On Sunday, Jan. 29, a masked man opened fire on worshipers at the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec City. When the shooting stopped, six innocent people were dead and at least 17 others were wounded, some critically.
The next day, police arrested Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, and charged him with murder. Officials have yet to present evidence for the motivation behind the attack, but Canadian news outlets have reported Bissonnette’s social media posts show an allegiance to far-right and ultra-nationalist doctrines.
The attack in Quebec came a day after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted a welcome to all refugees regardless of religious practice. It came two days after U.S. President Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order suspending the country’s refugee program for 120 days and prohibiting citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days. Critics of the order claim it is an unconstitutional ban against Muslims.
While many have characterized Trump’s executive order as more of a political move to appease his voter base than an attempt to deal with national security concerns, such governmental actions can and do have real world consequences, such as those we saw in Quebec. And now we are seeing them here along the Front Range of Colorado. It has been a busy week for police and members of Muslim, refugee and Jewish communities in our state. These minority populations saw an increasing number of threats last week, but the problem really began a few months ago.
In the past six months, Islamic Centers, refugee service agencies and Jewish institutions around Colorado and the country have been threatened with violence on an increasingly regular basis.
But it’s not all bad news.
Even as the number of far-right hate groups has proliferated, so too has the support grown for those they hate, as best exemplified by the massive demonstrations in the streets and at airports in the wake of Trump’s order.
“We are saddened and alarmed but at the same time hopeful,” says an emailed statement from the Islamic Center of Boulder (ICB). (BW was asked to withhold the name of the respondent for security reasons.) “This is a country of hope, a country where many dreams come true, a country of immigrants. We have trust in the Justice system and in the power of people.”
ICB has not had any direct threats since the executive action was signed on Friday, Jan. 27, but had previously received a few threatening emails which were reported to law enforcement. At the same time, the spokesperson also acknowledges ICB does not serve as many refugees as other Islamic Centers around the state.
Imam ShemsAdeen Ben-Masaud of the Metropolitan Denver-North Islamic Center in Northglenn says the events of the last week have rattled his community, causing security concerns for the population that attends the mosque.
“This is a place that is supposed to be a place of safety, of peace, of sanctuary and prayer, a place you can go to in times of need,” he says. “Not a place you have to be afraid of to show up.”
During a June open house at the Center, a group of Soldiers of Odin came by, Ben-Masoud says. Known for their “patrols” of neighborhoods in search of immigrants and refugees, the extremist group started in Finland in 2015. The ideas quickly spread through social media and a U.S.A. division of the Soldiers of Odin popped up in 2016, gaining 4,000 members in just a few months, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). At the Northglenn mosque, the group met with mosque leaders who offered them tea and answered their questions, Ben-Masoud says.
Then after they left, they allegedly made hateful and discriminatory posts on social media, which alerted the ADL, who connected the mosque with a lawyer that helped resolve the situation.
But then, the following week, a group of bikers roared into the parking lot. “They flipped off the cameras, one of the ladies exposed herself and they were shouting things,” Ben-Masoud says. The Center was empty at the time, but one of its members saw the group as she tried to enter the mosque, quickly calling Ben-Masoud and law enforcement. However, the group was gone before they arrived.
And while these events weren’t violent, “There’s concern for people’s safety,” Ben-Masoud says. In August, during a Friday service, “We had a truck pull into the lot, curse everybody out and say epithets and then just drive off,” he says. According to the Imam, the police found the man, who lived in the neighborhood.
A Colorado native, Imam Ben-Masoud says the political rhetoric and executive actions are frightening, not just for him as an American citizen, but for many of the people he serves who come from authoritative regimes elsewhere. “I’m trying to see the difference between the land of (the) dictator that they are coming from compared to some of the trends that we are seeing now,” he says. “The positive thing is that we are in a country where there is a media that can report facts. There is the freedom of rights to be able to speak out and go to public places to express their dissatisfaction and stand up for the Constitution.”
Ben-Masoud’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Libya in the ’70s, and his mom converted to Islam in the ’80s, choosing to wear a headscarf as an expression of her faith. “She’s an American, white, blue-eyed, grew up in Colorado and in many instances she’s told to go back to her country,” he says. “She’s from Arvada, Colorado. Where’s she supposed to go?”
Growing up he says he was stigmatized, people commenting on his name, his religion or the ethnicity of his father. He was at university in Denver on 9/11 and remembers the uncertainty many of his international classmates from the Middle East faced.
“I think it’s probably a little more intense (now) to be honest,” he says. “George W. Bush at least made an attempt. If you go back to look at his statements, he said Muslims are peace-loving, it’s a peaceful religion, our war is not with Islam. What we see now is a more brazen attempt to single out Muslims.”
Although the Trump administration defends the recent executive order, claiming it does not specifically target Muslims, other lawmakers have criticized the policies for doing just that. Republican U.S. Senators John McCain (Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) came out with a joint statement against the policy.
“This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country,” they say. But while lawmakers and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union fight the executive order in Washington D.C., many people it affects face an uncertain future.
For now, Ben-Masoud says people from the seven listed countries are advised not to leave the U.S. even if they have valid green-cards. The community also fears the list could expand, “so many people know that even if they’re not on that list and they are from a Muslim country, they’re probably not going to leave either,” he says.
The same goes for roughly 80 percent of the congregation at the Islamic Center of Golden (ICG) who are in the U.S. with student visas to attend the Colorado School of Mines.
“We’re just very disappointed with [the executive] action,” says Omar Ally, spokesperson for the ICG. “It creates more anxiety with the Muslim population and it also puts the Muslims under undue attention. A lot of the Muslims now are feeling a little bit concerned with their place in society because now they have been put under a spotlight for no fault of their own.”
Since the executive action was signed, Ally says many of the Muslim international students at the center in Golden probably won’t be going home for the upcoming summer holiday, regardless of which country they are from.
“This executive action has really stoked a lot of undue fear in the American populace,” Ally says. “If they would actually go out and meet some Muslims, they would see that these fears are unfounded.”
Since opening in 1999, the ICG has only had one major incident of concern. Following an event at the mosque to welcome a new baby in May 2016, they received a threatening email from one of the non-Muslim guests. In part, it read: “I was tempted to be violent and confrontational at the Islamic center … I would wager I was the only armed man at the center. Why is mass violence so tempting? In my pockets I carry two extra magazines~ even so I would run out of bullets before you ran out of Muslims.”
Local law enforcement contacted the man and the Islamic Center hasn’t had any problems with the individual since.
But on Tuesday, Jan. 30., discriminatory cartoon booklets published by an organization that has been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center were left on cars parked at the ICG. Ally says he hopes these cartoons aren’t being distributed anywhere else, but if they are, he also hopes the public realizes it’s not Muslims who are spreading hate. “We wouldn’t put out booklets that would be hateful to anyone,” he says.“It’s really silly. I don’t know why they put it on a Muslim’s car because we know that [they are] incorrect.”
The same day, the Jewish Community Center of Boulder was evacuated after receiving a bomb threat over the phone. According to the ADL, dozens of Jewish Community Centers (JCC) in 20 states have received similar threats in the past several weeks and the group, committed to fighting anti-Semitism, issued a security advisory to Jewish institutions following the threats on Tuesday.
“This has been happening at JCCs across the country for the last several weeks,” says Susan Rona, spokesperson for Boulder’s JCC, “and so we were totally prepared for it.”
Other entities around the state, however, aren’t as prepared.
“The mosque is such a vulnerable place for people to be. In schools and all workplaces you have lockdown measures, and no mosques that I know of have measures such as these,” says Dr. Ayman Oweidah, a Canadian citizen who moved to Colorado last year for a post-doctoral fellowship at Anschutz Medical Campus. Originally from Palestine, he moved to Quebec when he was 10, and knows of connections in his community who have been personally affected by the shootings last Sunday. (For more from Oweidah, see sidebar at the end of the story.)
Oweidah’s warnings that many places are vulnerable and ill-prepared for potential attacks seems well founded. A refugee-services building in Aurora wasn’t even evacuated after bomb-threats were found on the premises on Thursday, Jan. 26. The Mango House opened three years ago as a shared-space for refugee services, financed in large part by the building’s owner P.J. Parmar and his medical practice. Parmar says the nonprofits and businesses in Mango House serve former refugees from Nepal, Burma, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and Rwanda, among other places. “That includes a good percentage of Muslims,” he says.
The incident at Mango House began when an employee found two identical notes, one in the parking lot, and one in the stairwell that read, “Were (sic) gonna blow up all of you refugees!” The police were alerted and swept the building, although it was never evacuated.
The following day, Parmar says a man with a mask drove by his building directing a sign at some of the Muslim youth hanging around outside the building. They felt the sign was threatening and Mango House is still working with law enforcement on the incident.
And yet, despite all of the political rhetoric, threats and discrimination in recent months, it seems these examples of hate and racism have mainly served to galvanize the general population in support of the affected communities and institutions.
“In the last three months, non-Muslim Golden residents have expressed their strong solidarity with us through emails, cards, flowers, phone messages, and even by delivering flowers and home-made cookies to the Islamic Center,” Ally says. “Our members are genuinely grateful for the persistent support and understanding that we have experienced.”
On Saturday, Jan. 28, the ICG had more than 150 people at an open house to celebrate the opening of a new facility. Ally says it’s the largest crowd to visit the mosque to date.
The ICB has also seen an outpouring of support over the last week and the spokesperson (whose name was withheld) says the group expects their upcoming open house on Feb. 19 to be its largest yet.
“The amount of support we have gotten from the larger community is unimaginable,” he said in his email. “In fact I have met some awesome, kind-hearted souls over the last couple of days and friendships to cherish have been established. It is due to the recent events ever since the election that many social gatherings between the Muslim Community and the larger community in Boulder have come to life.”
“We are at a tipping point in American society where allies are coming out and really supporting us,” Ben-Masoud from the Northglenn mosque says. He cites support from local government and state representatives, saying he even received a call from an imam in Greeley who said Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck (CO-4th District) would like to meet with Muslim leaders in February.
“And it’s our job to really welcome that and reach our hand out to other vulnerable communities, Latino communities, the rise in anti-Semitism right now, communities who are going through the same things we are going through,” he says.
Imam Ben-Masoud welcomes coalition building, saying they are currently seeking support for draft legislation that aim to protect Colorado residents by prohibiting the state from providing information to the federal government regarding race, ethnicity, national origin, immigration status or religious affiliation for any “illegal or unconstitutional purpose.” This includes any form of national registry, tracking program or interment of any group based on these indicators. The Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act is sponsored by Colorado State Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton) and honors the 1940s Republican governor who decried the executive order to place Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.
And although there has been some concern amongst the community at Mango House, Parmar says all of the entities are working together to support each other and the people they serve. And since the threats last week, they have had several financial and volunteer offers to help them in their work.
“We’re trying to find a way to respond, to harness that enthusiasm, which is unfortunate why it’s coming, but it’s great it’s there,” Parmar says. “I think a lot of these people are wanting to get involved in a broader sense, and that’s fantastic.”
Sidebar: Letter to the Editor
Since moving to Colorado from Quebec, Canada, early last year, my family and I have been fortunate to meet wonderful people who contributed to our love for Colorado and its people. Every myth we had about moving to the U.S. during the fear-mongering campaign of the U.S. elections were laid to rest by the people we met. But one fear kept resonating with me. That fear accompanied me every time I went to the mosque with my child. On those occasions, I couldn’t help but think of the possibility of a shooter taking aim at the worshippers. At the end of each prayer I would hug my child and walk him to the playground in the mosque’s courtyard. Until this past Sunday, I could never imagine that I would share those feelings with my child.
On Sunday, Quebec witnessed the horrific and barbaric act of a shooter taking aim at vulnerable worshippers in the mosque. Some of those who died were known to many of my friends and behind every casualty was a bigger-than-life story and a dream of a better tomorrow. Their dreams have been shattered and will be buried in the midst of the agony and fear that remains with their grieving families and the Muslim community. Although the shooter’s motive has yet to be revealed, there are thousands of alarming remarks being made in social media that only add fuel to a fire that has gone wild.
Statements that further instigate hatred towards Muslims are alive and well on social media. The systemic spread of Islamophobia is undoubtedly fuelled by policies and political statements that take direct aim at Muslims. Although it is commonly said what doesn’t break us, makes us stronger, the reality is that a large number of people do not consider themselves part of “us,” rather part of “them.” Many will celebrate policies that target Muslims whether abroad or at home.
Yet, there is a way forward and many have begun to walk that road. The women’s marches and recent airport protests are great examples of solidarity and the fight for justice that this country and its people value and embrace. It is through these marches and events of solidarity that I will begin to tell my child about my emotions and show him where change begins.
Ayman Oweida, Ph.D./ Aurora