After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, this month was attributed to a Muslim couple, Karen Strongren’s son was afraid to go to prayer services at the Spokane Islamic Center.
“He was saying, ‘I really don’t want to go to the mosque. I don’t want to go because I am afraid somebody is going to come in and start shooting,’ ” Strongren said.
For many Muslims in Spokane, the past few weeks have been tense. Nationally, reports of hate crimes against Muslims have tripled following the terrorist attacks in Paris and California, according to a research group at California State University, San Bernardino.
No threats have been made against the mosque in Spokane Valley, board members say, and many Muslims have received positive and supportive comments from community members who are concerned about their safety.
Local law enforcement agencies and the FBI said they’re not aware of any specific threats or hate crimes against Muslims in Spokane over the past few months. But even without direct threats, the tense climate has taken a toll on many local Muslims, who say they’re exhausted by a constant drumbeat of anti-Muslim comments repeated on social media, in their children’s schools or out in public.
“I find myself justifying my existence to random strangers: ‘No, I’m not a terrorist,’ ” said Naghmana Sherazi, who works at the Spokane Regional Health District’s opioid treatment center and serves on the Spokane Islamic Center board.
Earlier this year, the Bosnia and Herzegovina Heritage Association, a Bosnian community center that functions as a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan, had “Death to Islam” spray-painted outside as people were praying. More recently, the Pullman Islamic Center was included in a list of “radicalized” mosques posted on the Daily Caller, a conservative news and opinion site, leading to a Facebook post in which someone called for the mosque to be burned down, according to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
Spokane is home to a diverse Muslim community of about 5,000 people, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group for Muslims with a chapter in Seattle. At a Friday prayer service at the Spokane Islamic Center last week, the 100 men and women present included Americans from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, some of whom were raised Muslim and some of whom converted, as well as immigrants and naturalized citizens originally from Pakistan, Bosnia, Libya, Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Melissa Zaragoza was raised in Puyallup, Washington, and converted to Islam three years ago after learning about the religion from a friend at Eastern Washington University. She chooses to wear a head covering, often called a hijab, in public. For her, modest dress is an important part of Islam that allows her to be judged for what’s inside her, rather than her outward appearance.
Because of her hijab, Zaragoza is easily identifiable as a Muslim, and people often stare at her, she said. Recently she was yelled at by men driving by in a truck.
“All I heard is them scream out the window that I should go back to my country. I’m like, ‘OK, pretty sure I’m here,’ ” she said.
Often, anti-Muslim comments are fueled by ignorance, something the Spokane Interfaith Council hopes to fight through its ongoing “Meet the Neighbors” program. Each month, the council picks a different religion to highlight by releasing a video introducing local members of the religion, followed by an open invitation to the house of worship. The next program will take place at the Islamic Center at 6 p.m on Jan. 19. The mosque also will host an open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 2 for community members who want to learn more about Islam.
Many Muslims feel they’re constantly fighting stereotypes and assumptions about their religion and say cable news networks rarely discuss Islam or Muslims other than to talk about terrorist attacks.
“When a member of that group commits a crime, the whole group is somehow liable for it,” said Admir Rasic, a Bosnian-American Muslim in Spokane.
As a white Muslim, Rasic said he throws some people for a loop. Many assume he converted and don’t realize there have been Muslims in the Balkans since the Ottoman Empire conquered the region in the 1400s.
As a child growing up in Yugoslavia, Rasic remembers hearing President Slobodan Milosevic say there would be no Muslims in his country and that Muslims were trying to implement Shariah law – claims Rasic feels are eerily similar to comments made by modern American politicians. In Yugoslavia, that rhetoric led to violence from Serbian forces.
“I have memories of Serbs coming into our house, pointing guns at us and ransacking the place. I want to speak out to prevent things like that from happening,” he said.
Rasic said he’s disturbed to see GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump calling for measures like banning Muslim immigration or creating a nationwide database of Muslims. Trump’s comments have been controversial and drawn criticism from Democrats and Republicans, but Rasic said more politicians need to speak out and condemn Islamophobic speech.
“It’s a bipartisan issue. It’s a human rights issue,” he said.
Islam is the most recent of three Abrahamic religions to originate in the Middle East. Muslims believe in one God, often called Allah, which means God in Arabic, and believe he has revealed himself to earlier prophets of Jews and Christians, including Moses and Jesus. Islam is based on the Quran, considered to be the final word of God as revealed through the Prophet Muhammad.
“Muslims see Christians and Jews as brothers and sisters in faith, and people of the book,” Rasic said. The phrase “People of the Book” often is used by Muslims to refer to Jews and Christians as fellow followers of Abrahamic monotheistic religions.
For Ayesha Malik, being Muslim sometimes feels like a second job. Malik moved to Spokane from Alaska five years ago after her husband was assigned to Fairchild Air Force Base. Because she doesn’t always wear a head covering, she said she’s not targeted in public as frequently as women who do.
Instead, Malik spends a lot of time on Facebook writing back to people in her social circles who post comments suggesting all Muslims are terrorists or that the Quran should be banned in the U.S.
“I always respond back because if I don’t do it, I don’t know who else will. Especially in Spokane, I’m most likely the only Muslim they know,” she said.
She gets frustrated when people selectively pick single verses from the Quran and cite them as evidence that Islam is inherently violent. It would be easy to do the same thing with many Old Testament verses in the Bible, she said.
Other Muslims point to the verses in the Quran preaching love, tolerance and peace.
“We just want peace. We just want people to understand that we’re not here to hurt anybody,” Strongren said.
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