Faith leaders must talk about violence

Faith leaders must talk about violence

By Reverend Chloe Breyer and Sarah Sayeed

For those who loved Shaima Alawadi, the Iraqi-born mother of five and California resident, the recent media storm around her case likely provides very little solace. Speculation about the motivation behind her murder has become a topic of discussion across the country and beyond. Last March, when police found her body on the floor of her California home with a note next to it saying, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist”, the country and the world saw the murder as a hate crime.

Yet, in April, when court documents became public, as the New York Times reported, and details began emerging about tumult within Shaima’s family, domestic violence also became a possibility. Although the case is not yet solved, the questions that are being raised, such as the country’s stance on hate crimes and how to talk about domestic violence and religion, are important conversations for Americans to be having.

According to Robina Niaz, Founder and Executive Director of Turning Point for Women and Families, the first non-profit in New York City to address domestic violence within Muslim communities, there are special challenges faced in minority religious communities when it comes to family violence. Muslim communities in the United States and Europe face pressure and scrutiny from law enforcement, and thus suspicion from the wider public.

Accordingly, additional layers of stigma are attached to family violence on top of the shame that often prevents victims from coming forward. That makes it that more difficult to address the problem and its roots. Likewise, fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes about women in Islam too often silences public advocates within Muslim communities from speaking out on violence against women, an epidemic that knows no religious boundaries.

Niaz joins others in her community pointing out that when domestic violence occurs in Muslim communities too often the whole religious tradition is suspected of authorising such abuse—erroneously bearing even more responsibility than the perpetrator himself.

Although for centuries Christian pastors and Jewish rabbis have preached messages from the pulpit that tacitly lend support to on-going cycles of family violence, these religious traditions are not subjected to the same public scrutiny as Islam. While Christian and Jewish perpetrators of domestic violence are rarely identified by their religion, a Muslim man who abuses his wife is too often held up as representative of his religious faith.

The reality that domestic violence is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to religion is something we know well here in New York City. In 2010 alone, the Mayor’s Office reported that New York City police responded to 249,440 domestic violence incidents and state-wide, the New York State Office to Prevent Domestic Violence noted that state courts issued 301,488 protection orders. These incidents occurred in all kinds of religious, ethnic and socioeconomic communities. The same year, New York City reported 350 hate crime incidents (up 27 per cent from 2009), with 699 in the state as a whole.

One source of hope for reducing both family violence and hate crimes in the future is the education of grassroots religious leaders.

For the past two years, the Interfaith Center of New York has worked with our partner, CONNECT Faith, to train religious leaders including Roman Catholic lay leaders, Orthodox Jewish men, African Methodist Episcopal Church and other Protestant preachers, Punjabi Sikh women, and an African American Shia cleric about domestic violence and what can be done within religious communities to prevent it.

Learning to be self-critical of one’s religious tradition has been an important step in this process of education, as all too often religious leaders are silent on the issue and need to learn to speak out.

Likewise, ICNY has worked with the New York City’s Commissioner on Human Rights and the New York Police Department to educate clergy about reporting hate crimes. Of the 699 hate crimes reported in New York State in 2010, 39.9 per cent involved religion (mostly anti-Semitic). For the last several years, the Interfaith Center of New York has been part of an ad hoc rapid response across the city in which religious leaders of multiple faith traditions and organisations stand together at an interfaith press conference following a hate crime. By standing up for victims of hate-related violence from faith traditions other than our own, we hope to send a powerful message to the whole city.

The discussion around Shaima Alawadi’s sad fate should serve as a reminder that violence, both within and outside the home, must be rooted out of our society and that as faith leaders we have a role to play in this work. Our religious traditions—all of them—can be an asset in this struggle and not a liability.


* The Reverend Chloe Breyer is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York and Associate Priest at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Harlem, New York. Sarah Sayeed, Ph.D. is a Program Associate at Interfaith Center of New York and the President of Women In Islam, Inc. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).