After New Zealand, fear won’t keep American Muslims from their mosques

Fear. Pain. Love. Resolve.

American Muslims experienced a wave of emotions on Friday as they awoke to news that a gunman had rushed into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and started shooting, killing 49 people and wounding many others.

Charles Leffingwell, a resident of Washington, DC, described the news as “crushing.”

“It’s traumatic for all of the Muslims I know — everyone is grieving about this,” he said.

While attending prayers at his mosque on Friday, Leffingwell braced for the worst.

“I thought on some level something could happen and was expecting to hear gunshots while we prayed,” he said.

The scenario Leffingwell imagined was similar to the shooting in Christchurch, which authorities have described as a terror attack. The gunman entered the mosques on the holiest day of the week for Muslims and unleashed a hail of gunfire.

The suspected shooter livestreamed video of the attack. In a manifesto posted online shortly before the attack, he described himself as a white man born in Australia. The document espoused anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and listed white nationalists who inspired him.

Manar Khalil of Staten Island, New York, said the deadly incident heightened her fears of bigoted attacks, especially as a woman whose headscarf makes her “visibly Muslim.”

“I can’t stop thinking about how it could happen anywhere and anytime,” she said. “I fear for my family and fellow Muslims who have become targets of hate and senseless killings.”

“My husband attended Friday prayers today and I did think about it the whole time he was there,” she added.

In Vancouver, Washington, Rabia Haq said community members also felt apprehensive about attending prayer services.

“[My sister and friends] were talking in the group chat — some of them don’t even want to go,” Haq said. “They’re scared.”

However, they ultimately did decide to go.

American authorities on heightened alert

Authorities on Friday said there don’t appear to be any known threats to mosques in the United States. Still, police departments across the country have heightened their presence at Islamic places of worship and other religious sanctuaries.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio both called for increased security at mosques and places of worship. NYPD officers could be seen Friday afternoon outside the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

Police officers in Atlanta and Chicago also released statements indicating they were on heightened alert for suspicious activities around local mosques. State police in Massachusetts said they would increase frequency of patrols around mosques and other religious institutions.

American Muslims and local authorities have reason to worry, as anti-Muslim bias and hate crimes are on the rise.

A Pew Research Center analysis found that in 2016, assaults against Muslim in the US had surpassed the peak reached after the September 11 attacks in 2001. In 2017, anti-Muslim bias incidents increased 17% nationwide from the previous year, according to data from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Despite heightened security, American Muslims still expressed fear.

Leffingwell said that after Friday service, prayer organizers told worshippers that a nearby church would provide security going forward. “I don’t feel safer,” he said.

Haq said her mosque in Vancouver always has a police officer on duty, but friends and family “still don’t feel safe.”

The mosque a few streets down from Khalil’s home in Staten Island even announced it will begin active-shooter training and drills in response to the New Zealand attacks. “Who would have thought that a place of worship and tranquility has to be prepared for something like this?” she said.

It will take more than added security for American Muslims to feel safe, said Abdelgadir Elmadani, a resident of Ashburn, Virginia.

“It’s only a temporary measure for a larger problem,” Elmadani said. “If we really are going to address the issue, we can’t just look at the symptoms. We need to address the cause of the problems.”

Many American Muslims say hostile rhetoric by political leaders and media pundits is to blame.

“This problem is one that has been given a permission slip by an entire administration and a political culture that turns a blind eye to how toxic this is,” said Abbas Barzegar, director of research and advocacy at CAIR.

“It is very easy to write off tweets or rants by a particular political leader, but what we have to recognize is that the rhetoric is now instituted in policies.” Among those policies, he said, is President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries.

Unshakable resolve

Despite their fears, American Muslims who spoke to CNN said they were determined to continue worshipping at mosques, and working to combat hate in all its forms.

“It’s scary but it’s not going to scare us away from coming to the masjid,” said Danish Shaikh, who attended Friday services at Al-Farooq Masjid in Atlanta, Georgia. “This is home for us. We grew up going to the masjid on Friday.”

Khadijah Khan, another worshipper at Al-Farooq Masjid, said she was pained to hear about what happened in Christchurch, but didn’t want it to affect her decision to attend the mosque.

“As Muslim Americans, black Americans, all of us who are minorities, we’re all facing it,” she said. “We can’t be scared and we can’t back out. Once you back out, you forget your identity and that’s what they want.”

Elmadani also said the attack didn’t alter his plans to attend prayer services. “A cowardice attack should not intimidate us or force us to change our way of life,” he said. “That is what terrorists want and we should not let them have that satisfaction.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Muslim leaders across the United States, who said the community’s fears are legitimate but urged them to remain courageous and worship freely.

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, tweeted “We must not live in fear. I will be at Jumu’ah today and I hope others will be too,” referring to Friday prayer. She later added “love trumps hate.”

Nihad Awad, national executive director for CAIR, also encouraged American Muslims to attend prayer services on Friday.

“Do not be afraid, and do not abandon your mosques — not today, not ever,” he said at a news conference. “They want you to be afraid. You should not be afraid.”

Asim Malik of Austin, Texas, said that although he doesn’t attend mosque regularly, the Christchurch attack made him want to go on Friday.

“Islamophobia is as real as anti-black racism, anti-Semitism, and the like,” he said.

“I don’t think hiding or staying under radar is the answer. When white supremacists attack any of our communities, they attack all of us. We should be fighting for and guarding each other’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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