In addition to cooking, praying and decorating, some Muslims around the country are preparing for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins Sunday night, in a solemn new way: active shooter training.
A string of recent high-profile attacks on houses of worship, including one in March in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 51 Muslim worshipers, has led more U.S. mosques this year to take up the topic of security. Their approaches include conducting preparedness drills, hiring armed or undercover security officers, training volunteers, installing cameras and adding locks.
At Dar al Hijrah, a large Northern Virginia mosque where 1,000 people pray every day during the holy month, leaders have long held an annual pre-Ramadan meeting to discuss security before their busiest time. This year, said Saif Rahman, a staffer, “the meeting was a little more anxious.”
After the October synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the mosque began offering active-shooter response training sessions for its members. After the Christchurch shooting, it hosted a meeting for staff from mosques across the region, where Rahman taught other mosque leaders about public funds they can apply for if they want to hire security guards. Recently, Dar al Hijrah increased its security presence to not just busy prayer times, but every prayer time — five times a day. This Ramadan, those guards suggested a new practice: searching attendees’ bags when they enter.
Rahman is torn, when he thinks about how airports and courthouses have long felt like militarized zones. “Houses of worship should not be military barracks,” he said. “I just hope instead of us thinking along those lines, we think about how we can heal wounds and fight ignorance together. These preventative measures aren’t necessarily solving the root cause, which is ignorance. Ignorance breeds hate.”
Omair Siddiqi has become a security organizer for mosques in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He took it on himself, he says, after watching armed anti-Muslim protesters in front of two local mosques in 2017 and 2018, and seeing news of several mosques attacked by arsonists. A year or so ago, he says, there was resistance to his calls for beefing up protections, especially from older Muslims. No more.
“Once we saw Christchurch and they realized the severity, now I’m getting a lot of support,” he said. “People have opened their eyes. Now when they don’t see the security officer and see someone armed, they’re like: ‘Okay, what’s going on?’ It’s completely changed.”
Siddiqi now has a 15-to-20-person team that goes to area mosques to share tips from law enforcement, help craft a plan and find funding. Last week, he said people were trying to squeeze in assessments ahead of Ramadan. He did two during the week before the holy month and was trying to add a third.
“Humanity in general, we see these things happen and then people move on and forget. But for us [Muslims], it needs to be playing in the back of our mind so we are preparing. It can happen at any moment,” he said.
In Lanham on Friday, more than 400 worshipers gathered for the weekly communal service, jummah, at the Diyanet Center of America. The sermon spoke of how to prepare, spiritually, for the Muslim month of fasting during daylight hours and reading the Koran to commemorate the revelation of their holy book.
But outside the room, a different sort of preparation was underway.
Bilal Qudah, a former police officer who is now the director of security at this large Turkish mosque, was running the numbers in his head: Five prayers a day. Thirty huge iftar feasts. Hundreds of visitors every day, sometimes upward of 1,000. Three to six uniformed security officers. Twenty-four hours a day.
Securing the mosque complex — a sprawling facility that includes Turkish baths, a restaurant, and 10 guest residences — is a full-time job.
“A lot of people, after New Zealand, are apprehensive about coming to pray. They want to see someone in uniform walking around,” he said. “People ask me about coming for Ramadan. I reassure them that by the grace of God, everything will be okay.”
Many feel as comfortable as always.
Mohammad Shahid, a neuroscience researcher, said he looks forward to bringing his 5-year-old and 11-month-old almost every day of Ramadan to the Lanham mosque.
“Ramadan is a very optimistic month. We believe it’s the most gracious, most merciful month of the year. We’re excited,” he said. “I believe it’s 100 percent safe.”
Others said they were less sanguine this Ramadan than in years past.
Mehmet Burakgazi, 35, was excited for the first Ramadan for his wife, who recently converted to Islam, and to have his parents visit from Turkey for the month. When he told his father they were going to pray on Friday, however, he was surprised.
“My father is a religious man. But he said, ‘Are you sure? Are we going to be safe in the mosque?’” Burakgazi said. “That’s not a normal question.” He assured his father, though he felt privately tormented by thoughts of shootings in other houses of worship.
According to FBI hate crimes statistics, the total number of religion-based bias incidents in the U.S. has been climbing for years, with the most common targets being Jews and Muslims. In 2017, the most recent year that FBI data was available, there were 938 anti-Jewish incidents and 273 anti-Muslim incidents — both categories that have been rising in number in recent years.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national group that monitors Muslim civil rights, wrote to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee last month, citing attacks carried out against U.S. Muslims and those that were thwarted.
“CAIR urges the House Judiciary Committee and all the U.S. government to confront and admit the reality that we as a nation are in the middle of an epidemic of white nationalist and Islamophobic attacks targeting minority religious communities,” CAIR’s statement read.
The U.S. government has beefed up its funding program to secure nonprofits that are seen as being at high risk of terrorist attack. The program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, does special outreach to faith-based groups. Started in the mid-2000s, the grant program has gone from giving $13 million annually in 2014 to $60 million each year under the Trump administration and now is offered to nonprofits outside urban areas.
A bill pending in the House would increase the fund to $75 million, said Michael Masters, chief executive of the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit created by national Jewish organizations to help Jewish institutions deal with security issues. Masters said the Jewish community initially advocated for the creation of the fund. Anecdotally, he said there is increased interest and awareness — and requests for guidance — from U.S. Muslim groups on security.
“The threat [Jews] face from . . . white supremacy — [Muslims], in many respects, face the same threat,” he said.
Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights organization that advises Muslims, senses a shift toward more openness toward and interest in security.
Madihha Ahussain, the group’s special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, said the change could be related to new willingness to accept that a place of worship could be a target, as well as the maturation of institutions that now have the money and organization to create a security plan.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, there has been hesitance among some in the Muslim community to reach out to law enforcement, or apply to a government security agency because of the issue of surveillance. There have been high-profile cases of the government spying inside mosques. “So people worry: ‘If you apply for funding, are you exposing yourself to more vulnerability?’ There is some hesitation.”
Hassan Shibly, 32, has led more than 100 active-shooter trainings in the past couple years for mosques in Florida, where he is chief executive of the Florida branch of CAIR. Starting in 2016, Shibly has worn a firearm — making him controversial to some Muslims who worry that’s not the best image at a time when some critics see Islam as inherently violent. Others appreciate his strong approach to defense.
He says the top priority is reducing bias against Muslims and other racial and religious hatred. “That’s the critical long-term solution, the greater battle, the first thing,” he said. “But second is making sure anyone who enters a mosque with a weapon to do harm to our congregation, they should know we will be sending them straight to hell.”
In Silver Spring, Farhana Shah said her mosque, the Muslim Community Center, has new security cameras this year and increased security presence. Every time she comes to pray, she’ll hear a new announcement this year, reminding her to stay vigilant and to report suspicious behavior to the mosque’s leaders.
And yet she plans to be there, focusing on her faith somehow amid the fear.
“It’s a spiritual month. You want to focus on Islam and your spirituality,” she said. “Instead you’re always thinking, ‘Am I going to be okay tonight?’ Frankly, I never thought I’d be thinking this way.”