Christchurch shooting sends shockwaves through New Hyde Park Muslim community: ‘It could’ve been us’

Christchurch shooting sends shockwaves through New Hyde Park Muslim community: ‘It could’ve been us’
Hunter College freshman and Bellmore resident Aya Abdelrehem, 18, sips on some coffee at a local coffee shop. Photo credit: Aya Abdelrehem

By Maylan L. Studart

The terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead last Friday isn’t just another mass shooting to the Muslim community of New Hyde Park. It’s a wakeup call, community members said, that it could have happened to them.

Imam Ibad Wali of the Hillside Islamic Center said the shooting was the last straw and he will make his mosque safer. He said he will hire an armed guard and is seeking permits from the town to construct additional exits. He has been encouraging congregants with a background in security to join the Nassau County Police Department’s auxiliary unit to help  protect the community and wants to have a congregant carry a concealed weapon.

Women at the mosque said they feel particularly exposed due to their traditional use of the religious head scarf called the hijab. Bellerose resident Houria Abdelrehem and another congregant said they are often looked down upon or cursed at in public, sometimes in front of their children.

Though Abdelrehem said she finds comfort in her religion and doesn’t return the hatred, her daughter Aya said she lives in fear of being attacked.

“The fact that this happened to them made me think that it could have been us, it could have happened to anyone else that we loved,” Aya Abdelrehem said over speakerphone after her mother sought her input.

“These people went out to pray, to do an act of worship and do something they do all the time, every single week, and that could’ve been my father or could’ve been me, anyone I love, and just the idea of that left me so traumatized,” she said.

Aya Abdelrehem, an 18-year-old freshman at Hunter College, said it was even more upsetting when a senator in New Zealand “said that it was Muslim people’s fault for being Muslims in New Zealand in the first place.”

Queensland Sen. Fraser Anning condemned the attack in a statement last Friday but took the opportunity to point to Muslims as well. “I am utterly opposed to any form of violence within our community, and I totally condemn the actions of the gunman,” Anning said. “However, whilst this kind of violent vigilantism can never be justified, what it highlights is the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand, of the increasing Muslim presence.”

President Donald Trump condemned the shooting but stopped short of calling it a terrorist attack. He told the White House press corps last Friday that he does not believe white nationalism is a growing global threat. “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.”

Aya Abdelrehem said hearing this type of rhetoric from government officials makes her feel vulnerable. “Hearing news like that made us feel like maybe the government isn’t on our side as much as we thought they were,” she said.

In New Hyde Park, meanwhile, the Christchurch shooting has forced Imam Ibad Wali to take actions he has been thinking about since the January 2017 mass shooting in the Quebec City Islamic cultural center in Canada and the October 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, where collectively 17 people died.

“We want to create an exit onto 2nd Street so that we can close this driveway and make it into one central entry point and we’re looking into hiring a full-time security guard carrying a gun to protect the entrance,” Iman Ibad said. “We are also looking into having our community participate in the auxiliary program in the Nassau Police Department.”

Iman Ibad is also talking with Nassau police to see if a member of the clergy or a certified congregant could be allowed to carry a concealed weapon to protect the congregation.

“Unfortunately, it may be unorthodox, but seeing how events are unfolding, we are concerned for our community,” he said.

Nassau Police Detective Lt. Richard LeBrun said since the New Zealand attack, Nassau police have increased patrolling around all mosques in Nassau County and other places of worship.

At the Hillside Islamic Center, one woman, a resident of Floral Park who asked that her identity be withheld, is also on high alert. “It’s scary, you feel like you can get hit anytime, like it could’ve been me.”

Like Houria Abdelrehem, she said she  experiences hatred while going about her daily routine.

The woman said typically after a major terrorist attack, people are either very rude to her or much nicer than before. “You feel sad, you feel like some people don’t want you around,” she said. “Whenever these terrorist attacks happen, you start thinking.”

On Monday, Houria Abdelrehem was grocery shopping with her son and found herself being followed by a woman who was being rude and hit her twice with a shopping cart. After some back and forth, Houria’s son helped the woman carry her things to the car and placed them in the trunk. Houria said the woman was thankful and complimentary of her son, to which she asked, “what were you thinking in the beginning?” Houria said the woman answered that “because you had a head scarf I thought terrorism.”

Houria Abdelrehem said she is faithful and tends to remain calm because “everything that happens to me was written before I was born.” But some people haven’t been as lucky as Houria and some hate crimes end in death.

Hate crimes reported in the U.S. increased by 17 percent in 2017, according to the FBI. The FBI defines a hate crime as a criminal offense motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity. The FBI has not yet released its hate crime report for 2018.

Meanwhile, the civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center found that hate groups have increased by 30 percent in the last four years, with a 7 percent increase in 2018 alone, according to the organization’s annual Year in Hate and Extremism report.

Aya Abdelrehem said many of her friends have experienced physical and verbal attacks. She has heard stories of friends having their hijabs torn off, being called names, pushed and shoved.

“In all honesty I do feel very unsafe,” she said. “I am upset that when I go to prayer I have to have some sort of security or something. Mosques and places of worship are known to be open and available to anyone of all walks of life, religions and cultures, and the fact that we have to sit there and have security guards and someone to validate whether or not you’re able to go in the mosque is so scary.”

Imam Ibad said he has received an outpouring of support from members of the local Jewish community who remember his outreach during last year’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. He said Rabbi Todd Chizner of Temple of Judea in Manhasset and Rabbi Meir Feldman of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck texted their condolences and solidarity.

The clerics are organizing an interfaith solidarity event that was to be held on Wednesday or Thursday to bring together all faiths.

Aya Abdelrehem acknowledged that despite hatred, there are people who are going out of their way to support Muslims like her. She said Hunter College faculty members have extended office hours, other religious groups and some public officials have publicly shown their support, and she is happy to see her non-Muslim friends come up to her asking if her family is safe.

“In the meantime, it’s not like I could change the world or anything, but for now I’ll be lying low,” she said.

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