In a time of heightened anti-Muslim sentiment in America, residents of Bay Ridge were invited on Saturday to “meet their Muslim neighbors” at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, which opened its doors for visitors to ask questions about Islam. Not many neighbors came—most of the attendees were Muslim members of the mosque. But the organizers were not discouraged.
“No matter the turnout, we are still happy,” said Albi Saqe, vice president of the mosque’s board. Saqe pointed out that the event was shared on social media, including in non-Muslim forums, where “there was a significant amount of discussion.” The mosque plans to keep the channels of communication open, insisting visitors are welcomed anytime.
The mosque’s willingness to interact with its community is not new—it has hosted similar Open House events in the past. But this one comes in the wake of terrorist killings in Paris and in San Bernardino, California, both planned and executed by radical jihadists loyal to ISIS. The mosque cannot overlook the resulting fears and tensions, Saqe said. “Realistically speaking, it is due to the nature of the political environment and the way it’s going with certain politicians making blatant comments and absurd requests out in public,” said Saqe. “The current events have a lot to do with the Open House.”
On Saturday, attendees were encouraged to get firsthand clarifications about Islam from imam Dr. Mohamed Elbar, who spoke to a dozen people with the help of an interpreter. A few vocal members of the mosque directed questions to the imam in Arabic, highlighting the community’s concern in a climate of rising Islamophobia, and an apparent sense of responsibility to try to attenuate hostilities. Among the questions: What is Islam’s perspective on the Paris attacks? Do Muslim countries support ISIS? What should I do when candidates try to create conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims?
For members of the community, the mosque acts not only as place of worship, but also as a point of guidance through tumultuous times. “You also have to understand a lot of people have a limited understanding and knowledge of current affairs,” Saqe said. “A lot of them don’t actually watch TV or listen to the news.”
Donald Trump’s most recent proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country could not be ignored at the meeting. “It’s the first time that we see any candidate using this idea to win an election, “ imam Elbar said. “It is our right to ask people not to vote for him.” Still, the imam rejected claims that islamophobia is worse than after 9/11, arguing instead that anti-Muslim sentiment was being manipulated by political parties to make electoral gains.
At a time when Muslims have voiced their frustration over the expectation placed on them to condemn attacks and distance themselves from an ideology that misrepresents them, the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge insists it is its duty to stand against prejudice. “We are trying our best to show ourselves,” said Dr. Husam Rimawi, president of the Islamic Society. “Our children were born here. We cannot hurt this country, ever.”
Last week, members of the mosque met with Captain Raymond S. Festino from the local 68th precinct to discuss various security matters, including the stationing of the police in front of the mosque as a precautionary measure. The mosque also asked if they could deliver a workshop to police officers about Islamic culture, hoping to clear up any misconceptions that could be perceived as suspicious.
The Islamic Society of Bay Ridge’s cooperation with the local precinct dates back to a controversy that embroiled the mosque in a foiled plot to blow up Herald Square subway station. One of the two young men charged with plotting the attack in 2004 was found to have prayed at the mosque. Relations were strained when it emerged the NYPD had established surveillance on mosques in the years following 9/11.
As the event was brought to an end by the call for prayer, attendees made their way to a carpeted room with doors wide open overlooking the sidewalk. Meanwhile, a passerby standing outside shouted at attendees, claiming that the mosque had not opened its doors in 25 years, and that it had been involved in terrorist attacks—a reminder, perhaps, that communication is indeed in order.