Faith Leaders Advocate Outreach Over Violence

Dr. Saleh Sbenaty chairs the Outreach Committee of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Photo by Ashley Benkarski

By Ashley Benkarski

MURFREESBORO, TN — Pipe bombs were sent to the president’s critics. Two African-Americans were killed at a Kroger in Kentucky, and 11 people were killed and six injured after a shooter entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

These acts of violence come amid an increase nationwide in hate crimes, and Tennessee has seen an increase in such acts by almost 11 percent in 2017, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reports. Racial, ethnic or ancestral bias was the known motive for nearly 57 percent of those crimes, with anti-Black biased crimes equaling nearly 38 percent. Crimes involving religious bias accounted for 10 percent of reported hate crimes, with anti-Muslim motivated crimes accounting for most of that number.

Last year, Middle Tennessee became the focal point for white nationalist groups with the “White Lives Matter” rally in Shelbyville. A second rally on the same day was planned, but cancelled, in nearby Murfreesboro when the local community came together against the groups.

“It was a great outpouring of concern and willingness to stand up against that kind of bigotry,” said the Rev. Richard Sibert of Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Murfreesboro.

“The community overwhelmingly rejected them, rejected their ideology,” said Dr. Saleh Sbenaty, chair of the Outreach Committee at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “They showed what the community is all about. We encounter hate with love and forgiveness.”

Vandals broke into Sibert’s predominantly Black church in September. The four boys trashed the kitchen, wrote white nationalist phrases on the Bibles, walls and doors, and left a klan robe. The Islamic Center has been the target of hateful activity such as vandalism, arson, bomb threats, intimidation and harassment, Sbenaty said.

But why does such hatred exist?

“We would like to blame it on Trump, but I think he is just a catalyst,” Sibert said. “I think it’s something that has been growing on the inside of these people, and he just gave them incentive to let it bloom.”

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Wyncote, Pa., echoed similar sentiments. “I think that he has given white nationalists permission to act out,” he said, adding that in instances of extreme wealth inequality, people direct their anger and fear onto minority groups. With nationalist rhetoric being a GOP rallying point, Liebling said, “It’s a mistake to just blame Trump.”

Sbenaty said misdirected anger due to fear tactics by politicians shouldn’t be ignored. “I lived through dictatorship [in Syria.] Dictatorship doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. And unfortunately, we are on that route unless people take corrective actions.”

In the aftermath of attacks on places of worship, some suggest better security and armed guards. While security systems and guards may help, they’re not the only solutions available for protection and prevention. Education, outreach and visible partnerships are also important.

“We don’t want the silent majority to stay silent. We want that small minority to feel alienated, those who are having racism and hatred in their minds and hearts,” said Sbenaty. “They need to feel that their action has no place in society.”

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