The harsh words used to describe mosques after Paris sound nothing like the safe space I remember as a child.
Let me tell you about the mosque I grew up in.
It’s a large square building in a neglected neighborhood of Los Angeles County, a multiroom prayer-hall-slash-schoolhouse painted in white and green. Over the decades, its congregation has expanded beyond its capacity; the managers of the Hometown Buffet across the street regularly complain of mosque-goers taking up their parking spots. Prayers take place five times a day, the first occurring at the break of dawn. On Sundays, they hold religious classes, a mix of Arabic language courses and Quranic studies.
I attended this mosque for most of my life. I went to Sunday school every year until high school. Every Friday night, I was there for evening prayers and youth group. We held health fairs and open mosque days; career workshops and “Know Your Rights” lectures. For a couple of years, our youth group organized a talent show for mosques all across Southern California, providing a stage for budding spoken-word poets who railed against racism and aspiring singer-songwriters who performed acoustic “Wonderwall” covers. Two times a year, we gathered there to celebrate Eid, shoveling ful and Krispy Kreme donuts into our hungry mouths.
Over the decades, that building contained the full spectrum of human experiences. Exiles of war and oppressive regimes found solace in the rote repetition of religious practice. Immigrants who crossed entire oceans only to land in hostile territory commiserated with one another over shared experiences. Children traded Britney Spears albums and issues of J-14 magazine, smoke bombs and water guns, illicit goods banned in their respective households. Young boys and girls huddled in darkened corners, exchanging gossip and building intimacy and getting swept up in the drama of hormone-fueled teenage emotion. Copies of Malcolm X’s autobiography and Immortal Technique’s latest album were shared like new religious revelations. And at the end of each day, we all gathered in the main hall for prayer, distracted young ones fidgeting in line and adults in thoughtful repose, as the imam recited the words of the Qu’ran in solemn intonations.
When, only two days after the attacks in Paris that took the lives of 132 people, French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve appeared on television to announce the “dissolution of mosques where hate is preached,” I felt a sense of dread. Cazeneuve’s pronouncement confirmed every fear I had since Friday, that these tragic attacks would be instrumentalized to justify another round of violence against Muslims in the Middle East and abroad. Over the weekend, a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario, was set on fire. Two mosques in Florida received expletive-laden voicemails threatening violence against their congregations. A mosque in Texas was vandalized, with a copy of the Qu’ran torn and covered in feces. And then Donald Trump, America’s abominable talking sock puppet, announced his own intentions to monitor and possibly shut down all U.S. mosques should he become president.
Where pundits and Islamophobic dogmatists see incubators of extremism and violence, I experienced another reality. The mosques Trump and other reactionaries speak about so detestably were never places of hate for me. They were places of love. They were spiritual sanctuaries during a time when the rest of the country had become inhospitable for the likes of us, a time when Muslim women couldn’t walk down the street without being commanded to “go back to their countries” or “take that off.”
When the world outside was harsh, when it was mean, when it was cruel and unloving, our mosque became our home. When our own neighbors shut doors in our faces and defaced our houses, the mosque is where we went. When the volley of post-9/11 racism, and anti-blackness, and anti-immigrant aggression became unbearable, here is where we found refuge: not just in the comfort of religious scripture, but also in the arms of our community, a heterogeneous group of people hailing from every place on the globe. We varied in experience, spiritual devotion, political orientation, and lifestyle.
But we all had one thing in common: we all knew what it was like to be Muslim in America. We knew what it was like to walk down the halls of our schools and places of work and feel deeply lonely. We knew what it was like to sit on the bus, next to an empty seat no one else wants to sit in. We knew what it was like to have our academic advisers and supervisors underestimate our intellectual ability, and to have cashiers and waiters sneer at our broken English. We knew what it was like to go through our lives with our peers and coworkers mispronouncing our names, mangling the delicate syllables with their careless tongues.
A few days after 9/11, I arrived at my mosque and saw, for the first time, a security guard stationed at the entrance. Someone had thrown a rock through the front window. In the years since, mosques around the country have become lightning rods for Islamophobic bigotry. A planned mosque not far from Ground Zero became fodder for right-wing talk shows; elsewhere in the country, other mosque projects faced protest and censure. On primetime news shows, talking heads declared these places breeding grounds for terrorist groups.
These fears, however, have little basis in reality. Terrorist groups are not going to mosques to recruit people. They’re going to Facebook and Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. The internet has been ISIS’s most effective tool for recruitment and the best stage for its ideological war. In mosques, however, the same violent rhetoric is roundly condemned and rejected.
Shutting down mosques won’t stop terrorism. It will only alienate and ostracize a group of people for whom the mosque is a safe harbor. This kind of response is the last resort of the cowardly, of those who have allowed themselves to become hostage to their own fears.
Let me tell you about the mosque I grew up in.
The prayer hall, decked in green and yellow carpeting, is the quietest place in the world. Here, you may find your neighbors on their knees in prayer, their palms face up, their eyes cast downward in supplication to a merciful God. Here, their hushed invocations echo against stucco walls, silent pleas for the safety of their friends and family, for the progress of their embattled homelands, and for their own prosperity in the face of great hardships. In this hallowed hall, we find serenity in the embrace of a community that is struggling, like everyone else, for peace in a brutish world.