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It's Been Too Long Since I Felt Safe Praying In A Mosque

The shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand are only the most recent mosque attacks weighing on my mind.
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Like an ugly game of hide and seek, I've been dodging the dingy alleyways of the internet today. I am scared of accidentally coming across the livestreamed footage of the recent terrorist attacks at two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques. I don't want to see the suffering, to hear the screams, or to be witness to the ensuing, inevitable silence.

But, really, there is no escaping the stills of suffering circulating online, is there?

A police officer guards near the Masjid Al Noor mosque, site of one of the mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 16, 2019.
A police officer guards near the Masjid Al Noor mosque, site of one of the mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 16, 2019.

That anti-Muslim sentiment has spiked greatly since the 9/11 attack is not news anymore. But what still goes greatly underreported is the recent and shocking spike in anti-mosque activities in the West.

Personally, I can vividly recall when things got all too real for me — when the spectre of a possible terrorist attack taking place at a mosque first became part of my lived reality. It was in 2017, following a mass shooting in Quebec, when I first realized that mosques and places of worship were no longer safe sanctuaries.

Much like at this present time, I recall how the Canadian-Muslim community waited for global media and world leaders to use the right terminology to describe the hell the Muslims of Quebec had just gone through. And while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other officials did describe the gunman as a terrorist, ultimately legalese won the day and he was not charged as one.

A man walks into the mosque at the Islamic Cultural Center that was the location of a terror attack in Quebec City, Quebec.
ALICE CHICHE via Getty Images
A man walks into the mosque at the Islamic Cultural Center that was the location of a terror attack in Quebec City, Quebec.

I live in the U.S. now. This is a strange place where Islamophobic slurs and mosque vandalism seem as commonplace as U.S. President Donald Trump's frequent lies. I'm strangely immune to reports of pig parts showing up on the doorsteps of local mosques.

I've learned to laugh (and then politely educate) when people point at my sister-in-law's hijab and ask, "Is that your religion?" I try not to roll my eyes too hard when someone I've known for years says,"Wait, you're Pakistani? I thought you were Muslim." Frankly, it's just too much work to clear the confusion that "Muslim," much like Agrabah in Disney's "Aladdin," is not actually a place.

'A pervasive, unspoken fear'

I feel many Muslims like me now feel numb to being the victims of acts of low-level bigotry and even low-level criminal activity. There is in many of us a pervasive, unspoken fear, an electric current that affects everything from the way we tweet, to the way we dress to, increasingly, the places where we pray.

For me, this fear weighs most heavily on my mind on Fridays. My husband tends to forgo prayer at the makeshift mosque in the hospital where he works and attend one of the larger jummah gatherings in Washington, D.C., where we live. Instantly, I'm a bundle of nervous energy. Either I'm finding reasons for him not to go, or I am refreshing Google News if he's even a little slow to respond to texts post-prayer.

simonmayer via Getty Images

The fear bubbles up again to interrupt what should be moments of personal calm and beauty. Most recently, I felt it at a marriage ceremony in Alabama. Surrounded by all my loved ones at a fancy, prominent mosque, I started to sweat, my subconscious reminding me of the many ways in which Muslims (and people of colour, in general) will feel like moving targets for some in America's Deep South.

It would be selfish and misguided of me to claim this fear as only my own.

It's not just Muslims and mosques under attack today. Mass shootings at places of worship have spiked. And this is something that the entire world must come together to really reflect upon, and lament, for in these increasingly divided times I cannot think of a greater loss than having to give up the connection that comes with praying as part of a congregation.

A fleeting tranquility

Some would say it's a shame that the world we are gifting to our children is one of metal detectors and security shakedowns at the sacred doors of our most sacred spaces.

For me, I can't decide which is sadder: that increased security measures are now needed, or that such security measures are the only things that bring me relief when I walk into a mosque nowadays.

While visiting Istanbul's many prominent mosques in 2018, I felt absolute freedom and tranquility inside a mosque for the first time in years. With all fibres of my being alert to where I was and what I was doing, I was able to bow my head down with an unfiltered focus and an undivided attention before God.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.
N.M.Bear via Getty Images
Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

Knowing that all those entering with me had been properly vetted by police is what gave me this freedom and tranquility. And, unfortunately, these feelings did not follow me back to the U.S.

As I write this, it is Friday afternoon in North America. Despite my underhanded attempts to have him pray at home, my husband will arrive at jummah in a few hours.

Normally, this thought would have my heart racing a little faster. But today, my heart is in New Zealand. Today my mind is on brotherhood. I may be getting ready for Friday prayers in North America, but I am thinking of the brave souls across the ocean in New Zealand who, just hours ago, laid down their life over this same, very basic human right, the right to worship freely.

And already thinking about those who survived, those who, I hope, will one day find the courage to rebuild their lives, restore their faith not just in Islam but in humanity, and will walk back through the very doors where their friends and family members had been killed.

As I think of the grief that surely grips New Zealand, I find myself wanting nothing more than to lay my head down on plush carpeting, surrounded by the soothing sounds of the muezzin, at my local mosque. And to just pray.

A version of this blog originally appeared in the Express Tribune.

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