Violence and Vandalism

Hate crimes are motivated by prejudice against a group of people, often characterized by religion or race. At their most extreme, hate crimes are deadly, though even smaller acts, like vandalism and other forms of property destruction, can cause significant harm to the targeted communities. Responses to hatred and tragedy are often opportunities for bridge-building and displays of solidarity; for example, this was the case when #ShowUpForShabbat trended online after a 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The violent expression of hatred toward people of a different religion, race, or ethnic background is not new on the American scene. With each phase of America’s broadening diversity, there has been violence against those labeled as “different.” Stereotypes, prejudices, hate crimes against individuals, and wider backlash against religious communities have not been uncommon. The most readily available targets, even of racially motivated violence, have often been religious institutions—synagogues and black churches, now mosques, temples, and gurdwaras.

Vandalism may be described as an act of violence—a hate crime—perpetrated against property and, by proxy, against a community. Black churches, synagogues, and Native American institutions have had a long history of the broken windows, graffiti, and arson attacks that are the signatures of hatred and bigotry.

Religious institutions are often the most readily visible targets of a much more diffuse animosity. A 1991 publication, Racial and Religious Violence in America: A Chronology, listed 650 pages of acts of violence “perpetrated on the grounds of racial or religious prejudice from the discovery of North America to modern times.” There was an act of arson at a Hasidic school in Brooklyn in 1982; a synagogue bombed in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1984; a synagogue pipe bomb explosion in Northbrook, Illinois in 1985; a black church attacked in Alton, New York in 1989; a Korean church vandalized in Anaheim, California in 1990; a black church burned in St. Louis in 1989. Between 1992 and 1996, a spate of attacks on African American churches resulted in more black churches being burned in four years than in the whole of the Civil Rights movement. Over a decade later, a 2008 Hate Crime Survey by Human Rights First documented over 60 cases of violence and vandalism against Jewish homes and cultural centers in recent years, including attacks on Holocaust memorials.

The tiny Cambodian Buddhist community in Portland, Maine had taken several years to secure its first temple, which it called Watt Samaki, or “Unity Temple.” But in August 1993, the door was hacked with an ax, the contents of the Buddha hall strewn about the yard, and everything of value destroyed or stolen. “This is why my tears keep dropping when I talk about the vandalism of the Watt Samaki with friends and caring people,” said member Pirun Sen. “It is a small house, but these people reminded me to take care of Watt Samaki as if it were diamond and gold.” The incident—heartbreaking for the struggling Khmer community in Portland—was added to a growing list of vandalism attacks directed against America’s newest religious traditions. In 1983, a small rural Buddhist community in Rockford, Illinois was the target: the fenced farmhouse that had become a Lao Buddhist temple was partially destroyed by a fire suspected as the work of arsonists. In 1986, in separate incidents, the temple was sprayed with rifle fire and pipe bombed. “Because the monks spoke little English, their cries for help were ignored,” remembers Stanley Campbell, Rockford’s Urban Ministries director at the time.

Like the Cambodian Buddhists in Maine or the Laotian Buddhists in Illinois, other newcomers on the American religious scene have also been targets. On February 8, 1983, a headline in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette read, “Vandals toss paint, smash holy statues in Hindu Temple.” The new temple, built in a residential area in Monroeville, had been broken into, and vandals smashed five of the images of the Deities and tore up the sacred Guru Granth Sahib of the Sikhs which had a place on a side altar. Across the main altar was scrawled the word “Leave.” In 1987, vandals attacked the newly built Meenakshi Temple in the Houston suburb of Pearland, where dozens of the foot-high ornamental spires that added elegance to the roof of the temple were broken off and smashed on the walkway below. The spires were the work of Hindu craftsmen who spent many months on the temple’s ornamentation. In 1989, the Bharatiya Temple in Troy, Michigan was attacked on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the day Nazis vandalized synagogues and smashed the storefront windows of Jewish merchants all over Germany. In 2011, the Pittsburgh Hindu community found themselves victim of yet another violation, when four men robbed Hindu practitioners at a Penn Hills temple. On New Year’s Day 2012, a lone arsonist in New York attacked a Muslim-owned convenience store, an Islamic cultural center, a Hindu home gathering, and the home of an African American Christian couple all in one night, throwing Molotov cocktails into the windows of each building.

Construction on a mosque in Yuba City, California was almost finished when it was destroyed by fire on September 1, 1994. The electrical wiring had not yet been installed in the building when it went up in flames, and the five-alarm fire was determined to be of suspicious origin. This was only one of a number of attacks on American mosques, some of which seem to be provoked by world events. In 1985, for example, the Dar Es Salaam mosque in Houston was firebombed. Sayed Gomah, President of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, speculated at the time that the attackers had acted in retaliation for the taking of forty hostages on TWA Flight 847 by Lebanese Shi’ite Muslims. Arson attacks against mosques in places like Joplin, Missouri and Toledo, Ohio made national news in 2012. In the Toledo, Ohio case, Randolph Linn—an ex-Marine and truck driver—drank 45 beers, saw an image of a wounded soldier on Fox News, and spontaneously decided to drive over 80 miles to the Islamic Center of Toledo, where he used burning gasoline to cause over one million dollars in damage.

American Muslims launched the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in 1994 to document and investigate such incidents. In 2012, CAIR released its annual report report highlighting the spike in anti-Muslim incidents during Ramadan of that year. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights think tank, reported that the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States tripled between 2010 and 2012.

However, the chasms opened by hate crimes often become the sites of new bridge-building. Sometimes incidents of violence and vandalism become the tragic occasions for knitting together a wider community. For example, in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh incident in 1983, Swami Chidananda of the Hindu-Jain Temple sent a letter of friendship to everyone in the neighborhood after the vandalism at the temple. At Christmas and Easter, he sent flowers and baskets of fruit. He started yoga classes at the temple as well. “People began to get to know us and discovered we’re not so different,” he said. “We are not alligators or something to be afraid of.”

When the Islamic Center of the South Bay in Lomita, California was struck by vandals twice in 1986, leaders of the Muslim community decided to become active in interfaith activities. They reached out to the South Bay Interfaith Clergy which, at that time, included only Christians and Jews. Similarly in DuPage County, Illinois, the Islamic community became active in the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network when the mosque in Villa Park was repeatedly attacked with graffiti. Said one of the members, “Every time there was an uproar in the Middle East or a plane hijacking, paint would be thrown on our cars while we were inside praying or there would be graffiti on the building. We wanted to participate in the Interfaith Network because we felt we were not doing justice to the people we lived among in order to dispel their misunderstanding of Islam.”

In 1990, Boston’s oldest Islamic center, located near the same Quincy shipyards that had employed Muslim workers from Lebanon early in the century, was devastated by a three-alarm fire during the holy month of Ramadan. It was a shock not only to the Muslim community, but to the whole metropolitan area. The Massachusetts Council of Churches responded swiftly. Diane Kessler, then executive director, said, “This is yet another tragic reminder that the whole community must be ever-vigilant to safeguard the freedom of worship of all religious groups, to confront and condemn any act which stems from hatred and religious intolerance. When part of the community is scorned, all are diminished.”

In 1991, every window of the West Springfield, Massachusetts mosque was broken; in 1992, one of its leaders was hit with stones as he arrived at the mosque for evening prayers during the month of Ramadan. The Springfield newspaper found out about this incident and published a story with the headline “West Side Mosque Pelted by Stones.” For many who read the article, it was the first they knew of a Springfield mosque. The minister of the neighboring Methodist church came to the mosque for the first time to ask how he could help. The president of the Springfield Council of Churches called the mosque, called the television station, and brought people from the churches to visit. A local rabbi came forward on television and said that whenever there is a crime of hatred, Jews must speak out forcefully.

After violence and vandalism struck Portland’s Cambodian Buddhist Unity Temple, the community moved to a new site in rural Buxton, Maine, where they have continued to struggle with the opposition of a few neighbors. Now, some twenty years later, there is a much stronger civic consciousness of Portland’s diverse communities. For the Cambodian New Year in April 2012, for example, Maine schoolchildren learned about Cambodian and Cambodian American history and religious identity. The students drew New Year’s cards for Cambodian families and created paper lotus flowers as gifts for the Buxton, Maine temple.

On a Sunday morning in August 2012, shots rang out inside a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin leaving six worshippers dead and four others wounded before the gunman took his own life. As news spread about the tragedy and more information came to light about the gunman’s ties to white supremacist organizations, Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike mobilized. Visitors made their way to gurdwaras in record numbers to show their support as the Sikh community emphasized that their doors had been and would continue to be open. In Milford, Massachusetts, for example, over 300 people gathered for a service and candlelit vigil at the gurdwara. The evening included messages of support and condolences from representatives of local Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu groups. Just over two weeks later, more than 1500 people gathered at Trinity Church in downtown Boston for a service of solidarity hosted by the Islamic Council of New England, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston and the Massachusetts Council of Churches featuring Sikh musicians and a langar meal organized by local Sikh communities.

Again and again, Americans have struggled to respond meaningfully to violence, particularly gun violence, in religious spaces. Three years after Oak Creek, a white supremacist killed nine worshippers at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That shooting was the deadliest at a house of worship in the United States—until two years later, when a gunman in Sutherland Springs, Texas fatally shot 25 people at a Baptist church. 

In 2018, violence motivated by racial and religious hatred broke out again at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where 11 people died at the hands of a gunman who had repeatedly expressed antisemitic and anti-immigrant views online. As in the wake of other massacres, nationally and globally, people worked to counter religious animus and to support the communities that had been attacked. The hashtag #ShowUpForShabbat trended, encouraging Jewish and non-Jewish people around the world to stand in solidarity with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and attend Shabbat services the next week. The Friday night following the attack, synagogues around the country were filled with Jews and non-Jews, praying and mourning together.

The destruction of buildings and attacks on worshipers are extreme examples of the impact of religious intolerance and prejudice on American society. These tragedies illustrate how pressing the need for pluralism is when lives are at risk—and the instances of interfaith engagement and activism that emerge in response to these tragedies exemplify pluralism in action. 


Imam Talal Eid, Islamic Center of New England, Quincy, Massachusetts (Audio)

Additional Content

“Anti-Semitism: Vandalism and Attacks on Property”

Hate Crime Survey: Anti-Semitism

Human Rights First

III. Vandalism and Attacks on Property

Perpetrators of antisemitic violence and threats often targeted Jewish families in their homes or in communal areas, vandalizing automobiles, breaking windows, daubing threatening graffiti, or smearing doors with excrement. Everyday harassment included epithets directed at family members as they went to and from their houses, being pelted with missiles, and aggressive pounding on the doors and windows of family homes. Mezuzahs (cases holding parchments inscribed with Hebrew verses that are fixed to the doors of many observant Jews) were also vandalized.

The majority of reports of incidents involving vandalism of homes and personal property came from Western Europe and North America, where official and community-based monitoring and reporting systems were available. Human Rights First is aware of incidents in which families were targeted for harassment and vandalism in their homes in France, the Netherlands, the Russian FederationCanada, the United Kingdom, and the United StatesRepresentative examples include:

  • In the Russian Federation, on June 13, 2007, vandals sprayed graffiti on the home of a Jewish woman in Murmansk.
  • In Canada, in June 2007, attackers broke into the home of a Jewish family in Bowmanville, Ontario, and daubed swastikas and other antisemitic graffiti on the walls.
  • In the United Kingdom, on April 1, 2007, vandals attacked a Jewish home in London, identifiable by a mezuzah, and smeared excrement

[Excerpt from 2008 Hate CrimeSurvey: Antisemitism, III. Vandalism and Attacks on PropertyHuman Rights First. 2008.]

Islamic Society of Joplin Mosque Razed in Fire; 2nd This Summer

The Huffington Post with The Associated Press August 6, 2012

Maria Sudekum

A mosque in southwest Missouri burned to the ground early Monday in the second fire to hit the Islamic center in little more than a month, and investigators spent the day combing through the wreckage searching for evidence of arson.

No injuries were reported, but the Islamic Society of Joplin’s building was a total loss after the blaze, first reported at about 3:30 a.m., the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office said. As of late Monday, nobody had been arrested in connection with the fire.

[For full article, visit “Islamic Society of Joplin Mosque Razed in Fire; 2nd This Summer.”]

Thirteen Days in Ramadan 2012

A preliminary examination of anti-Muslim incidents following the fatal shooting at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that took place in August 2012.

This report is dedicated to the memory of the six people who were murdered during the massacre in Oak Creek, Wis.: Bhai Seeta Singh, Bhai Parkash Singh, Bhai Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Subegh Singh, and Parmjit Kaur Toor.

Thirteen Days in Ramadan

Ramadan 2012—which started on Friday, July 20 and ended at sun down on Saturday, August 18—saw one of the worst spikes of anti-Muslim incidents in over a decade. In the first seven months of 2012, there were 10 incidents in which Muslim places of worship were targeted. In thirteen days in August, Muslim places of worship were targeted eight times.

Mosque Incidents 2012

Additionally, an incendiary device was thrown at a Muslim family’s home and an Islamic gravestone was defaced during this short period in Ramadan.

Unfortunately, the targeting of Muslim places of worship is becoming expected. Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported, “The number of anti-Muslim groups tripled in 2011, jumping from 10 groups in 2010 to 30 last year.” According to the FBI there were 107 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2009 to 160 in 2010, the last year for which numbers are available.

Incidents in Illinois included shots fired at a mosque in Morton Grove and an acid bomb thrown at an Islamic school in Lombard. In other states, a mosque was burned to the ground in Joplin, Mo., vandals sprayed an Oklahoma mosque with paintballs, pigs legs were thrown at a mosque-site in California, and a firebomb was thrown at a Muslim family’s home in Panama City, Fla.

The violence against religion during this period was not limited to Muslim targets. In what was by far the worst incident, six Sikhs were gunned down by a white supremacist in Wisconsin. A security guard at the Family Research Council, a right-wing Christian organization, was shot in the arm as he heroically barred a gunman from the group’s office. The windows of an Arab Christian church in Detroit were broken by vandals.

Previously, Muslims witnessed a significant spike in incidents, particularly those targeting Islamic houses of worship, in the summer and fall of 2010 during the controversy over plans to construct an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, the Park 51 project.

During the 2012 Ramadan spike, CAIR called for stepped-up police protection at Muslim institutions and other houses of worship nationwide and offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever caused the Missouri fire. CAIR also re-issued its Mosque Safety Kit and a shorter information sheet providing tips on simple, immediate actions mosque leadership could take to improve site security.

In many cases, law enforcement officials are conducting investigations and have not yet final determinations if the below incidents were bias-motivated.

[Excerpt from Thirteen Days in Ramadan 2012. September 2012. Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). September 2012.]

Students Send New Year’s Greeting to Cambodian Neighbors

Curious City
Portland, Maine

This weekend, Cambodians Americans in Maine and Cambodians around the world, celebrate the New Year. In celebration of that holiday, third and forth graders from Canal School in Westbrook, Maine joined Peaks Island, Maine author/illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien to listen to a reading from O’Brien’s book about Cambodians Americans, A Path of Stars.  Together they created greeting cards with “Happy New Year” written in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, and hand-drawn lotus blossoms for the Buddhist temple in Buxton, Maine.

[For full article, visit “Students Send New Year’s Greeting to Cambodian American Neighbors.”]

“7 Dead at Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin..."

ABC News
August 5, 2012

Colleen Curry, Michael S. James, Richard Esposito, and Jack Date

Seven people were shot and killed today at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., in what officials are treating as a case of domestic terrorism.

Though police have not given any details on the identity or motive of the shooter, or released the identities of the victims, sources have told ABC News the shootings are the work of a “white supremacist” or “skinhead.”

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms Special Agent Thomas Ahern said the suspect had tattoos and that authorities were investigating whether he was a “skin head or “white supremacist” as two ABC Sources said.

[To view article and video, visit “7 Dead at Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis.; Officials Believe ‘White Supremacist’ Behind ‘Domestic Terrorism’.”]