Targeting the Sacred: When Houses of Worship Come Under Attack

In the last year alone, numerous high-profile attacks against houses of worship have grabbed the world’s attention. A synagogue in California, a mosque in New Zealand, and a church in Sri Lanka — these are just the latest sites to be targeted with violence. A range of different actors — white supremacists as well as religious extremists, “lone wolves” as well as terrorist organizations — have carried out these attacks, drawing from of a range of different motives.

Here in the United States, the FBI reports that hate crimes have risen in recent years, including religiously motivated ones. Attacks against the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and an African American church in Charleston all stunned the nation. Meanwhile, some of the deadliest attacks against places of worship in the last decade — in Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, and Iran — have gone largely unnoticed. For that matter, governments such as Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have destroyed countless mosques over the past few years.

Why are mosques, temples, churches and other places of worship so often singled out for attack? Who are the different actors and agents that carry out this violence, and what are their goals and motives? Can we form any generalizations from these disparate examples and places? Please join our panel of experts for a discussion of these and other questions:

  • Do recent attacks such as those we’ve seen in 2019 represent a new phenomenon? Or are they continuations of larger historical patterns?
  • What are the hidden stories behind attacks against houses of worship that go unreported in the media and get overlooked in public discourse?
  • Are attacks against houses of worship best understood through global, national, or local contexts? How — and to whom — do the impacts of such attacks extend beyond the specific sites in which they occur? How do broader frameworks and discussions — about “terrorism” or “religious freedom” or “religious conflict" — clarify or impede our understanding of these attacks?
  • What are the best ways evidence shows to confront, minimize or eliminate these attacks? Are there good news stories or other signs of hope that come out of these grievous events?

Free and open to the public, but RSVPs are kindly requested


Please join our diverse panel of experts in exploring these and other questions:

Anand Gopal (Columbia University) is an award-winning journalist and assistant research professor with ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and Center on the Future of War. Gopal’s reporting on Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq has earned him the highest accolades in journalism, including the National Magazine Award, the George Polk Award, the Hillman Prize, and the Overseas Press Club Award. He is the author of "No Good Men Among the Living," which won the Ridenhour Book Prize, and his most recent piece, “Syria’s Last Bastion of Freedom,” appeared in The New Yorker in December 2018. Gopal co-directed, with John Carlson and Kristin Gilger, “Religion, Journalism and Democracy: Strengthening Vital Institutions of Civil Society,” a project that helped train journalists and scholars in more nuanced approaches to public engagement around issues of religion, politics and war. Reflecting his expertise in complex network analysis, ethnographically-based data journalism, and issues of objectivity in journalism, Gopal is currently co-principal investigator for two quite different projects, one on proxy warfare and the other on “Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era.”

Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce (Cornell University) is professor and dean of the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. She is the first woman to hold this position in the school’s 150-year history. Prior to joining Howard, Pierce served as the founding director of the Center for African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She also served as the director of the Center for Black Church Studies and associate professor of religion and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. Pierce’s research specialties include African American religious history; womanist theology; African American Literature; and race and religion. She is the author of "Hell Without Fires: Slavery, Christianity and the African American Spiritual Narrative" and the forthcoming "Religious Ecstasy and African American Cultural Expression," as well as numerous scholarly articles and essays. She has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Pew Foundation, and her commentary appears in a wide variety of publications, including: Time Magazine; Christian Century; Sojourners; Theology Today; and Christianity & Literature.

As senior vice president of programs, George Selim leads the Anti-Defamation League’s education, law enforcement and community security programs and oversees the work of ADL’s Center on Extremism. Prior to his appointment at ADL in 2017, Selim served in the administrations of Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, most recently as the Department of Homeland Security’s first director of the Office for Community Partnerships. Concurrently, he was selected to lead a newly created Countering Violent Extremism Task Force to coordinate government efforts and partnerships to prevent violent extremism in the United States. Before assuming these roles, Selim served for four years at the White House on the National Security Council Staff where he focused on policy development and program implementation matters for both domestic and international security threats. Prior to his work at the White House, Selim served as a senior policy adviser at the DHS Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties. With degrees from Georgetown University and Walsh University, he has also worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, the Arab American Institute, and served one year with AmeriCorps. 

John Carlson (University of Chicago) will serve as moderator for the event. Carlson is interim director of the ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and an associate professor of religious studies. A scholar of religious ethics, his research explores how religious and moral inquiry informs and invigorates our understanding of political life. He has written on issues of war and peace, religion and violence, justice and human rights, democracy and civic life, and a variety of social and political issues, both domestic and international. Carlson is coeditor of, and contributor to, three books — "From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America;" "Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning;" and "The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics" — and is the author of more than 25 book chapters and articles. He is principal investigator (with Tracy Fessenden) for a project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation on “Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era,” which will be launching in Spring 2020, and is also co-directing a project on “Religion and Global Citizenship” with Linell Cady. 

The event will be live-streamed at:

Oct 21 2019 - 7:00pm
Old Main, Carson Ballroom
Tempe campus