Muslim community members leave flowers at Wadea al-Fayoume's grave in LaGrange, Illinois, October 16, 2023 (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh).

To six-year-old Wadea al-Fayoume, his family’s landlord was like a grandfather. He brought him toys and played with him; he even built him a treehouse. But things began to change in October, with news of the violence in Israel and Gaza. The landlord, Joseph Czuba, was listening to conservative talk radio and had become preoccupied with the conflict, according to the boy’s mother, Hanaan Shahin. Knowing that Wadea and his mother were Palestinian, Czuba confronted them about events in the Middle East and said he wanted the family to move out. Concerned about her landlord’s apparent “hatred for Muslims,” Shahin reached out to Czuba’s wife. But on October 14, Czuba barged into the residence with a seven-inch military-style knife and stabbed Shahin a dozen times. Wadea, who did not understand what was happening, ran to his landlord for a hug. Czuba then stabbed Wadea twenty-six times, killing him. During his attack, Czuba allegedly shouted, “you Muslims have to die” and “you are killing our kids in Israel. Palestinians deserve to die.”

The murder of this young boy outside Chicago is the worst case during the surge of bigotry and violence against Muslims and Jews in the United States in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. While events in the Middle East are having ripple effects across the globe, instances of Islamophobic and antisemitic bigotry in this country are being reported every day. In Fort Lauderdale, a U.S. postal worker was punched and stripped of her hijab by a man named Kenneth Pinkney, who told her to go back to her country. In Arizona, Jeffrey Mindock was arrested after he sent an email to a rabbi threatening to execute him and other Jews. An Arab Muslim student at Stanford wearing a shirt that read “Damascus” was injured in a hit-and-run by an individual who shouted, “Fuck you and your people.” Cornell University student Patrick Dai was arrested after he threatened to shoot, stab, and kill Jews on campus. In New York City, a man wearing a keffiyeh scarf and walking with his one-year-old was assaulted by a woman who reportedly called him a terrorist and told him he “didn’t belong here.” Vandals have spray-painted swastikas on Jewish properties around the country. Other cases, including the death of a Jewish man who fell after a confrontation with a protester at a rally in California, are still being investigated.

Much of my work has concentrated on Islamophobia in the United States, but it’s important to emphasize that, especially in North America and Europe, Islamophobia and antisemitism have long been intertwined; both are the result of Christian hostility toward religious “others.” The problem is not simply or primarily one of Jewish Islamophobia or Muslim antisemitism (though cases of both do exist). In fact, some of the loudest voices against antisemitism are Palestinian and Muslim, and some of the most insistent voices against Islamophobia are Israeli and Jewish. Instead, it is often Christians who are perpetrating acts of hate and violence against Jews and Muslims.

That was the case with the murder of Wadea—Joseph Czuba is a Catholic. After the news broke, the pastor of his Illinois parish and the local diocese expressed their sadness and sent condolences to the family. “The entire community is grieving this situation,” said Fr. Pat Mulcahy. “Plainfield is a multiethnic community, and we are all affected by this tragedy.” The parish held a prayer service for peace in Israel and Palestine shortly thereafter. Despite such praiseworthy efforts, however, Islamophobia still runs rampant in many Catholic communities. My 2016 research with the Bridge Initiative, which included a major survey of U.S. Catholics’ views about Muslims, found that misunderstandings and negative feelings are common. This is due in part to widely circulating Catholic books and media that portray Muslims as uniquely violent threats. 

Recent events have also shown how unhelpful the term “terrorism” has become.

But the problem extends beyond the Catholic realm. In recent weeks, as the U.S. government has supported the Israeli military’s relentless campaign in Gaza, we have seen the rapid reemergence of the scapegoating and dehumanizing of Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners that was so common after September 11, 2001, and during the 2016 election cycle. Republican representative Brian Mast of Florida, who volunteered for the Israeli army in 2015, said on the House floor, “I would encourage [Democrats] to not so lightly throw around the idea of innocent Palestinian civilians,” comparing them to Nazis. Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, “We are in a religious war here. I am with Israel. Whatever the hell you have to do to defend yourselves—level the place,” referring to Gaza. Another Floridian, state representative Michelle Salzman, yelled, “All of them!” when her colleague, who was pleading for a ceasefire in Gaza, asked rhetorically how many Palestinian lives would be enough. At the same time, Donald Trump has vowed to bring back and expand his Muslim ban if he wins the presidency; Rep. Ryan Zinke of Minnesota has put forward a bill to expel all Palestinians from the United States; and others in the GOP have called for the government to deport foreign students who are “terrorist sympathizers” or have “pro-Hamas views”—though what exactly this would entail isn’t spelled out. American citizens who are Muslim have been subject to charges of supporting terrorism, too. And civil-rights groups have reported a rise in the number of FBI interrogations and detentions of Palestinian nationals, and of visits to mosques looking for “troublemakers.” 

Recent events have also shown how unhelpful the term “terrorism” has become. It is true that Hamas’s unconscionable attacks against Israeli and other civilians can be classified as terrorism. At the same time, Israel's merciless bombing of civilians, the forced displacement of over one million people, and the deprivation of necessities like water, fuel, electricity, medical care, and communications look to much of the world like terrorism, too. That the latter may not rise to the definition because Israel is a “state actor” isn’t true, and runs the risk of leaving the American public blind to horrors that we should be trying to end. 

We also need more consistency and nuance when identifying bigotry. For example, as the Jewish American commentator Peter Beinart has pointed out, the label of antisemitism is sometimes wrongly ascribed to criticism of Israel’s policies of dominance over Palestinians. While there have been cases in which political opposition has veered into antisemitism, this does not make criticism of Israel inherently anti-Jewish. A helpful analogy is the example of Saudi Arabia and Islamophobia. Criticism of Saudi Arabia, a Muslim-majority country that houses key Islamic holy sites but that has also carried out the murder of dissidents like Jamal Khashoggi, is, of course, not inherently Islamophobic. But blaming all Muslims for the Saudi government’s transgressions or considering them complicit in its actions qualifies as bigotry. Similarly, it is not Islamophobic or anti-Palestinian to condemn Hamas’s brutal attacks on civilians, though it is wrong to ascribe responsibility for them to all who share Palestinian identity. 

To honor the memories of Wadea and the thousands of people killed in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel in recent weeks, the least we can do is keep bigotry from festering and spreading in our communities. Rooting out Islamophobia and antisemitism among Catholics and other Christians has long been crucial, but is perhaps even more so now. At the same time, we can join with Jews, Muslims, and Christians (and people of other faiths and none) who are advocating for an immediate end to violence in Israel and Palestine, and who seek, in the long run, to build a new reality in the Holy Land, where Palestinians can enjoy the same rights as Israelis, and where all people enjoy equality, safety, and freedom. 

Jordan Denari Duffner, PhD, is a scholar of Muslim-Christian relations and Islamophobia. She is the author of Finding Jesus Among Muslims and Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) about Anti-Muslim Discrimination. She serves as a member of the Catholic Advisory Council of Churches for Middle East Peace and lives outside Washington D.C.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.