After glimpsing the headlines announcing the deadly shooting in New Zealand on Thursday night, I shut my phone off, told my wife I loved her, and went to bed. I didn’t want to confront the heartbreak. I had planned on going to Friday prayers the next day, and I didn’t want to think about how 49 others who had been trying to do the same had just been gunned down by a white-supremacist terrorist. But the next afternoon, I grabbed my coat, told my wife where I was heading, and hit the pavement.
As I sat inside the masjid in Brooklyn, a few rows back from the minbar, I kept making eye contact with the extra security. Volunteers stood watch at each door, greeting worshipers as they came in, scanning for anything suspicious. This particular masjid and the imam who leads the prayers have both repeatedly been the subjects of anti-Muslim hysteria online.
I’ve come here to pray many times before. The atmosphere Friday was especially tense. In the main prayer area, I usually sit and browse Twitter, or make plans with friends to meet up after, but I couldn’t bring myself to do either. I didn’t want to read about what had just happened in a mosque just like this one, to congregants just like the folks sitting next to me. I can usually overhear others chatting about politics, gentrification, or sports, but Friday, we all sat in silence. I shut my eyes to avoid giving the extra security any reason to focus on me.
Before the prayer, the head of security came on the intercom to address the elephant in the prayer room. In light of the news from New Zealand, he calmly gave us all instructions on what to do if something similar were to happen here. He reminded us to trust the volunteer security guards, and that they’d already once stopped a man who entered the masjid with a rifle concealed under his long jacket. I wasn’t present for that, but I was around when another man brought a samurai sword to attack Muslims gathered for Friday prayer in my masjid Jersey City, where I grew up. (I hear that mosque’s manager keeps that sword above the door to his office now.) On the loudspeaker, the guard also reminded us that men have a responsibility to rush a shooter should they try to attack us like they did in New Zealand, in hopes of at least slowing the shooter down enough to allow the more vulnerable worshipers an opportunity to escape. Then the imam took his place at the minbar, and it was time for the Friday sermon.
Like any imam on Friday, he was face to face with a room of wounded Muslims, who all showed up to worship despite the threat of violence. He stood where none of us could, and used the opportunity to help those present through the grieving process. He talked about death, how every prophet we Muslims believe in, from Moses to Jesus to Mohammed, couldn’t escape death, and neither can we. By the end of it, the hole in my heart was filled with a feeling of defiance. I entered the mosque afraid and exited feeling proud.
I finally got around to opening my phone. The hashtag #PeacefulMosques collected images of Muslims around the world at their mosques as if it were any other Friday. We do this to reassure ourselves and one another, but perhaps we also do it because we feel we must rebuke the characterization of our religion that has been perpetrated by none other than the president of the United States, who has pursued a virulently anti-Muslim agenda since taking office (an offshoot of what he promised on the campaign trail). It was strange to me, Friday, to see President Donald Trump sending condolences to the victims of a perpetrator who had called him “a symbol of renewed white identity.”
Every Muslim I prayed with is forced to confront targeted rhetoric meant to make us feel unwelcome on a daily basis. Friday we sat in defiance of the powerful voices that insist that a Muslim cannot be both simultaneously faithful to our religion and loyal to our country. The terrorist who attacked the mosques in New Zealand did so to make Muslims around the world afraid. He broadcast a signal to Muslims living in the West, like me, that we aren’t safe inside our mosques. Every Muslim who prayed Friday is a testament to that terrorist’s failure.
The mosque was more full than usual. The white supremacist failed.
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