On March 15, 2019, 50 people were slaughtered and another 50 were injured in shootings at two New Zealand mosques. The attacks happened during Friday prayers and were perpetrated by a male white supremacist with access to military-style semi-automatic weapons.
While my family and I are not Muslim, I could imagine what the moments before the shootings might have been like: A traditional call to prayer floating out over the building's sound system; the melody and the voice both tranquil and reverent. The worshippers lined up in an orderly fashion on the floor with all heads pointed in the same direction in a moment to pause together and connect through faith.
Suddenly, violently, this moment was shattered by gunfire and death.
It’s hard to imagine, but we must. Because it’s important that we understand that those attacked could have been any of us. It’s important to understand that no matter our background, we must all stand against hate.
As for me, I can imagine the scene so specifically because a couple of years ago, though I am an atheist, I visited a local mosque with my family. While listening to KUOW, I heard Aneelah Afzali, executive director at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound – American Muslim Empowerment Network, say if non-Muslims were serious about combating Islamophobia, they should reach out and learn from American Muslims. So, we did.
It was late January 2017, and the White House had just announced a seven-country, predominantly Muslim travel ban. The following day, I reached out to MAPS, conveying our empathy and support for their community. I asked if we could attend their next open house, and much to my surprise, they were kind enough to invite us for a personal tour the very next weekend at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond.
Our guide, a Muslim woman named Chema, had an approachable, outgoing demeanor and a clear devotion to her faith and community. She instantly made us feel welcome and engaged in small talk with my kids. As she took us through the mosque (or "masjid" in Arabic), people came up to us to say hello. One of the men gave the kids cookies. I was particularly struck by how warmly the women greeted one another.
The mosque (like a church or synagogue) serves as a community hub. Children ran around and played games. Young women in the reading room told us about their university studies in STEM programs. Boxes and bins were being loaded with supplies for a nearby homeless shelter. Men and women worked together to set up tables and chairs for an evening fundraiser to help rebuild a neighboring mosque.
In our short time there, worshippers shared the basis of Islam: living a life in service, being a good person and abiding by tenets similar to other major world religions.
Over one billion people practice Islam worldwide. Yet, Muslims around the globe continue to face widespread persecution and violence.
That’s why humanizing people who practice Islam is so critical. For those unfamiliar with the religion, attempting to understand it is a crucial step in overcoming “otherness.” I admit, going to the Mosque pulled me out of my comfort zone, but that’s part of the point. The people there (and our shared humanity) left an indelible impression on me.
In the wake of the shooting in New Zealand, many people of all faiths are asking what they can do to support the Muslim community. It’s not enough to condemn the actions of the attacker. It’s important to also confront the biases that breed hate. So, if you’re looking for what you can do, perhaps start by making the effort to talk to and genuinely get to know coworkers, fellow parents and/or neighbors who are Muslim. Check out books at the library about Islamic faith and culture. Participate in outreach events at an area mosque.
Misinformation can be hard to challenge without facts and firsthand experience. But society depends on all of us bridging these cultural and religious divides.
If you go...
There are a number of Seattle-Area organizations aimed at educating non-Muslims about Islam and increasing interfaith communication and mutual respect.
The Muslim Association of Puget Sound offers a number of events open to non-Muslims throughout the year. MAPS is hosting a "Meet Your Neighbors" event on April 12 that is open to interfaith community members. See a full calendar of upcoming MAPS events.
The Muslim Students Association at the University of Washington hosts local educational events for the community.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations Washington (CAIR-WA) offers education and outreach, research and giving opportunities.
The Islamic Networks Group (ING) hosts "Know Your Neighbor" events aimed at bridging the divide between American Muslims and Americans of other faiths.