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Amid heightened threats, US Muslims get help from their neighbors

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Cities across the US are stepping up their patrols around mosques and Islamic institutions after an attack at a Quebec mosque.

The memorial near the site of a fatal shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre was covered in flowers and signs Tuesday.
Mathieu Belanger/Reuters
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Mosques and Islamic schools are ramping up security and police patrols in cities and towns across the United States following an anti-Muslim terrorist attack at a mosque in Canada.

Hate crimes against Muslims rose by 67 percent in 2015, likely stemming from a pattern of high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe and the rhetoric stirred during the US presidential campaign, bringing marginalized anti-Muslim sentiments to the forefront of American political discussion.

But American Muslims aren't alone in their response to the fear and hatred.

That was evident again this weekend as back-to-back incidents in Quebec and Texas raised fresh security concerns. Some communities are responding with solidarity with their Muslim neighbors, offering money (more than $1 million was raised to rebuild the mosque in Victoria, Texas) and whatever help they may need to secure their people and places of worship.

“We’ve seen an unprecedented spike in anti-Muslim incidents in the past year or more,” Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington D.C.-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. 

But, he notes, the spike in hate crimes has been met by a surge in support for the community.

“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he says. “That’s one thing that’s come with the election of Donald Trump is the tremendous amount of support and solidarity being expressed for the Muslim community.”

Both victories and tragedies marked the weekend for the Muslim community. Saturday evening, a federal judge granted a temporary stay on portions of Mr. Trump’s executive order that bars for 90-days immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US. The court order came amid protests thousands strong at airports around the nation, and allowed citizens of those countries who hold permanent US residency green cards to re-enter the country.

But on the same day, a mosque burnt to the ground in Texas under suspicious circumstances that authorities continue to investigate. On Sunday, a shooter opened fire at a Quebec City mosque, killing six during a prayer service and wounding more than a dozen others.

Again, communities in Canada and across the US expressed their support, holding vigils and reaching out to those impacted by the tragedies or to their own community mosques, asking how they could lend assistance. Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Seattle are among a slew of cities and towns that announced within days that they would bolster their patrol efforts around mosques and Muslim community centers.

Adding surveillance cameras, guards, and police patrols can boost a mosque or school’s ability to respond to or prevent attacks, but the sometimes restrictive measures can also isolate the already misunderstood religious groups. Navigating the narrow path between securing institutions and taking measures that turn the communities inward can prove a difficult, but vital, task.

It's a nuanced approach that the Baitul Aman Mosque in Meriden, Conn., has managed to effectively master and use over the past year.

In 2015, former Marine Ted Hakey Jr. fired four bullets at the mosque the day after radical Islamic terrorists killed more than 100 people in Paris. While the incident could have resulted in a tragic loss of life, it instead brought Mr. Hakey and the mosque’s members closer together, as no one was injured in the incident and the mosque was able to reach out with forgiveness, extending an invitation to Hakey to meet with mosque members.

"I am sincere about working with my neighbors. I was very happy with the way they behaved in this whole thing," Hakey told the Hartford Courant upon receiving a six-month prison sentence last summer. "They were sincere in accepting my apology and I am sincere that I am going to work with them."

While condemning the recent attacks elsewhere and offering prayers and condolences to those impacted by violence, Zahir Mannan, the secretary of outreach and education at the Connecticut mosque, notes that such incidents have led to a outpouring of community support. The mosque increased video surveillance and police patrols, but also started weekly community meetings where they open the doors to non-Muslim neighbors. They’ve launched meet and greet campaigns, which seek to expose those who are unfamiliar with the religion and culture to local people of faith.

The efforts have anchored the mosque as a permanent, respected player in the diverse community,

“Many of these things have been blessings in disguise,” Mr. Mannan tells the Monitor. “[Hakey] admitted to being ignorant [about the religion]. All it took for him was one meeting with us and that changed his heart. That turned him around. He became our brother. He invited many people to our mosque that had never come before.”

Following this past weekend’s events, Mannan says the mosque received condolences and community members and elected officials, asked, "How could we help?"

The answer, he says, is continuing to come to meet with mosque members and also to invite Muslims to join in other interfaith and community events.  

“The last thing that we want to do is close our doors and lock everyone up,” he says. “We’re opening our doors more than ever.”

Still, some wonder if the increased security measures could become permanent, necessary fixtures at US mosques and schools, and how that will impact the communities. Even as thousands across the nation protest the travel ban or reach out to build bridges, the threat posed by a few radical Muslim haters continues to loom.

“It’s the new normal,” Mr. Hooper says. “The mainstreaming of Islamophobia has really been solidified.”

Others communities have responded by reaching out and offering their own experiences, creating blended groups that share history and work together to find paths forward.

“The Jewish community has already been there,” in terms of security, Sheryl Olitzky, the founder of the Jewish-Muslim women’s group Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS), tells the Monitor, noting that synagogues have long remained vigilant to counter anti-Semitic attacks and vandalism. “It’s something that we are accustomed to. I think this is a new way of life and will be a new way of life in the near future for America.”

But, she said, the SOSS and organizations like it have played a role in bringing diverse communities together in the face of adversity. By connecting Jewish and Muslim women, the group has created both an emotional support system where they can share experiences and an advocacy group that will call for legislative change and physical protections.

“We are starting right now with making sure this happens with Muslim and Jewish women and taking that out to the greater community,” Ms. Olitzky says.

While many say that the rhetoric and immediate action of the Trump administration is not to blame for building anti-Muslim sentiments in the country, some worry that the president’s positions could reinforce sentiments that manifest in violence against the Islamic community. And while community support and sweeping protests might make the Muslim community feel less alone, many remain concerned about an erosion of their rights under the new policies coupled with hatred fueled by a lack of understanding or compassion.

“However many people come out to bring flowers to the mosque that’s burned, if the [administration’s policies are] targeting Muslims, it’s not a cure,” Hooper says. “We just don’t know if we will have the same protections as other Americans going forward.”