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Christchurch helped turn my mosque from a place of worship into a place of fear

With every tragedy, including the Christchurch attacks, I find myself withdrawing more.

Muslims pray in a park near Al Noor mosque on March 20, 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Carl Court/Getty Images

While you’re still horrified by the mosque shooting, I’m going to share something very personal. Because that feeling you have right now, where even a small, kindhearted country like New Zealand isn’t safe, won’t last. That fear is how many Muslims feel every time we set foot in a mosque.

Islamophobia isn’t as isolated as many want to believe. Violence against religious minorities happens everywhere — just look at the shootings at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh temple and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh — and it’s getting worse. And while Jews and Muslims combined only account for 3 percent of the American population, 79 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes are perpetrated against Jews and Muslims. It’s happening not just in rural areas, but in big cities where people assume diversity means everyone is safe. It’s not safe — and I’ve actually had as many terrifying experiences in a large city as I have in the rural South.

I used to attend a mosque in a big city in California. It was a beautiful place where I felt completely at peace. Outside this place of worship, I experienced hate: I was spat on, shoved out of line at a grocery store, called a “towelhead,” and was even run off the road. But when I was in the mosque, I was safe. I took my young niece every week — she couldn’t wait to wear her hijab for Friday services, community, and a meal many of us would share together.

Then the hate started to seep in. It started small at first. There were hateful words muttered as people passed me on my way to the mosque. I brushed it off. Then one day, someone duct-taped firecrackers to several cars in our parking lot while we all prayed. Luckily, the cars didn’t explode, but it changed everything for me. Our safe space was now surrounded by security guards who kept watch while we prayed.

I stopped wearing hijab and started parking really far from the mosque. I walked alone down the winding streets, only stopping to cover my head just before I entered because I was so scared. I couldn’t listen to the imam without watching the door and wondering if today was going to be the day that someone would attack us while we prayed.

With every attack, I feel myself withdrawing

I later moved to rural Texas, and soon after, the shootings and the fires started. Mosques were burned to the ground, and the hatred became too much to ignore. The latest administration brought with it racists emboldened by President Trump. Even professionals who once kept their views to themselves feel free to spread their hate, including teachers. One day, our middle child came home distraught. The world cultures teacher had told the class that all Muslims were terrorists, no exceptions. The teacher got a slap on the wrist, though she freely admitted to her words. I was heartbroken.

We moved our daughter to a different school. But my heart still skips a beat when she comes out of the building and quickly takes off and hides her scarf because I don’t allow her to wear hijab outside of the mosque. I wonder: If she wore it at recess, would that make her a target? The answers devastate me to my core.

It took me a while to build up the nerve to attend jumah prayer, where Muslims gather on Fridays to perform the midday prayer, after we moved to Texas. The mosque here is beautiful, and the people are friendly. But every time I set foot inside, my anxiety skyrockets and I feel like I’m going to die. It feels like nowhere is safe. We are targets, especially women who cover their heads.

With every tragedy, including the Christchurch attacks, I find myself withdrawing more. I find myself hesitating before I step across the threshold, my hands trembling as I take a deep breath to calm myself before I enter the mosque. As with any religion, worshipping together brings so much peace. But it feels more and more like a place of fear and violence.

This attack is a symptom of normalized Islamophobia

We can’t fool ourselves into thinking this is just some deranged loner in his parents’ basement. When Islamophobia is normalized, this could be anyone. And while there has been a definite surge in hate over the past three years, George W. Bush’s post-9/11 administration is also guilty of anti-Muslim abuses. From the no-fly list to sanctioning the torture of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, that past administration stoked the fires of hate, and the current administration is fanning the flames. Throw in the negative portrayal of Muslims in pop culture and it’s no wonder we Muslims don’t feel safe in our mosques.

There are several studies that find a significant rise in hate crimes against religious minorities. Mosques and synagogues have taken to hiring security in an effort to prevent attacks like the Christchurch shooting. Armed guards should have no place outside a house of worship.

Everyone deserves a place to worship in peace. That we have allowed dangerous groups to turn them into spaces of fear is cruel and not who we are as Americans.

Vianna Goodwin is the pen name of a freelance writer and mother of four living in rural Texas. A Muslim and an activist against discrimination of all kinds, she uses her voice to champion the rights of all marginalized people.

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