Guarding Mosques in America After Paris and San Bernardino
Strolling down halls and poised outside doorways, mosque security guards are vigilant human reminders of the fear and danger that come with being Muslim in the US right now.
A security guard stands watch inside Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. All photos by the author
The main entrance to the mosque is off limits.
Yellow caution tape drapes large glass doors leading into the building that houses the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) in Sterling, Virginia, a suburb of DC. People coming to visit are asked to enter through a small side door, where a tall man with hard eyes stands watchfully. Brightly colored children's paintings scatter the walls on the ground floor. "Allah wants you to be clean, so brush your teeth!" one of them admonishes.
"Anyone can wander in through here," says ADAMS board member Robert Marro. A former officer in the US Foreign Service stationed in Malaysia, Marro succumbed to a longtime fascination with Islam decades ago and converted before marrying a local woman. He's serving as ADAMS's informal press liaison—the mosque has recently experienced a spate of media interest as a result of its cooperation with authorities to combat extremism. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed—Marro is careful to emphasize the outpouring of interfaith support and solidarity from local Christian and Jewish groups in recent months.
Of course, not all of the news coverage has been complimentary.
"Because of the situation after Paris and San Bernardino, we have increased security a little bit," Marro explains. "We have more security officers and we channel everybody in through here during the week, so that we can have better control. During Friday prayers, the tape comes down and the cones come off so people can enter the building."
After the San Bernardino tragedy in December, a team of guards employed by Elite Investigation and Protection Agency—the company contracted by ADAMS to oversee security at the mosque— refused to continue working there. Why they left their posts remains unclear. Some say the guards couldn't handle the possibility of being targeted in the wave of Islamophobia racking the United States since the terror attacks; others seem to think they simply grew tired of mosque officials' insistence on enhanced security.
In any case, it's clear that the new guards hired to protect ADAMS are no amateurs. There's a certain look people get when they've fought professionally—something in their expressions, maybe, or the way they can be still without relaxing a muscle—and these men all have it. One might expect their presence to be comforting to the congregation. But for worshippers at ADAMS and in mosques across the country, these upgraded security measures reflect increasingly frequent attacks against Muslims in the United States. As Islamophobic political rhetoric mounts and hate crimes and incidents of mosque vandalism pile up, the personnel paid to keep worshippers safe symbolize the nagging discomfort of being a Muslim in America today.
Strolling down halls and poised outside doorways, mosque security guards are vigilant human reminders of what it's like to practice your faith in a country where you're increasingly hated because of what you believe.
Rabia is a pretty, round-faced 17-year-old wearing a hijab and a cheerful smile. She's been going to ADAMS since she was a small child, both to worship and partake in the many classes, games, and activities held there for the community.
"I think it's the little things," Rabia says. "Just this Sunday, we usually go to the creek outside the mosque. We've been going there since like fourth grade. The weather was nice so we went back there, and we were just having fun and stuff, and then one of the security guards called my dad and they were like, 'Oh, you guys can't be out here. It's not safe.'
"You can see it going down," she adds. "It's just affecting everything so much. It's little things, but they're adding up. It's a little more and more and more, and you're just so annoyed with the situation."
Rabia says she hasn't ever been the target of hate speech or Islamophobia herself, but almost everyone at the mosque knows someone who has been.
"I feel like at my age, girls especially have such a hard time fitting in and finding their place," Rabia says, her smile faltering. "They want to find out who they are and this is just like hurting them more. You feel hated and I think that's the worst feeling to have—especially as a Muslim girl growing up. You're already having problems and insecurities: 'I'm not as pretty wearing hijab,' things like that. You hate standing out just to begin with, and then to just know that people don't want you here, I think that it just makes it so much worse. I don't even know if it's stares or somebody saying something, but just that subconscious feeling that people don't like you—that hurts so much."
The guards might make Rabia and her friends uncomfortable, but mosque officials insist they're necessary. In an empty conference room he's commandeered, Rizwan Jaka, chair of the board of ADAMS, explains how the board decided to upgrade security as Islamophobic attacks grew more frequent in recent years. According to FBI statistics from November, hate crimes targeting Muslims have increased each year since 2012, following some fluctuation after the enormous spike that occurred in reaction to September 11.
"After the attack against the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh [temple] in 2012, we decided that we needed to have more security within our mosque and our children's programs," Jaka says. "We contracted a professional security firm to provide us security guards for the past few years for some of our programs. After the horrific attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, the personnel that worked for the security firm were a little bit scared of the potential backlash, and they weren't as experienced in security. They weren't former police officers or military officers. So we asked the security firm to provide us more experienced professionals with law enforcement or military backgrounds who could understand the current climate and be ready to safeguard the community."
In a room on the second floor of the mosque, a small assembly of ladies chatters contentedly as they share homemade food after a Quran class. Verses are drawn in marker on the whiteboard as talking points for the group. The fare is as diverse as the class—ethnicity of worshippers at ADAMS varies from Bangladeshi to Jordanian, and everything in between.
"They are a bit frightening," one woman says of the new guards. "It's a pity that we need them, but we do. Inshallah [God willing], they will keep us safe."
After the room is empty, Muhammad Ahsanullah, director of prevention and security at the mosque, takes a minute to explain that enhanced security was needed to calm the fears of the ADAMS congregation. "Our mosque is always open for everybody, whether Muslim or non-Muslim," he says. "Before, the only reason we brought in security was to do the crowd control in Ramadan time... Things have evolved recently, because people's perception has changed. They needed confidence: 'Hey, if this is going to happen, how are you willing to protect us?' It's not just the worshipers. It's the schoolchildren, right? We have education programs, and that's what parents think about first—they think about their children."
During a phone conversation, Rey Narvaiz, managing partner at Elite Investigation and Protection Agency, says the guards who left their posts after San Bernardino are no longer employed by his company. He doesn't believe there was anything ideological about their resignation. Instead, he argues that it was a result of heightened tensions and miscommunication regarding the need for upgraded security at the mosque.
"In the realm of security, there's like a hierarchy," Narvaiz explains. "There are the unarmed security officers who are basically walking cameras. Then there are the armed security officers, who now have powers to arrest [in the state of Virginia]. Then there are the executive protection officers, who protect diplomats and CEOs, and they have a much higher level of training and hands-on training... You have to pay for the upgrade, because you have to attract the people. The new guys, they are all coming back from places overseas—Iraq, Afghanistan, they're all veterans. They've all received training in Muslim culture and courtesies and customs. It's almost like they were designed for this kind of work."
Asked if he thinks the ADAMS officials' security concerns are warranted, Narvaiz doesn't hesitate. "We were there for I think three days before they got a threatening phone call that had to get sent to the FBI," he tells me. "We hadn't even been on post a week, and we started getting those. Well, we don't get them directly; they let us listen to them, just so that we are aware. It's obvious there is cause for more caution, especially with recent events and the political and social climate. It's unfortunate, but that's the nature of things right now at this point in history."
A few towns over, in Falls Church, Virginia, the Dar al-Hijrah mosque is preparing for prayer. People troop in from the gray damp, shaking umbrellas. The crowd here appears more religiously conservative than the ADAMS congregation. The majority of the men are bearded, some wearing robes. Almost all the women have their hair covered.
A young man in uniform stands guard at the entrance. Mosque officials say that Dar al-Hijrah has its own security company, DAH Security, which recruits and trains members from the community. Almost all of their employees are Muslim. According to them, although the company does take on other clients, protecting the mosque their primary concern. Like ADAMS, Dar al-Hijrah has hired new guards and expanded security protocol in recent months.
The job is not to be taken lightly. In mid-November, less than a week after the terror attacks in Paris, a local man was arrested for allegedly throwing what mosque officials say were two smoke bombs and an unexploded Molotov cocktail at the building. A week earlier, a man had entered the mosque lobby shouting Islamophobic epithets before being escorted off the premises.
Fazia Deen, Dar al-Hijrah's outreach coordinator, is a bubbly, bright-voiced young woman wearing a colorful hijab. She talks animatedly in her office inside the mosque, describing a town hall meeting on Islamophobia Dar al-Hijrah held at the mosque earlier this month.
"It's affecting the children," Deen says angrily. "They all said so at the meeting. When I started hearing all of them speak, each one of them in a grade had an experience. One girl actually took her hijab off because she was being bullied so badly. Where are [the bullies] getting it from? The kids are going to school saying it because they're hearing it in their homes. They're saying, 'Go back to your country' because that's what the adults are doing... So this stuff is happening, which is why we've bumped up security."
Asli Ali, a regular Dar al-Hijrah attendee, is ambivalent about the increased security measures.
"I've always felt safe here," she says. "When I'm off work, this is where I am. I love it here. If anything happens to me, I would be happy if it happens in here rather than anywhere else... But I also feel on guard now with security. It reminds me of what's going on out there."
Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, Dar al-Hijra's leader, says last month's incident with the Molotov cocktail was an indication of how dangerous the situation has become for American Muslims.
"I had a feeling looking at the scenario that [the perpetrator] was mentally ill," says Abdul-Malik. "Mass shootings that are happening around the country are largely carried out by people who are mentally or emotionally unstable... You get caught up in the climate of fear and violence, and you have access to weapons. This kid probably could have gone to the store and purchased an automatic weapon, and come back and killed everybody. We're just lucky he happened to not be stable enough to work out a more violent plan."
Dar al-Hijrah's library is a small room lined with religious texts, thick with the smell of ink and old paper. Muhammad Dribigi, who's in charge of security at the mosque, sits at a wooden table in full uniform, complete with shiny badges and sidearm. He explains that following last month's attack, his company doubled down on protective measures.
"Because the mosque was closed at that time he threw the [Molotov cocktail], after that we changed to 24-hour security," Dribigi says. "We have to have a person physically in the mosque overnight in case of something happening. We don't want it to be more major than what happened last time. Thank God nothing bad happened to the building, but you don't know what's coming up, so you have to make sure."
"When people come to mosque, they feel safety. They say, ''Whatever's going to happen to me is going to happen to me,'" he continues. "In my experience, none of them are scared to come to mosque. Most people also feel safer because we have security all over the mosque. When they come, they see security checking bags, checking big jackets, asking people to open their jackets when they come to the prayer, watching if there are any suspicious people or new faces coming to the mosque."
Asked if mosque-goers ever say the enhanced security makes them more nervous, Dribigi shakes his head. "No, I don't think so. People ask questions, usually, but then we explain that we're doing it for everyone's safety."
Back at ADAMS in Sterling, evening prayer is about to start. The security guard on duty is tall and solidly built, wearing his hair clipped short. He's careful with his words in a way particular to soldiers and police officers.
"I spent ten years in the military," he says. "I've been deployed to Iraq twice, Afghanistan once, so coming in here was not like a culture shock to me. I've experienced the good and the bad, and with that experience, I can say that it's not necessarily a religion thing. It's not Islam. I guess it's just the culture and the way people were brought up. There are bad people regardless of religion... But there are a lot of people out there who don't understand that and act one way based on relatively little knowledge about the subject itself. Unfortunately, with how things are right now, Muslims are targets, so the situation does warrant extra security, at least for the time being."
"This is a friendly place," he continues. "Everybody's smiling and saying 'hello' and that kind of thing. They appreciate that we're here. There's never been a time where myself or any other guys have felt that we weren't wanted here or that there were any issues."
The last vestiges of daylight are gone now, the second floor almost deserted. Everyone is gathered for prayer downstairs. The mosque fills with the sound of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, booming from speakers around the building.
The security guard suddenly looks away, lost in thought.
"Man, that brings me back," he murmurs, almost to himself. "It's getting easier, but that sound was really hard for me at first. It brought back bad memories of when I was fighting over there."
"You can hardly hear yourself think, but now it kind of makes me calm," the guard says. "It's a peaceful sound now."
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