-religious fervor is particularly invective when it attempts to disrupt the exercise of religion. In this case the intent was to disrupt congregational prayers.
Disruptions of these sorts are nothing new in America. For example, followers of the Hare Krishna movement have longtime faced such opposition during their festivals and congregational practices, particularly at their annual ratha yatra or “festival of chariots” processions. Although this tradition dates to ancient Hindu religious beliefs, a permanent part of the American version invariably involves American protestors trailing the chariots.
The protestors, however, are not simply trying to get a point across; they aim to incite. Not only do these protestors carry U.S. flags and wear “God Bless America” t-shirts, others, come in cow costumes and carry signs with messages such as “cows are for eating,” “Jesus is Lord,” and select biblical verses.
The symbols draw power from a baseline logic that makes America and Christianity synonymous. The foil for this combination is practically everything else. It is not just that the religion is foreign, but un-American as well. Never mind that Christianity itself is a religion from the Middle East or that American transcendentalism was grounded in Indian religious thought; the fusion of country and religion creates a perfect path to tyranny of the majority.
The situation is similar for Islam. Although Muslims have been in this country since its inception, the religion is still viewed as un-American. Research has made it clear that among the slaves who arrived on American shores, a significant number were Muslim. Some of these Africans spoke Arabic and were literate. The religion, however, was stamped out and they were later forced to adopt Christianity.
The cloaking of deep religious beliefs in the garments of nationalism also hides some of the religious force behind the protest. It is invisible because the patriotism stands as code for the cross. The visible part is blunt and overt, with t-shirts and signs attacking the religion.
The Arizona protest ushered in a dangerous turn toward the guerilla. Not only were individuals proclaiming their symbols as they degraded those of Islam, but they were armed too. Here, the First Amendment functioned as a shield for discursive behavior that only the majority can get away with; the Second Amendment ensures that constituents can stay strapped all the while. There is seemingly no limit to the provocation, whereas in-kind reciprocation is inconceivable.
One might only imagine how it would be if Muslim protestors were to appear at church on Sunday morning. As churchgoers in their Sunday bests, with children and families, enter and exit the building, they are greeted with loud music, jeers, taunts, with individuals dawning “Fuck Christianity” t-shirts and holding signs like “Christianity sucks D.” How would the backlash look?
Yet, to get a more accurate comparison, imagine this happening on Christmas eve or Easter Sunday mass. Muslims and other religious groups are expected to tolerate this type of treatment, but it seems doubtful that it would be if the roles were reversed.
Rather than responding to such tactics in turn, the response has been moderate. In some cases, protestors have been treated to bottled water and plates of food; in Arizona one of the mosque members passed out water to both sides of the protest.
Although such compassionate behavior can earn sympathy for Muslims, it should be forthcoming foremost from the religious sector. Religionists of all stripes have a stake in standing together against religious oppression. This goes doubly for Christian leaders, since some of the persecution is happening in their religion’s name. They must not stand by idly while their religion gets hijacked before their eyes. Instead, they must help to ensure the demise of religious persecution, even if it survives as a shape-shift of the Constitution.