By now, many have seen the viral video of the two women vandalizing the Islamic Cultural Center (ICC) in Tempe, Arizona, with their children in tow.
When I first saw the video and the accompanying press coverage, I started crying. The tears I shed were not tears of release, they were tears of a depression that I have known for as long as I have known that I am Muslim. They are tears that fall every now and again, and more often during times of strife and increased oppression.
ICC is the closest thing to a home I have ever had. It was where my family hung out every Friday night, and every night of Ramadan. It’s where I learned to play soccer and basketball and the first place I wrestled and sprinted. It’s where I learned to read and where I found my love for writing. My sister explained my tears perfectly. “That was our school, mosque and second home,” she said. “Watching that video was like seeing my childhood home being stabbed over and over again.”
The women in the video were arrested last week; one was booked on suspicion of burglary and disorderly conduct, the other on a burglary charge. Their names are Tahnee Gonzales and Elizabeth Dauenhauer, but they could have been anyone. And ICC could have been any one of our masjids; according to the ACLU, at least 313 American mosques have been vandalized since 2005, at least 8 of which are in Arizona. The scourge of mosque vandalism pre-dated with 2016 campaign run by proud Islamophobe Donald Trump, but his campaign and his election coincided with a spike in anti-Muslim violence. Nearly a dozen mosques are vandalized every month in the U.S.
ICC could have been any one of our masjids; according the the ACLU, at least 313 American mosques have been vandalized since 2005.
Vandalism is not new ― not to ICC, not to most mosques in the United States and not to mosques around the world. Between 40 and 60 percent of all mosques in the United Kingdom have been targeted since 9/11. Two weeks ago, Islamophobic agitators in the UK sent anonymous letters urging people to participate in “Punish a Muslim Day,” detailing a point system to incentivize harassment and assault. Verbal abuse gets you 10 points, pulling off a woman’s hijab 25, throwing acid at a Muslim 50. “Butcher” a Muslim for 500 points, and burn a mosque for 1,000.
It’s not just in mosques where Muslims are made to feel unsafe: Over 40% of Muslim children in the U.S. report being bullied in their own schools. What might be even more concerning is that a quarter of that bullying is perpetrated by their teachers.
When I think about the violence inflicted on ICC and its worshippers, a part of me wants to plaster a smile on my face and hide my terror. That part of me says, don’t give them more power, don’t let them know they got to you. But I cannot deny my own pain at the disfigurement of my home, a pain many Muslims know all too well.
As the news from Tempe was flooding my social media feeds, I was on my way to the 10th annual Muslim Mental Health Conference in Washington. This year, in response to the current political climate and accurately reflective of Muslim psychological pain, the conference theme was Out of the Shackles: Pursuit of Civil Justice in the Face of Psychological Trauma. For three days, mental health practitioners, researchers and advocates from around the U.S. and the world convened to discuss the mental health needs of the Muslim community.
It was rare to find a presentation that did not discuss the ways that Islamophobia wounds Muslims of all ages. Rida Abdullah, a Pakistani-American immigration paralegal and activist from New York, told me, “We often don’t speak of the mental health aspect of watching people vandalize our safe spaces. There is rage, yes. There is anger, yes. But there is also trauma. Trauma of knowing that places we love are not safe.”
Most of the Muslim friends and family members I spoke with shared their concerns for the children in the video, first and foremost. “This is absolutely disgusting,” one childhood friend, who would rather remain anonymous, told me. “I feel bad for those kids.”
I feel bad for them, too, but what about the children who pray and play at ICC? When I was growing up, there were between 50 and 70 kids at ICC on Friday nights. Since then, white nationalist extremists have begun targeting the community, and that number has gotten smaller and smaller. Some weeks, there are no children playing outside.
There is anger, yes. But there is also trauma. Trauma of knowing that places we love are not safe.”
Those children deserve a safe place to enjoy being kids and to grow into their Muslim faith. So do the hundreds of adults, in Tempe and around the nation, who have been robbed of their sense of safety in their places of worship. We don’t need our Masjids to be vandalized; just knowing that it’s happened elsewhere is enough to traumatize us and increase symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
The outpouring of love we’ve received at ICC has been incredible. But many of us can’t help but wonder if these viral videos will invite others to replicate the pain across dozens, if not hundreds of communities. A huge show of support, if it’s unaccompanied by systemic changes, will not prevent this kind of violence from happening again and again.
Tahnee Gonzales and Elizabeth Dauenhauer felt empowered by our society to break into a place of worship and violate it as three children watched. Others have spray painted our mosques, broken windows and even vandalized mosques that are still under construction. As an ally, you must ask yourself: How has our society provided a space for the possibility of this kind of violence? And how can we ensure that it never happens again?
Ahmad Abojaradeh is the Founder and Executive Director of Life in My Days, a global non-profit dedicated to starting difficult conversations about mental health and disabilities, abuse, trauma and social justice.