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  • Mary L. Hanna

Silence is Violence: Walking Away from Interfaith Work That Can’t Find Its Voice

Guest Contributor: Tasneem Sultan from Human Connections

Edited by Kim Redigan


For nearly two decades, I have been passionately engaged in interfaith work to advance inclusion, justice, and peace through genuine interfaith dialogue and alliance. Today, I am disillusioned. Sadly, I have found that in times of crisis, some crucial issues will go unaddressed, and hard conversations are off the table, shrouded in a silence that maintains the status quo. Too often, interfaith efforts revolve around social gatherings, shared values, and tolerance, forfeiting the opportunity to delve into the deep and pressing issues of our times, issues that demand our attention and solidarity. While fostering love and service to humanity across all traditions is vital, these conversations often shy away from conflict and complex topics and, consequently, tend to be painfully irrelevant. Superficial. Maddening.

My initial commitment to this work was driven by the hope that interfaith dialogue would eventually focus on substantive issues. However, the disheartening reality that has emerged as the recent genocide in Gaza unfolds reveals a stark truth about the flaw of interfaith work that refuses to embrace the best in each of our religions - the call to be prophetic truth-tellers and voices of justice. The truth is that, at this moment, there is an utter lack of responsiveness from within many interfaith communities. Regrettably, the absence of a collective voice from the interfaith community to engage in a meaningful conversation during such a critical humanitarian crisis is deeply disturbing and has shattered my ideals of genuine dialogue and collaboration. It has profoundly disappointed me and prompted my decision to resign from my position at an interfaith organization.

The genocide in Gaza has traumatized all of us. 25,000 Palestinians, most of them children and women, have been slaughtered.  Thousands are buried under the rubble.  At least 61,504 are wounded, and 85% of Gazans have been displaced from their homes.  This demands our urgent attention and unified action. The blockade of life's most basic necessities and relentless carpet bombing have created a dire humanitarian crisis. After 100 days of war, Gazans are dying from hunger and the spread of disease. Nothing is protected in Gaza, where the Strip's infrastructure has been deliberately annihilated, including hospitals, schools, churches, mosques, and refugee camps.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, another Nakba is unfolding. In his Christmas message from Bethlehem, Palestinian pastor Reverend Munther Isaac, said, "This is an annihilation. This is genocide". He went on to say. "If you are not appalled by what is happening in Gaza…. If you are not shaken to your core, there is something wrong with your humanity." His words have fallen on deaf ears within many interfaith organizations that refuse to recognize the gravity of the situation, much less expose the lies and propaganda that could be revealed through honest dialogue and a mutual search for the truth. Their silence and refusal to call for a ceasefire raises serious concerns about the impact of interfaith work, which should be a positive force for humanity rather than a space for empty discussions and social networking. Sadly, it appears that interfaith dialogue has been reduced to a superficial kumbaya.

All of us have a moral and religious obligation to call out this genocide.  How far will the ethnic cleansing go?  Have we forgotten our history?  Faith played a crucial role in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and many other freedom struggles around the globe.  It was faith that kept Nelson Mandela going throughout his 27 years of imprisonment in apartheid South Africa.  He said, "Religion is one of the most important forces in the world. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu, religion is a great force, and it can help one have command of one's own morality, one's own behavior, and one's own attitude." It was faith that drove the most significant Civil Rights leaders of our nation, Dr. King and Malcolm X, toward tireless activism for social justice and equality.  Both utilized their faith as a power, strength, and inspiration framework. Indeed, regardless of our religious beliefs, faith catalyzes us and inspires us to keep moving under challenging circumstances.

Interfaith groups should be at the forefront of calling out hatred in all its forms. Hate speech and violence against American Muslims and Palestinians have become normalized as a result of biased Western mainstream media, which offer one-sided reporting, as well as politicians who disingenuously increase hatred and Islamophobia by demonizing people who protest or speak out for human rights. This has a chilling effect on entire communities. Students are being doxxed [1] and labeled as terrorists for supporting Palestinian rights, which is alarming. The distorting misrepresentation of legitimate protest only deepens the crisis and highlights the failure of interfaith work.

Silence is complicity, and the silence of interfaith groups in the face of this rising hatred has contributed to an atmosphere that has resulted in death. Three college students were shot because they were wearing keffiyehs (a Palestinian scarf, a symbol of culture and identity) and speaking Arabic. Students are being censored, universities are being pressured to restrict free speech over the Israel/Palestine issue, and bills are being introduced in U.S. state assemblies to stifle speech on campus. The peaceful chants for Palestinian freedom, like "from the river to the sea," are being misrepresented by propaganda groups and the Israeli government as genocidal chants. In reality, the chant calls for a future of equal rights, justice, and dignity for all. Where is freedom of speech when it comes to Muslims and BIPOC groups? There is selective freedom of speech and rights for American Muslims and Palestinians.  Despite these hate incidents and censorship, there is hardly a word of dissent from interfaith groups. This war has exposed people's true colors, revealing blatant hypocrisy and double standards.

It is crucial to emphasize that criticizing Israel and its policies is not synonymous with antisemitism.  Zionism is a political ideology, and conflating the two is dangerous, unsafe, and undermines the pursuit of justice and peace. Zionism does not reduce or address the reality of antisemitism. Instead, it weaponizes it.  Antisemitism is prejudice directed at Jews because they are Jews and involves stereotyping, hatred, and other forms of violence. Antisemitism is real and should always be denounced, but it should never be an accusation hurled at those only advocating for Palestinian rights. We must be clear that this is NOT a religious issue; rather, it's about occupation and the violation of human rights. Criticizing the policies of Israel should be no different than critiquing the policies of any other government. Palestinian Christians and Muslims (who are also Semitic people), along with many Jews, are united in their efforts to call for a permanent ceasefire and a just peace. Jewish Voice for Peace, the largest progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the world, is at the forefront of many of the demonstrations and organizing efforts to bring an end to the genocide in Gaza. This is a model of real interfaith work in action.

Injustice and violence should never be accepted anytime, anywhere! No matter who is affected, it is our responsibility as human beings and people of faith to speak and act. Our Creator gave us consciences, hearts, voices, and hands to use on behalf of the human family. Interfaith work cannot be reduced to mere platitudes. Why have so many interfaith groups chosen to remain silent when it comes to Palestine? The active support shown for Ukraine after Russia invaded by many interfaith groups has evaporated into silence while Palestinians are dehumanized and exterminated. This raises serious questions about their consistency, sincerity, and commitment to inclusion and peace.

Achieving peace cannot be attained through military actions. It is imperative to confront the root cause of violence to secure a fair and equitable future for both Israelis and Palestinians - namely ­­the 75-year Israeli military occupation. If interfaith groups are afraid to discuss occupation, apartheid, the violation of international law, and the role of the U.S. has been in funding and sustaining this systemic oppression, then one must question why such interfaith groups exist. The lack of tangible outcomes, the superficial discussions, and the failure to acknowledge power imbalances suggest that such groups are doing little more than maintaining injustice.

Unable to reconcile this reality with the reality on the ground in Gaza, many are beginning to withdraw from interfaith groups. I find myself grappling with a growing inclination to disengage from interfaith efforts that appear to be compromised by fear and external influences. We cannot be complicit in the crimes against humanity that are being outlined in detail by such reputable organizations such as Human Rights Watch,  Amnesty International, and the Israeli human rights group, B’tselem.

Justice is integral to every faith tradition that compels us to acknowledge the truth and take the side of justice. "Free Palestine" is a call to our moral conscience that echoes around the globe. It represents a dedication to justice, a liberating light of freedom for all oppressed people, and a dream of sweet peace for all humanity. It appears as though many interfaith groups have failed to hear this call… Or have chosen to look away. They are failing in their humanity!

I would like to pose a simple question to those of you in the interfaith community who have refused to act. "Why is it so hard for you to speak for humanity given your faith traditions rooted in justice and truth?"

During this time of genocide and crimes against humanity, your silence is violence. History will remember!

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