New York City – Mohamed Bahi’s computer mouse on the screen jumped from one room to the other. It was one day until the start of Ramadan, and he was finalising the new security equipment at the Brooklyn mosque where he expected 200 to 300 attendees every night during the month.
Up until last Ramadan – or even a few months ago, his biggest worry about the mosque was coffee creamer flavours. His concerns have since shifted from food list for Iftar meals to concerns over the safety of mosque attendees as they observe Ramadan.
Bahi, who is a director at the Muslim Community Center in Brooklyn, New York said his anxieties about being attacked have spiked since the shooting spree at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand killed 51 Muslims in March.
“We hired an armed guard to be outside during Friday prayers [since] Christchurch – literally the following day,” he said. “Every time there’s a large congregation, a large gathering here, security now is the number one issue. Before, it was always [issues] like food. Now, it’s all security.”
The Christchurch attacks, as well as massacres at other houses of worship, including synagogues in the United States and the Easter attacks on churches in Sri Lanka, have intensified the fear many Muslims in the US have felt for years, especially under the administration of President Donald Trump.
The entrance to the Muslim Community Center in Brooklyn [Samira Sadeque/Al Jazeera]
“The very thought that someone could show up behind dozens of people standing outside on carpets completely vulnerable like on the sidewalks praying – that thought that never really came to mind before [the Christchurch shooting]” said Asad Dandia, a New Yorker who goes to MCC for Ramadan taraweeh prayers. “For the first time, this year, after New Zealand, after the attacks on the synagogues, the thought came to my head.”
Training and pepper spray
The fear isn’t unfounded – and it’s being felt in ripples across different Muslim communities in the country. Activists have estimated at least 500 potentially anti-Muslim incidents this year alone. And mosques have responded by taking news security measures.
“Definitely there’s a lot of concern and anxiety amongst the communities,” said Zeinab Khalil, who attends Toledo Muslim Community Center (TMCC) in Toledo, Ohio. “Concerns over safety, concerns that the community is under a lot of scrutiny, is really visible and is in need of mechanisms to ensure that we’re safe, especially in our homes of worship, but also in everyday life.”
In the wake of the Christchurch shootings, the masjid held town hall meetings to hear from the attendees about their concerns and fears, said Khalil. “I think that was a really important step just to acknowledge that something is going on and to give folks the space to process together, collectively and to also think about interventions collectively.”
TMCC, which Khalil estimated has about 300-400 attendees, has assigned volunteers to stand in the hallways and in the car park, just to keep an eye out, steps Khalil said the centre has never taken before.
In Brooklyn, Bahi held training for the participants at his mosque, handed out pepper spray, hired an off-duty officer to guard them during prayers, and installed more security cameras – measures he said cost them between $10,000 and $15,000 this season alone.
As director of the mosque, he would usually stand on the front row of the prayers. But now, he’s too worried keeping an eye at the door to concentrate on his prayers.
But not every institution has the funds required to accommodate such costs. Ajaz Siraj, a board member of the Islamic Center of Boulder, Colorado said even though the fear of being targeted as Muslims has been there for a long time, it’s only since the Christchurch shooting that they’ve had trained volunteers to guard the mosque during prayers.
A New York Police Department (NYPD) vehicle is seen near worshipers as they take part in Eid Al-Adha prayers at the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque in the Brooklyn borough of New York in 2015 [File: Stephanie Keith/Reuters]
Siraj, who said their mosque receives about 60 to 100 people during Ramadan, said they don’t have enough funding to take further security measures right now, and are applying for grants to improve their security.
The Islamic Association of Raleigh (IAR) in Raleigh, North Carolina has been bulking up their security since the 2015 killing of university students Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A spokesperson for the Association said Barakat was a graduate of the school associated with IAR.
The spokesperson said in the last three years, the Association’s security budget has tripled, with security a top priority.
The feeling of being threatened and/or surveilled is not new for Muslims and has been a reality for Muslim Americans since the 9/11 attacks. That fear further intensified under Trump’s 2016 election campaign rhetoric.
Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said she remembers the fear first setting in following the 2012 Oak Creek Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin. Six people were killed.
“That’s when I remember security first started to increase,” she said, adding that more recently, the Christchurch incident had people “on edge,” and the recent San Diego-area synagogue shooting during Passover, as well as an arson attack on a Connecticut mosque earlier this month, has further “amplified” the fears.
Christchurch was a pivotal moment
The Christchurch attacks, however, had an even large effect because it was recorded and shared on social media.
“It’s one thing to theorise that something could happen or might happen and another to see it happen,” said Billoo of CAIR. “That’s why the Gurdwara and Christchurch are such pivotal moments when it comes to shaping the story of security at American Muslim institutions because it wasn’t just language any more. We saw that language unchecked was very violent or could facilitate incredible amounts of violence.”
Bahi remembered watching the video of the shooting through a Whatsapp message and going blank for a few minutes.
“That video traumatised a lot of people here,” Bahi recalled.
“Because now we [could] visualise it, it brought like a whole sense of fear,” he said.
We were kind of in a state where we [thought] we should be okay because this is a liberal state but with Christchurch, that has all changed because these things can happen anywhere now so that brought it close to home.
Ajaz Siraj, a board member of the Islamic Center of Boulder
Dandia added, “That’s what made this attack different from all the others is that we really came face to face with this ideology that has no remorse for what it does, in fact, takes pride in it.”
Additionally, it was also the realisation that hate had no boundaries. If it could interrupt life in a city otherwise known to be a peaceful place like Christchurch, it could also happen in any town or city in the US or other countries, such as the UK, where Islamic centres and mosques have also reported taken new security measures during this Ramadan.
“People have been obviously discussing [about] Christchurch being a peaceful place and such a shooting happening there,” said Siraj from Boulder, Colorado. “We were kind of in a state where we [thought] we should be OK because this is a liberal state but with Christchurch, that has all changed because these things can happen anywhere now so that brought it close to home.”
Conflict between safety and security
Even though mosques are beginning to take measures, given the long history of Muslims being placed under surveillance and spied on by law enforcement, not many in the community feel safe in the presence of so much security.
“Safety is not just the absence of violence, safety is also feeling really comfortable, feeling well, a space where you can bring yourself,” said Khalil of Toledo.
“A lot of Muslims have appropriately justifiable fears about being spied on,” said Billoo of CAIR.
Police surveillance cameras, top, is placed on a light post overlooking the area of the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque at Bedford and Fulton Streets, Friday, August 19, 2016, in Brooklyn, New York [File: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo]
And that can be tricky when the community’s option for safety is to resort to law enforcement’s assistance. “So, in some ways, you end up with very strong presence and feeling of security, but also the same concerns because they’re wearing their police uniforms.”
Members such as Khalil of Toledo and Dandia of New York said there needs to be a conversation within the community, and there likely isn’t any one way to find a solution.
“There’s no singular opinion as to how to go about protecting ourselves and that the history of police relationships with the Muslim community, with the immigrant community, the undocumented community, the black community complicates our decision making with regards to protective measures,” Dandia said. The MCC he attends has predominantly Yemeni immigrants, Syrian refugees, Egyptians and Palestinian Americans.
“This idea that police equals protection is something that we should interrogate,” Khalil said. “There’s a lot of really serious harms that have been caused by the law enforcement community in regards to Muslim communities across the country, and in our rush to defend ourselves, in our rush to make sure that we’re protected and … make sure our families are safe, we also have to make sure that we’re thinking really holistically and really intentionally about what is safety.”
Back in Brooklyn, Bahi’s vision for the MCC was to keep it open to neighbours – in fact, that’s his pride, welcoming non-Muslim members from the community into the mosque. He said in the past few years, the mosque became an open space for the locals in the neighbourhood, allowing non-Muslims to come and share meals with them and learn about their prayers and rituals.
But now that same spirit has been dampened by the fear, which makes him worry that anyone could slip into the mosque, and given the diverse community the mosque welcomes, anyone could blend in.
“The relationship between us and our neighbours have been amazing the past three to four years,” said Bahi. “Back then it was amazing, for our community to get accepted [and] comfortable with that … but definitely, now from a security standpoint, it’s very scary.”
He still believes the ultimate solution is to leave the doors open.
“I always tell my community, this is the best line of defence – where your neighbours are,” he said. “Obviously, if every mosque had the same environment and doing this kind of work, it’ll get amplified.”