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The History of Food as a Weapon of Hate

How the centuries-old relationship between food and intolerance is manifesting today.

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A Sri Lankan Islamic cleric holds up a poster showing pork that is forbidden for Muslims.
A Sri Lankan Islamic cleric holds up a poster showing pork that is forbidden for Muslims.
Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

Between static flickers of the grainy security video, a red pick-up truck ominously rolls past the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Philadelphia when the passenger side occupant suddenly hurls a pig's head from the car window. The hunk of pork bounces along until it crashes into the side of the building, where it resides for members of the mosque to find the following Monday morning. Some might consider this act a juvenile prank, but for those that recognize the gravitas of the scenario, this is far from a release of small town ennui: This is an attack on the local Muslim community's security.

"It's beyond child's play," said Marwan Kreidie, the executive director of the Philadelphia Arab American Development Corporation, located in the building housing the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society. He added that the assailant "wants to make a statement that Muslims are unwelcome." According to Islamic law, the consumption of pork is haram, meaning it is strictly forbidden. Although some might write off these incidents as teenage mischief, by using pork as a means to vandalize the religious centers, these actions carry a much more personal, and severe, Islamophobic sentiment. For some, in light of the public's growing anti-Muslim feelings, these acts are beginning to parallel the religious hate crimes carried out in Europe against the Jewish communities during the Holocaust.

"Food is an incredibly powerful symbol of identity, of community, of boundaries."

With the spread of ISIS and jihadist terrorism alongside the sudden Paris and San Bernardino attacks, xenophobic and anti-Islam sentiment proffered by some of the Republican presidential candidates has continued to spread across the American population. According to the most recent FBI's Hate Crime statistics data, between 2013 and 2014, hate crimes committed against Muslims increased from 13.7 percent to 16.1 percent. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors hate crimes in the U.S., told Mashable the actual number of hate crimes in the country is somewhere between 25-40 percent higher than what the FBI reports. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2015 saw the highest number of incidents where people targeted mosques for attacks, and regular news coverage throughout 2015 and into 2016 has demonstrated that anti-Islamic attacks on Muslim-owned businesses, holy sites, and individuals are still a regular occurrence.

Since December, however, three separate incidents of vandalism on American mosques took a more spiteful approach by using pork products. Along with the slaughtered pig's head at the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, Islamophobic residents in Las Vegas and Titusville, Florida have defaced mosques with bacon. This sentiment has even spread beyond our own borders, as this past Sunday in Bristol, England, a pair of hooded men threw bacon sandwiches at Bristol Jamia Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Britain, and insulted elderly members who were arriving for their afternoon prayer.

After the January 4 attack in Titusville that ended with the mosque's windows smashed and the entrance being covered with bacon, members of the Islamic Society of Central Florida Masjid Al-Munin Mosque were terrified, says Rasha Mubarak, the Orlando Regional Coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group. "Many Islamophobes understand it's forbidden for us to consume bacon," Mubarak said. "Obviously for us, it's more than just bacon. It's illustrating the hate that might be expressed in the community, with there being 17 potential hate crime committed across the country post-Paris attacks."

In the comments section of an article that reported the attack, many of the commenters were shocked that using a food item for vandalism could be considered a hate crime. But according to Ben Zeller, a professor of religious studies at Lake Forest College, "Food is an incredibly powerful symbol of identity, of community, of boundaries, and it's used both by members of the tradition within the tradition, and by outsiders who are acutely aware it can be used that way."

The Last Supper, painted by Juan de Juanes in the 16th century. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Zeller said that this sort of food identity stretches beyond the history of culture-specific recipes. With religion, identity in relation to food also includes the dietary restrictions that are inherently part of that faith, such as how followers of Hinduism avoid the consumption of beef. This has made food a recurring method for attacking a religious community. In ancient times, both Jews and Christians faced violence against their faiths through means of food: During the Maccabean era, Jews were forced to eat pork by the Greek rulers, a fact the Zeller claims prompted the Maccabean War. Christians believed that wine was representative of the Blood of Christ, and during Roman rule, they were forced to drink wine that they considered impure because it had been used as a tribute to the Roman god of wine Bacchus.

Hermann Fechenbach, when writing about his Jewish family's experiences living in 1933 Germany during Hitler's rise to power, described how when the Nazis desecrated and ransacked synagogues, they sometimes would smear pork fat on the Holy Ark. In the modern era, just as how individuals have used pork to vandalize Islamic religious sites, people of various communities continue to use food as a means to attack members of other religions and cultures.

The individuals contributing to the growing list of vandalism against mosques are using pork predominantly because of its symbolic meaning as forbidden. But according to Corrnie Norman, a professor of religious studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, "given the discussion going on right now, people think they can get away with doing, these things to Muslims," she says, citing the coverage of the presidential campaigns.

The idea of using bacon might seem innocuous, especially when juxtaposing physical damage from a weapon against symbolic damage through pork.

As the commenters in the news article highlighted, one reason that these vandals might believe the investigation will not be taken seriously is that the idea of using bacon as a weapon might seem innocuous. Many news outlets themselves have exhibited this mindset, particularly when an assailant ends up juxtaposing physical damage via an actual weapon against symbolic damage through pork. Additionally, because local law enforcement and the judiciary system might have a racial or ethnic bias towards the assailants over religious others, the perpetrators may downplay their tentative repercussions.

Michael Scott Wolfe, the individual that local police arrested in connection to the Titusville attack, is reported to have a record of criminal charges that included burglary and grand theft. At the time of his arrest, he was facing charges of criminal mischief — a third-degree felony, with a bail set for $2,000 — for smashing the mosque's lights and windows with a machete and leaving bacon at the entrance. The sole requirement for a third-degree criminal mischief charge in Florida is that you knowingly cause damages between $1,000 to $5,000. There's no mention in the doctrine as to whether or not you committed a hate crime has any influence on this charge.

Photo: Getty

Prayer service at a Maryland mosque. Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Image

Although there have been cases of vandalizing mosques with pork products in the past — such as in Manteca, California, where in 2014 vandals covered the parking lot of the local Islamic Center with bacon — the larger problem is that civil leaders are currently, in a sense, fueling this malicious sentiment against a religious community. Dr. Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, highlighted that the current conservative political mindset not-so-subtly pushes for "a civil society's structural bullying of a religious minority." Marwan Kreidie of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Philadelphia stated to the Philadelphia Inquirer a concern held by many in the communities affected by these pork-related vandalisms: "A pig's head doesn't do much. Could the next thing be a pipe bomb?"

According to Bazian, the pork-related attacks "might come as a prank if it occurred once, but if it becomes part a structural attitude towards a minority that doesn't have the power or the strength in this country, [then] I would say what we have could qualify as a symbol that the civil society has been taken over by bullies that are targeting a religious minority." He adds: "And these pranks fit into that type of behavior."

Currently, presidential candidate Donald Trump — and 55 percent of Americans — show no signs of abandoning their anti-Islam rhetoric and mindset, which continues to be fueled by the conflation of Muslim ideologies with ISIS's jihadist ideologies. As such, Islamophobic sentiment shows little, if any, signs of dwindling. The victims will have to lead the front in demonstrating that these sorts of "childish" acts of food vandalism must be considered with an intent to harm in order to further stifle anti-Islam actions, hopefully before things get out of hand.

"We should take it very seriously and we should prosecute those people seriously," said Kreidie. "The mosque people told me very up front, 'We've forgiven him.' And I'm like, 'I haven't.'"