As Islamophobic Rhetoric Gets Louder, NYC Muslims Fear for Their Mosques

Imam Al-Khoei Islamic CenterEXPAND
Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center

Amid reports of attacks on mosques around the nation, a few dozen Muslims came to pray on a recent evening at the Al-Khoei Islamic Center next to the Van Wyck Expressway in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. They braved high winds and sheeting rain to attend the service, and they pushed to the back of their minds fears of another attack like the one of two years ago, when someone used Molotov cocktails to firebomb the building at 90th Avenue.

“We’re trying to move forward,” says Imam Fadhel Al-Sahlani, leader of the center. He sits in his office following the evening prayer service, recalling the anti-Muslim hate crimes the mosque faced after 9-11. “We went through many experiences in the past, but thank God we’re still here. We haven't received any threatening phone calls yet like we did back then.”

Still, he worries about the impact comments from the likes of Donald Trump and many of the nation's governors, who are stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment, will have on the future. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut earlier this month, Trump has called for surveillance of "certain mosques" and suggested reinstating a version of the controversial NYPD spying program, which was dropped last year after Muslims and civil rights organizations demanded its termination.

While Sahlani is hoping for the best, Meesam Razvi, who serves as the U.N. representative of the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation, a Shia Islamic charity and education group, says he is prepared for the worst.

“What happened in Paris has amplified our concern, of course, but we have been worried about this for a very long time,” he says. “Our mosque is one of the most prominent Islamic structures in the city. Everyone, whether they know it’s a mosque or not, has seen the blue dome from the Van Wyck Expressway. We could be a target, and that's always at the top of our minds — the security concerns.”

Since Paris, there have been reports of at least ten attacks on mosques across the country. For example, at a mosque in Pflugerville, Texas, feces and torn pages from the Koran were smeared on a wall. An Islamic center was vandalized with a spray-painted symbol of an Eiffel Tower peace sign in Omaha, Nebraska. In Meriden, Connecticut, the Baitul Aman Mosque was fired upon four or five times. It’s unknown who committed these incidents, but they are doubtless extensions of what happened in Europe.

Imam Daud Hanif of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in New York presides over mosques in Queens, Long Island, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Before beginning a Friday prayer service at the Baituz Zafar Mosque in Hollis, Queens, he told the Voice that none of his congregants have yet approached him about fears of tension and discrimination following the Paris attacks. But he feels there's more outreach that needs to be done by those mosques that have been targeted — and indeed all mosques — to their local communities.

“This is not the time to hide and let the extremists write the narrative on Islam,” he says. “Rather, it is time to let people know what the true teachings of Islam are.”

“What terrorists want is more terror,” adds Salaam Bhatti, a spokesman for Ahmadiyya. “Even if we receive threats, what it comes down to is people out there will want us to play the victim card, but we won’t. We’re New Yorkers. No one is playing victim here. There are people in Paris who have been killed. We condemn those attacks, but we’re not going to back down from domestic terrorists; we’re going to open our doors even more and let people know who we are.”

That education appears to be needed. Most Americans have cold feelings for Muslims, according to a Pew Research Center poll last year that found Muslims were perceived as negatively as atheists. 

Anti-Islamic sentiment goes in cycles, says Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. There was, of course, the wave of anti-Muslim activity after 9-11, but “2010 was the worst cycle we had seen prior to this one," he says. “In 2010 you had the issue of the 'ground zero mosque' and you had Terry Jones burn a Koran.”

Similar Islamophobic acts started picking up after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last year but had tapered off until the most recent incident. 

"Right now my count for November is that we had three mosque incidents," says Saylor. "Since the Paris attacks there have been at least six, to my knowledge." In New York City, the number of mosques has increased since 9-11: Back then there were just more than 100; today, one count has the number at 285. 

"We might have nearly 300 mosques in New York,” says Bhatti, "but so many Muslims are immigrants that keep to themselves and to their community."

Bhatti would like to change that and get more Muslims to be proactive in educating the wider public about their religion. In an effort to do this, Bhatti and a group of his friends who are practicing Muslims created an "Ask a Muslim" Periscope account where users are invited to submit questions regarding Islam.

Meanwhile, many in the community worry about hate crimes and opposition to mosques with negative perceptions of Islam on the rise.

"There’s always that feeling that something might happen," says Razvi. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

He adds: "But the way things are going with other mosques in the country, it’s bound to happen."

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